The Holy Family in Egypt
© 2001 by Maria Hubert von Staufer
"Out of Egypt have I called my son." Matthew 2:15
"Ooh Egypt, going to see the pyramids are you?" was the groove -sticking comment from most of our friends, when a few weeks ago we decided on an impromptu trip to that country shrouded, as the television ad told us, in four thousand years of mystery and history.
But our plans were quite different. For a start we were flying into Sharm el Sheihk, which is on the Sinai Peninsula, and famous for its coral reefs and the rare sea cow. Neither of us dives - I don't even swim, so that was a bit of a mystery to our friends too! What were we going to do?
Well, as a Church historian who has made a nice little niche in Christmas books and programmes for the past twenty odd years, I am always looking for new material. I decided to look into the Holy Family's Flight into Egypt. Surely there must be something worth researching I thought, enough for a few paragraphs on my website maybe….
What we found was extraordinary. A complete pilgrimage trail travailing across Sinai, down the Nile into the Natroun Valley and back again up to the Delta. Geographically astounding in itself, we experienced Egypt as few tourists do.
While we were there they were celebrating a Jubilee Year, and the cathedral of St Mark in Cairo was thronging with pilgrims who had come for their pope's blessing - and officials. I don't know what our Coptic guide said to the officials, secular, clerical and police, who came to stop our car entering the enclosure, but we sailed through, with the traditional "Welcome".
After visiting the shrine to St Athanasius (Athanasian Creed) we joined the pilgrims at the shrine of St Mark. The shrines were quiet places, with no crowds, a few people at a time entering, joining in the prayers, and staying a few minutes to light candles for their petitions. We could walk up to the tomb and, in common with the custom, put our heads on it and pray. No barriers, no officials preventing us. This was a place of prayer and petition, not one for tourist restrictions - even on such a day as this. They are not used to tourists, so everyone is a pilgrim. Afterwards we sat in the small café within the precinct eating sandwiches - freshly made to our order in small pitta type bread, with delicious salad, and spicy fillings, all vegetable, no dairy or meat in accordance with their Apostles Fast. But so filling, fresh and different to the boring sad lettuce sandwiches we get here.
In the early days of the infant Church, St Mark took Christianity to Egypt, and stayed on, writing his Gospel there, and founding the Church, which was to grow into the Coptic Orthodox Church. They have their own pope, Shenouda III, who comes in a direct line from St Mark, and their liturgy is remarkably unchanged since St Mark's time! Since the earliest days, they have built churches and shrines to our saints, to the Holy Family and to the Old Testament figures. As in the Holy Land, the shrines are held by various Christian Churches, the Coptic and the Greek Orthodox predominating - and the Franciscans are in evidence too as they are in all the Eastern Christian countries.
For instance on Mount Sinai we visited the tombs of Moses and Aaron, the shrine of the burning bush, which was described by a 4th century Spanish pilgrim as being an ancient site; and the traditional place where Moses cast down the golden calf. St Catherine's Monastery, which was built by Constantine in the 4th century, is a veritable fortress. It was built to give protection to the hundreds of holy men who had their huts scattered over the holy mountain, protecting the graves and the sites. The Burning Bush is there, in its ancient walled shrine. Several attempts to take cuttings and grow it have failed, and the variety grows no-where else on the whole peninsula. Amusing to us, but perhaps proof of a simpler faith, is the fire extinguisher placed discreetly alongside the shrine!
Now the great monastery is in the hands of only a dozen Greek Orthodox monks, where once there were hundreds, but their library still competes with the Vatican library for its collection of rare and ancient documents.
We had a few problems finding valid guides and drivers, but finally with the solicitous help of the specially recruited Tourist Police, who are everywhere, came through and found our way first to Cairo, and then on in the footsteps of the Holy Family during their two year sojourn. The 4th century account of their trip is held in the Vatican, but no-one ever reads it! It is one of those rather shrouded bits of evidence which we tend to draw a veil over as being not very good proof. But it is proof enough for the faithful in Egypt.
Of the many Holy Family shrines we visited, possibly the most moving was the place on the Nile where the family stayed whilst waiting for their boat to carry them across. This is well documented, and the cave where they stayed, and the steps they walked down to the river are the same now as then. We were walking in their footsteps, touching the stones they touched. It was a deeply moving experience. The church built over the site is, as are all the Coptic churches, beautiful. Filled with icons, and stunning works of art. Asking how old an Icon of the Virgin was, I was given a surprised but casual comment of, "All is from the time the church was built" - When was that? In the 4th century, or earlier in some places.
Talking of footprints, one of the most venerated shrines is that of the Christchild's footprint. From the 2nd century until the 16th, this place in Egypt's northern Delta region was a major pilgrimage site, and likened to a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, for pilgrims from both East and West, as it was easily accessible from the Mediterranean. The shrine possesses what is reputed to be a stone upon which is impressed the footprint of Jesus. Believe what you will, it is the faith which makes a pilgrimage site valid, not the artefacts, and this shrine is certainly as beautiful as all the others. The amazing thing is that the stone is just placed in a glass cupboard, with other relics, at the back of the church. The main focus in the church is the sanctuary, not the stone, albeit a sacred stone! We were able to buy bread stamped with the words of consecration; the loaves are used in the Eucharistic feast, and are baked on stones as they have been for millennia. Even small children receive Holy Communion, the priest carefully wiping the mouths of the babes in arms!
Afterwards the priest gave my husband, our guide and myself a special blessing, and an anointing with oils on the head, the throat and the wrists. To symbolise pure thoughts, pure words and the taking from dark side to the light side with Our Lord's resurrection.
There were many sites, including the tree which traditionally sheltered the Holy Family, and the place they call ' The second Bethlehem', here the Holy Family stayed for several months while Joseph had work on a major building site, and where Jesus is reputed to have visited during His ministry, and consecrated an altar, fulfilling the prophesy: I will build an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt Isiah. 19:19
The overall feeling afterwards was that we had indeed walked in the footsteps of the saints, and the feeling of continuity was as acute as a visit to the Holy Land, but most of all was the lack of overdone tourism. This had been a real pilgrimage, much the same as it had been done for nearly two thousand years. Very different - and very special! While we were there we met a few parties of pilgrims from Parishes in Italy & Canada with their priests but none from the UK who have yet to discover the Egyptian pilgrimage sites, surprising, especially with the restrictions to the Holy Land. A pilgrimage to the Holy Land of Egypt is certainly not second best!