The Holy Family in Egypt
                                Otto Meinardus
                  Feast of the Coming of our Lord into Egypt.
                               Bashons 24, 1678
                                June,  1, 1962
                  [Abridged electronic version for Copt-Net]



The following  account of the flight of  the Holy Family  to Egypt  is adapted
from Otto  Meinardus' popular book  "The Holy Family  in Egypt".  Many  of the
stories and events   mentioned   here are  from traditions    not  necessarily
representing  the beliefs or traditions  of  the Coptic Orthodox  Church. As a
matter of fact, some of them would definitely qualify as legends.

In addition  to the Coptic, Ethiopian,  Armenian,  Spanish, Arabic, and Jewish
traditions (both oral and written), the author relies  on the accounts  of the
pilgrims of  the early and middle  ages,  who followed the steps   of the Holy
Family as  part  of the  pilgrimage to the Holy  Lands in Palestine and Egypt.
Also,  the   author supports  his  account of  the  flight to Egypt  using the
writings of famous  historians such  as Muhammad  al-Baqir (8th century),  and
Al-Makrizi (14th century).

Otto Meinardus' book takes you in a tour of Egypt. It's a journey that started
with the feeble steps of a Mother and Child, who fled  the wrath  of a king to
find refuge in a  land, in the  midst  of  which "an altar  to the Lord" still
stands and a "pillar to the Lord" will always exist as  prophesied  by Isaiah.
It's a journey that speaks of places, some of which exist no  more,  but which
will remain engraved deep in the memory of history.

Copt-Net Editorial Board
April 1993



The following  history of the  Journey of the  Holy Family  to Egypt  has been
compiled  from   various  Eastern   and  Western apocryphal   literature   and
traditions. In  addition, it  makes use  of the "Vision  of Theophilus" by the
23rd Patriarch  of Alexandria (fourth  century) and the  Homily  of Zachariah,
Bishop  of  Sakha (seventh century).  Furthermore,   the  Coptic and  Ethiopic
Synaxaria, the writings of  the thirteenth-century  historians  Abu 'l-Makarim
and Solomon of Khirlat, several Muslim traditions, and finally the  reports of
the mediaeval pilgrims to the Holy  Land  who visited Egypt  in the  course of
their pilgrimage have  been  all consulted and  reviewed.  Wherever  possible,
the local oral traditions are mentioned and sometimes added to the story.

The   itinerary of the  Holy  Family,  as set out  in  this document, is based
chiefly on mediaeval traditions, which, however, are  still considered part of
the heritage of the Copts.  Thus an attempted reconstruction of  the itinerary
of   the Holy Family will,   it is hoped,  prove useful    to  the student  of
Christian Egypt.

In order to make this study as complete as possible,  the author visited those
places in Egypt which, according  to the various  traditions, were hallowed by
the presence of the Holy Family, and wherever possible the author has  given a
brief description of these localities as they actually are.


                             The Birth of Christ

``And  it  came to  pass in  those days that  a   decree went  out from Caesar
Augustus that all the world should be registered.''  (Luke  2:1). This general
census  took  place  every fourteen years  throughout the Roman  empire, which
included at that time also Egypt, Syria, and Palestine.  As  regards the Roman
province of Syria,  ``this taxing was first made  when Cyrenius (or Quirinius)
was governing Syria.'' (Luke 2:2).  Cyrenius, the governor, was the well-known
Roman senator Publius Sulpicius  Quirinius,  who during the period between  10
B.C. and 7 B.C.  commanded the legions in  the war against the Homonadenses, a
tribe   of  the Taurus  Mountains  in  Asia Minor.  During  these three  years
Quirinius had his headquarters in Syria.

We have a record which indicate that a census was taken about the years 6 A.D.
or 7 A.D.. This census, however,  cannot be that  referred to  by St. Luke, as
the Evangelist clearly states that the first census  took place at the time of
the birth of Christ, while King Herod was still living, that is to  say before
4 B.C.

In this connection it should be noted that in the change  from the "Anno Urbis
Conditae" (Roman   Era) to Anno Domini (Christian    Era)  which was   made by
Dionysius   Exiguus  in 526 A.D.,   an error of  four  years  occurred in  his
calculations. He placed the birth of Christ in  the year 754  A.U.C. But Herod
the Great, who slew the innocents of Bethlehem, died in  April of the year 750

Now, if we subtract the three and a half years residence of the Holy Family in
Egypt (according to Coptic tradition) from the  date of the  death of the King
Herod (4 B.C.), we arrive at the date of 7 B.C. for the birth of Christ, which
was the very period  when Quirinius held office  in Syria.  Furthermore, if we
count back fourteen years from the census made in  6 and  7 A.D.,  we discover
the date of the first census in 7 B.C., the year of the birth of Christ.

``Now  when  Jesus was born in  Bethlehem of Judaea  in the days  of Herod the
King, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, saying, Where is
he that is born King of the Jews? For we have  seen his star in  the east, and
are come to worship him'' (Matthew 2:1-2).

With regard to this star, W.Keller writes in his book ``The Bible as History",
that  according to the calculations  of   Kepler and Schnabel, this particular
phenomenon occurred in the year 7  B.C. In 1603,   Johannes Kepler, the famous
mathematician and astronomer, observed two  planets, Sturn  and Jupiter, which
in the constellation  of Pisces had moved so  closed  to each  other that they
appeared almost like one single and unusually large  star. Studying his notes,
Kepler  remembered having  read in  the writings of   the  Jewish  philosopher
Abravanel, that the Messiah  would  appear when there   was a conjunction   of
Saturn and Jupiter in the constellation  of Pisces. According  to astronomical
calculations, Kepler deduced that the same conjunction occurred in 7 B.C., the
year in which Jesus Christ was born. In 1925, the German  scholar P. Schnabel,
while deciphering  the  Neo-Babylonian cuneiform inscriptions  of  the ancient
School of Astrology at Sippar in  Babylon, discovered a series  of  dates with
regard to observations of planetary positions in the constellation  of Pisces.
Here, Jupiter and  Saturn were carefully traced  over the period of 5  months.
The date, which Schnabel calculated, fell into the year 7 B.C. Furthermore, it
was established that this conjunction was  particularly clearly visible in the
Mediterranean area.  According to Chaldaean   astrology,  the constellation of
Pisces was the sign of the ``West-country'',  the Mediterranean; and according
to Jewish tradition, it was also the sign of Israel, the sign  of the Messiah.
Thus Keller writes: ``This wonderful encounter of Jupiter and Saturn, guardian
of Israel, in the constellation of the West-Country, of the Messiah, must have
deeply moved the Jewish astrologers of Babylon, for  according to astrological
ways of thinking, it pointed  to the  appearance of a  mighty king in the west
country,  the land  of their fathers. To experience  that in person, to see it
with their own  eyes,   that was  the reason  for   the journey   of  the wise
astronomers from the East.''


                       From Bethlehem to the Nile Delta

"And when they [the wise men from the east] were departed, behold the angel of
the Lord appeareth to Joseph  in  a dream,  saying, Arise,  and take the young
child and his mother, and flee  into Egypt, and  be  thou there until  I bring
thee word; for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him.  When he arose,
he took the young Child and  His mother by night and  departed into Egypt; and
was there until  the death  of Herod, that  it   might be fulfilled which  was
spoken  of  the Lord  by the  prophet, saying,  Out of Egypt  I called My Son"
(Matt. 2:13-15).

Before  the  Holy Family together  with Salome,  the midwife,   departed  from
Bethlehem, they remained for a while in a grotto, which is situated south-east
of the Basilica of the Nativity.  This grotto known to the  Arabs as 'Magharet
as-Saiyidah', the   Grotto of  the  Lady,  is  an ancient  sanctuary  which is
venerated by Christians and Muslims alike.  An Armenian tradition relates that
the Blessed Virgin Mary on her flight to Egypt stopped  there and  suckled her
Child.  Some drops of  her milk fell on the  rock,  and it immediately  turned
white.  There is a good reason to believe that a church was built on this site
by St. Paula, who lived in Bethlehem and died there in 404 A.D.  Though it was
first dedicated to the Virgin  Mother, the church  was later  known as that of
St. Paula.   In the fourteenth  century,  it belonged  to the   Greeks and was
dedicated to St.  Nicholas, and  eventually it passed  into Latin hands.  This
grotto has  supplied the soft white stones,  known as the Virgin's Milk, which
can be  found  in many Latin  churches throughout Europe.  The  present church
built of the Grotto was dedicated in 1872.  The Grotto is  a favorite place of
pilgrimage for women, on account of  the milk-white rock, which is  prized for
its healing power and as an aid  to lactation.  Women  pilgrims take away with
them pieces of this soft rock, which having ground into  powder, they mix with
water and drink.

In connection  with  the flight into  Egypt, it  would  not be out of place to
mention the most likely means of  transport which the  Holy Family used.  Both
the Eastern and Western traditions, are unanimous that the journey of the Holy
Family  in Egypt was  accomplished by an donkey.   In this case,   the Blessed
Virgin would have been seated on the donkey, holding  the Divine Child  in her
arms, and Joseph would have walked on their side leading the donkey.  Such for
example  was the means  of transport used  by Moses when he took  his wife and
sons and   set them  upon  a  donkey  and returned  to  Egypt   (Exodus 4:20).
Furthermore,   the  prophecy of Zecharaih stated  explicitly  that the Messiah
would come  riding upon a  donkey (Zech. 9:9).   Apart, however, from Biblical
analogy  and prophecy, the donkey  was the animal  most frequently used in the
East for travel.  Indeed the donkey was  one of the most  valuable possessions
of a family.  In  comparison to a horse, the  donkey is much  more economical,
for it can be given almost  anything to eat.  As  a skilled worker, Joseph the
Carpenter could certainly have afforded  to purchase a donkey.  This according
to Jewish custom would probably have been adorned with an amulet consisting of
a fox's tail, or a crimson plume to protect it from the evil eye.

To depict the Holy  Family as clad  in the Arab  dress of recent times, namely
the qamis (a sort of long  shirt),  the 'abayah (a  top-robe), the kuffiyah (a
scarf) and the 'uqal (a head dress), is just as incorrect as to clothe them in
the garments of mediaeval painters.   The clothes which  the Holy Family would
have  worn  would   have been those  in  fashion  at the  time   in the  whole
Greco-Roman world.  These which were the same for men  as for women, consisted
of the linea  (a long  robe reaching from  the neck to the feet)   with  close
fitting sleeves, the tunica (a sort of tunic reaching to the knees) with short
sleeves, the palenta or casula  (a large round  piece of stuff  with a hole in
the center for the head to pass through) which fell in folds over the shoulder
and the arms and enveloped the hole body down to the knees.  It was an outdoor
garment and  afforded warmth warmth and protection  against the wind and rain.
For travel and work a  girdle was added, and for  travel shoes or sandals were
worn.  Incidentally, these   three garments, the linea, the    tunica, and the
palenta or casula became ultimately  the ecclesiastical vestments known as the
alb, the tunicle and the chasuble.  With regard to the food eaten by  the Holy
Family on their travels, this would have consisted (in addition to meat, fish,
and  bread) of  coarse horse-beans,  lentils, chick-peas,  cucumbers,  onions,
garlic, and leeks.  The fruits available at this period in the Near East would
have been grapes,  dates, and figs,  and honey would  have replaced the modern
sugar.  Wine "that  maketh  glad the heart of man"  (Ps. 104:15)  was a common

According to the Armenian Infancy  Gospel, the  Holy Family first went to  the
ancient Philistine city  and seaport of Ashkalon,  where  Samson  went to kill
thirty Philistines  (Judges 14:19).  At the  time  of the  visit of   the Holy
Family, Ashkalon was a strong and beautiful center of Hellenistic culture with
a special cult to Drecetus or Atargates, a goddess with the body of a fish and
the face of a woman.  Herod the Great had embellished  the city with fountains
and  sumptuous buildings,  of which  some beautiful Corinthian columns  can be
seen to this day.

>From Ashkalon the Holy Family  proceeded in  an  almost easterly direction  to
Hebron, one of the  oldest towns in  the  World.   According to the Bible, the
city was founded seven years before Zoan (Num. 13:22), the present  village of
San al-Hagar  in Lower Egypt.   Hebron's chief interest  is  now its Haram, an
enclosure built over the traditional site of the cave  of Machpelah (Gen. 23).
Within the enclosure is  a mosque and   synagogue, formerly a  twelfth century
Crusader's church, which in its turn was  built on  the site of a  basilica of
Justinian's  time.  Within the building are  the cenotaphs of Abraham,  Isaac,
Jacob, Sarah, Rebbeca, and Leah.  The Armenian Infancy  Gospel informs us that
the Holy Family remained here in hiding for a period of six month.

About 40 Kilometers further on, in a westerly direction,  there is the site of
the ancient Canaanite stronghold  of Gaza (Genesis 10:19). If  the Holy Family
had followed the caravan-route  from Judaea to  Egypt, they  would have passed
this city, into which Samson was enticed and finally overcome by the beautiful
Delilah ( Judges 16:21-31).  At the time of Christ,  this city had  acquired a
certain  amount of  splendour and  magnificence, as it had  become a center of
Hellenistic culture, for after its destruction  by Alexander Jannaeus, brother
of Aristobulus I, in 913 B.C.,  the Roman  Consul Aulus Gabinus had rebuilt it
in 57 B.C.

By taking the route which runs parallel to the shore of the Mediterranean sea,
the Holy Family would have crossed, after another two hours, the Wadi Gaza. It
was here that Sir Flinders Petrie carried out his  excavations on the presumed
site of Gerar.  Here also, Alimelech, King of  Gerar,  took  Sarah the wife of
Ahraham under the impression that she was his sister,  as he himself said, but
later he restored her to her husband  ( Genesis 15:1-16). When Isaac sojourned
in Gerar,  the people of  the land desired   Rebecca, his wife,  but Abimelech
protected both Isaac and Rebecca (Genesis 26:1-25).

A day's journey from Gaza brought the  Holy Family  to the ancient township of
Jenysos,  which is mentioned  by Herodotus, the  Greek  historian. Today, this
village, which is part of  the Gaza-strip,  is known as  Khan Yunis.  The next
town on the, Holy Family's route would have been Raphia  (Rafah), the frontier
town between the Gaza-strip and the province of Egypt. Raphia,  which had been
the  battleground of the contending  forces of Ptolemy  IV  and Antiochus  the
Great in  217  B.C., was conquered   by Alexander Jannaeus,  the Maccabee  and
annexed to Judaea. It was restored again, however, to Egypt by Gabinus. During
the Byzantine period, Raphia, like Gaza, was the seat of a bishop.

Continuing the caravan route for another 44 km., about two  days of traveling,
the Holy Family crossed the River of Egypt, the  Wadi al-'Arish,  which at all
times  formed the  natural boundary  between Egypt  and  Palestine.  Strangely
enough, what the ancients called the 'River of Egypt' was not the mighty Nile,
but a  small  stream. By crossing this  inconspicuous trickle, the Holy Family
must have thought of the many occasions  in the  history of their people, when
this  'brook of Egypt, with its  "goings out" at the  sea, served as boundary,
from the days of the  conquest  of Canaan  (Numbers 34:5),  to the calling  of
Solomon's assembly ( I King 8:65). A little further on,  the Holy Family would
have arrived at the city of Rhinocolura, the present  al-'Arish. Criminals and
those accused of  high  treason were   sent to  this city   to  receive  their
punishment, which consisted in cutting off their noses.

Since we  possess  no  evidence  either written or  oral as to the exact route
followed by  the  Holy Family  in their flight   from Bethlehem  to Egypt, the
particulars given above are purely conjectural, but we may reasonably suppose,
that  once  the Holy Family  were out of   danger  of pursuit, they would have
traveled  along the usual caravan route between Judaea and Egypt, which passed
through towns and villages, where they could have obtained food and shelter.

The first  town which would  be reached after  Rhinocolura, was  Ostrakini. Of
this place  we  know very little,  beyond  the fact  that  Abraham,  Bishop of
Ostrakini, attended the Oecumenical Council of Ephesus in  431 A.D. As a town,
Ostrakini has  disappeared, though there is a  village called Straki, which is
situated in the vicinity of al-'Arish.

Almost at  the south-western  end  of the caravan-route  from Judaea  to Egypt
there is the celebrated city of Pelusium (Farama), metropolis  of the province
of Augustamnica, sea-port and key to Egypt. To this city, which  is identified
with  the Biblical  Tahpanihes, Johanan, the  Son of Kareah (588 B.C.), ``took
the remnant of Judah... men and women, and children, and the king's daughters,
and every  person that Nebuzaradan the captain   of the   guard, had left with
Gedaliah, and Jeremiah  the  prophet''  (Jeremiah 43:5-8).   Sixty-three years
later in 525 B.C., Psammetichos III  was defeated at  Pelusium by Cambyses the
King of Persia, and Egypt became a  Persian province.  At the time of the Holy
Family's visit, Peluium  was still  an important city and sea-port,  and it is
quite likely that they stopped here to rest for  several days, before entering
the Nile Delta. Pelusium had many marshes lying around it,  which, at the time
of the Holy Family's visit, were  called  Barathra or water  holes and swamps.
For that matter, Pelusium may have received its name from  the  mud (pelou) of
the swamps. The Greek monk Epiphanius (ninth century), as  well as Bernard the
Wise  (870  A.D.) mention  the  tradition according  to  which the Holy Family
visited this historical  city, which  Macrizi reckoned among   the  wonders of
Egypt. In the Itinerarium Bernardi Monaachi we  read: ``From Tamnis we came to
the city of Faramea, where is a church of St.  Mary, on  the  spot to which by
the  admonition of the angel, Joseph  fled with the  child  and its mother. In
this city, there is a multitude of camels, which are hired from the natives by
the  travelers to carry their  baggage across the  desert (to Jerusalem) which
is a journey of six days.'' That many of the pilgrims passed through Farama is
attested  by  the itineraries of  men like Jacques   de Vitry (1180  A.D.) and
Marino  Sanuto (1321   A.D.). Abu 'l-Makarim    considered that  ``Farama  was
exceedingly wonderful, and one of the most ancient  foundations of which there
is  a record. There  were at Farama  many  churches and monasteries which were
wrecked by the  Persians and the Arabs.'' This  city,  indeed, was occupied by
Amr  ibn ElAss on his way  to  conquer Egypt.  Subsequently, it was  fortified
again   by  al-Mutawakkil about  853  A.D. In    1117 A.D.  Baldwin,   King of
Jerusalem, occupied the city, but  unable to  hold it,  he  laid it in  ruins.
Baedeker speaks of the ruined Tell Farama,  which  now contains  no objects of


                              In The Nile Delta

It was at the time when Gaius Turranius (7 B.C. - 4 B.C.) was Roman Prefect of
Egypt, that the  Holy Family  crossed   the narrow isthmus at al-Qantara  (the
bridge), which separates the Lake  Menzaleh from the  Lake  Balah. It was over
this isthmus that the  ancient caravan-route  from Judaea  to Egypt  passed, a
route which centuries before had  been used  by Abraham   (Genesis 12:10)  and
Jacob and  his sons (Genesis  16). In the  steps  of  the patriarchs, the Holy
Family entered the Province of Goshen.

By the land of Goshen  (Genesis 45:10) we  are to understand approximately the
triangle of land  which  has its apex the modern  town of Zagazig,  and as its
base Bilbais and Tell Al-Kebir. However,  as the city of  Pithom,  the site of
which is marked by the mounds near al-Mahsama, was also in the land of Gohsen,
the Wadi Tumilat must likewise have formed part  of Goshen. Moreover, both the
Septuagint Version of the Old Heliopolis, to Pithom and Raamses, the fortified
cities built by  the Hebrews  for Pharaoh (Exodus  1:11). If On really  lay in
Goshen, this would extend  the district in  which  the Hebrews lived almost to
the outskirts  of the present City of  Cairo. It  should be remembered that it
was Asenath,  a  daughter  of a  priest  of On,  whom Joseph  married (Genesis

The Armenian written traditions mention  that the  Holy Family made their  way
into the Province of  Goshen by passing  through the Plain  of Tanis, and that
they settled in  Bilbais, where  they   remained for a while.  This  tradition
would suggest an alternative route, following the ancient  Roman military road
from al-Qantara via Faqus  to  Bilbais. At the  same time, it   would be  most
unlikely that the Holy Family passed as far north as  Tanis, the Biblical Zoan
(Psalms 87:12,43) and the present fishing village of San Al-Hagar.

There  is good reason to assume  that the Holy Family entered   the Nile Delta
through the  Wadi Tumilat,  and if this were the  case, one of the first towns
which they would have reached  on their way would  have been Pithom or Pi-tum,
the abode of Tum, the Setting Sun. We read  in Exodus  1:11, that the Children
of Israel in  the land  of Goshen built for  the  Pharaoh the  treasure cities
Pithom and Raamses. These military store-houses were evidently built by Ramses
II, the  Pharaoh of Oppression,  using for their  construction Nile  mud mixed
with chopped straw. The  ruins of Tell  Al-Maskuta, near Al-Mahsama,  mark the
site of the Biblical Pithom. This site was excavated for the Egypt Exploration
Fund by Professor Naville  in 1883, who  discovered among the temple-buildings
several grain-stores.

The assumption that the Holy Family went through the Wadi Tumilat is supported
by  a Spanish   tradition,  supposedly told   by  King  Sancho   IV, el  Bravo
(1257-1295),  at the time of the  conquest of Tarifa.   This story affirms the
route  which the  Holy   Family took  along  the  coast  of the Mediterranean.
According to  this  Spanish tradition, the  Holy  Family was accompanied  by a
virgin (presumably Salome) and three young men.

Because of the heat, however, the Holy Family decided to look for shelter in a
cave.  But as they approached  a cave, many  wild  animals came out of  it. At
first, the Virgin Mary was much frightened, but Jesus  pacified His mother and
all the wild animals  dwelt together and the  prophesy of Isaiah was fulfilled
which said: "The wolf also shall dwell with  the lamb,  the  leopard shall lie
down with   the  young goat,  the  calf and the   young  lion and the  fatling
together; and  a little child  shall lead  them." (Isaiah 11:6). Then the Holy
Family proceeded further and Joseph saw a  palm tree  which provided shade and
fruits for the weary  travelers. When the Holy Family entered the  province of
Hieropolis, they came to a town called Sieno.

If we accept  Hieropolis to  be the  ancient Heroopolis, the Holy Family would
have passed through the Wadi Tumilat. Heroopolis or Abu Keyshed is the site of
the ruins of Tell Al-Maskuta. Sieno, which must be the Spanish  name of an old
Egyptian town, is unknown today.

On their way through  the Wadi Tumilat,  the Holy Family must   have seen  the
byblus (papyrus) and the Egyptian bean which at that  time grew in the marches
and lakes. The byblus, though not cultivated,  could be seen especially in the
lower parts of the Nile Delta. From the Egyptian bean, the ciborium, a kind of
drinking cup was made, which could be found in great abundance in the shops in
Alexandria and elsewhere, where they were sold as drinking vessels.

About fifteen  kilometers westward of the ancient  Pithom,  there was situated
the township of Succoth, the first halt of the Israelites on their exodus from
Egypt (Exodus 12:37, 13:20). This   site is  generally identified   with   the
village of Al-Qassasin. A  day's journey from  Succoth would have  brought the
Holy Family to  the  other  treasure city built by  the  children of   Israel,
Raamses, the present village of Tell Al-Kebir.

At Raamses, the Family entered the fertile Nile Delta.  Traveling further on a
westerly   direction,  they passed the ancient   city  of Pi-Sopt, the present
village of Saft Al-Hinna, and from thence they went to Bubastis, the Pi-Beseth
of the Bible (Ezekiel 30:17-18). Most probably, the court where Joseph had his
headquarters was at Bubastis. This city, of which only the ruins remain at the
present day, must have been very important in the  past. The deity of Bubastis
was the  great  goddess Bast, who is  represented with a  disk encircled by  a
uraeus on her head and holding a  lotus-sceptre in one  hand. The festivals of
Bast were celebrated with  great rejoicings.  Herodotus provides us  with some
very intimate knowledge regarding these festivities.

According to the  Coptic Synaxarium, Basatha (Bubastis,  Pi-Beseth, Bastah, or
Tell Al-Bastah), which is two kilometers  south-west of Zagazig, was the first
town in the Delta  which the Holy Family and  Salome  visited. They  were not,
however,  well   received there  in   spite  of the  fact  that  they revealed
(according to traditions) a spring of water, which became  a source of healing
for  all, except for  the inhabitants of Basatah. Details  of this  story  are
given in  the Vision of  Theophilus, where we read that  in Basatah,  the Holy
Family met two brigands, Titus, who was an  Egyptian,  and Dumachus, a Syrian.
And the Syrian brigand said to the Egyptian: "I should have  liked  to plunder
the garments that  are on this  woman and her Son,  because  they resemble the
garments of kings, and if I had encountered them in a place other than this, I
would have taken those garments from them."  But the Egyptian  brigand said to
him: "Let us proceed on our way.   I  never saw a  Child like this since I was
born." Then Jesus asked for water and the Blessed Virgin looked around and did
not find the  water which her  Son  was asking for.  Then  the  Blessed Virgin
arose, and took her Son and brought  Him to the  town and asked  the women for
Tater to give to Him, but  none of them  wished to give  them anything, as the
inhabitants of  that town had little  compassion.  When  the brigands saw  the
Blessed  Virgin and her  Son entering  Basatah,  they  came  back  and went to
Joseph, and while he  was asleep, they abducted the  golden and silver sandals
of  Jesus and fled.  When  the   Blessed Virgin  realized this, she   was much
distressed and wept.  When Jesus however saw His Mother  weeping, He wiped off
her tears, and stretched His  small  finger and made  the sign of the cross on
the earth, and  instantly  a spring  of water  jetted forth and  flowed on the
ground. And they drank this water which was as sweet  as honey and as white as
snow. Then Jesus blessed this water and said: "Let this  water help make whole
and heal the souls  and bodies of all those  who shall drink of  it.  with the
exception of  the inhabitants  of this town,  of whom none shall  be healed by

The Copts remember the town of Basatah  also because of  St. Apoli, the son of
Justus Stratelates,   who  was  beaten   and flogged  at  Basatah  during  the
persecution  of the Emperor Diocletian  (284-305 A.D.) Finally, St. Apoli  was
cast into prison, where Jesus appeared to him by night and consoled him.

Today, the ruins of the ancient Bubastis with their brick  walls  are the only
remains  of this once famous city.   The  temple of  the  goddess  Bast at the
south-west foot of the hill was excavated in 1887-89 by Professor Naville.
Disappointed at their reception  in Basatah, the  Holy Family went on  a day's
journey further southward,  and reached the  town of Bilbais,  by which passes
the modern  Ismailiya Canal.  As the Holy Family entered  the town, a  funeral
procession came out, and Jesus, who had compassion on the mourners, raised the
dead man to life. Then He learned that it was  the son of a  widow, who having
been brought back to life, declared: "This is the True God, the Saviour of the
world, Who is born of the Blessed Virgin, Who accomplished a mystery which the
human  intellect   cannot comprehend." And    all the inhabitants  of  Bilbais
believed in Jesus.

During the  Middle Ages,  the pilgrims to  the Holy Places, who passed through
Egypt, stopped at  Bilbais  to kneel at  the  foot of   the great  tree, which
according to  both Christians and Muslims,  commemorates the  stay of the Holy
Family at Bilbais.  The Muslims called it the Tree of the Virgin, and they had
such respect  for  it  that they  reserved  the space  around  the tree  as  a
necropolis  for their  venerated  saints.  They relate  with  sorrow that  the
soldiers of Napoleon who passed by this tree wanted to cut it down, but at the
first blow of the axe, it began to bleed, and they departed in fear.  The tree
was eventually cut down about 1850 by some workers who used the wood to make a

Today, there is only one  Coptic  Church in Bilbais, the Church  of St. George
(MariGirgis) which is  situated in the  north-eastern part of  the town, about
one kilometer from the main road. The site which commemorates the visit of the
Holy Family to Bilbais is the 'Uthman ibn  al-Haris  al-Ansari  Mosque, in the
center of the town, at the corner of al-Ansari  street and al-Baghdadi street.

According to  the Ethiopic  and  Coptic Synaxaria,  the Holy   Family left the
Sharqiah  Province and pursued  their way in  a  northerly direction till they
reached the town of Samannud  (Gamnudi),  the ancient Sebennytos or Zeb-nuter,
which is situated on the Damietta branch of  the  Nile, where they crossed the
river towards the west. A local tradition in Samannud relates that the present
Church of Abba Nub was built  on the ruins  of an ancient  church dedicated to
the Blessed Virgin,  which in its  turn was built  on the site where  the Holy
Family stayed. The Christians of Samannud point to a place in  the nave of the
church where at one time there was a well, the water of which had been blessed
by Jesus. The relics of the martyr are preserved in this church, whither every
year about a thousand pilgrims flock on July 31st, the feast of the Saint. Apa
Nub, who was  a native of  Nahisah, went to Lysias,  the Governor of Samannud,
and professed that he was a Christian. He was then taken away on board a ship,
and crucified to the mast, but was afterwards miraculously released. At length
Armenius, the Governor of Alexandria, had him put to death.

In his Homily, Zachariah, the  seventh-century Coptic Bishop  of Sakha, states
that  the  Holy  Family   proceeded  from Samannud  to  Burullus,   near   the
Mediterranean coast. Here, at  the Shrine of St. Dimianah,  the Antonian monks
relate an oral tradition of the  visit of  the Holy Family to  the area, which
three centuries later  was  blessed by  the blood  of  the martyrdom  of   the
Virgin-saint Dimianah  and  her forty Virgins.  The large crowds  of pilgrims,
who, every year from the 5th to the 22nd of May, come from all  over Egypt and
assemble at  the Shrine of   St.   Dimianah,   know little  or  nothing of the
tradition  of the  visit  of  the   Holy Family. They   come  because  of  the
intercessions of "Sitt Dimianah".

Having  crossed  the Damietta   branch of the  Nile,  the Holy Family traveled
westwards to al-Gharbiyah, the province which  is situated between the Rosetta
and Damietta branch of the Nile. On the way, Jesus  put His foot upon a stone,
and the mark of the sole of His  foot remained upon  the stone, and  the place
became known as Bikha Isous  (Isous means Jesus  in the Coptic Language), that
is to  say  the footprint of Jesus. I  have been unable to  locate  this place
which was  mentioned  by  the Ethiopic and    Coptic Synaxaria.  It   has been
suggested that Basus may be a contraction of  the name Bikha Isous, but  it is
most unlikely that Bikha Isous should be identified with  the village of Basus
which lies between Cairo and Qalyub,  as stated by  Amelineau. Dr. Murad Kamil
suggests that Bikha Isous might be the town of Sakha, famous for its pillar on
which St. Agathon the Stylite (seventh  century) stood  for fifty years. Sakha
is situated in the province of Gharbiyah, about two  kilometers  south of Kafr
al-Shaikh. This suggestion  might be supported  by pointing to  a confusion of
the Arabic  orthography  of the two names.  Indeed, if the diacritical  points
were omitted, the Arabic  word  ligatures  of Sakha  and  Bikha  show distinct

After Bikha  Isous, the Holy Family traveled  westwards and crossed the river,
probably the  Rosetta branch of the Nile.  Continuing their journey,  they saw
from afar the Desert of Scetis,  the Wadi El-Natrun, and  Jesus blessed it and
said to His Mother: "Know, O  my Mother, that  in this desert  there shall lie
many monks,  ascetes and spiritual fighters,  and  they shall serve  God  like
angels."  Though there is no tradition to support it,  the  Holy Family  would
most  probably have seen the  Desert of Scetis from the town of Terranah,  the
ancient  bishopric  of  Terenouti,  fifteen kilometers north  of  al-Khatatba.
Terranah,  which is situated on the  Rosetta branch of  the Nile,  is the town
which is nearest to the Desert of Scetis, actually about forty kilometers from
the Monastery of  St. Macarius (Dair Abu Maqqar).  Today, there are  only four
monasteries left  in the  Wadi El-Natrun,  namely the Monastery of the  Romans
(Dair  al-Baramus),  the  Monastery  of  the  Syrians  (Dair  al-Surian),  the
Monastery of St. Pishoi (Dair Anba Bishoi) and the Monastery of  St. Macarius,
which  is  dedicated  to  the famous  St. Macarius who is  honoured among  the
founders  of  monasticism in both the East and the West.  In 1986  there  were
about 320 monks occupying the four Wadi el-Natrun monasteries.


                              In The Nile Valley

Continuing  their  journey  southward, the Holy Family eventually  reached the
City  of On  or the Biblical   Bethshemesh (Jeremiah 43:13).  At  the  time of
Strabo,  about sixteen years before  the visit of   the Holy Family  to  On or
Heliopolis,  the   city was entirely deserted,  not  having recovered from the
destruction which it incurred at the time of  the Persian invasion (525 B.C.).
However,  various temples  and buildings of    historical interest were  still
standing and were pointed out to Strabo by the dragoman of that time. The Holy
Family would have naturally avoided lodging in this deserted  pagan  city, and
in consequence they  sought  some dwelling  place nearby in  which there would
most likely have  been  Jewish families living on account  of its proximity to
the Jewish center at Leontopolis.  Thus they halted at the site of the present
village  of Matariyah, now  a suburb of Cairo. The  visit to Matariyah is  not
only  well attested  by  the Coptic  and  Ethioic  Synaxaria,  but also  it is
mentioned  by the mediaeval pilgrims  to   the  Holy  Land. According to   the
Ethiopic  Synaxarium, when the  Holy Family approached  Matariyah, there was a
staff in the hand of Joseph wherewith he used  to smite Jesus, but Joseph gave
Him the staff. Then said Jesus unto his mother: 'We will tarry here', and that
place  and its desert and the  well became known as  Matariyah. And Jesus took
Joseph's staff, and broke it into little  pieces, and planted these  pieces in
that place, and He dug with His own Divine hands a well, and there flowed from
it sweet water, which had an exceeding sweet odour. And Jesus took some of the
water in His  hands, and  watered therewith  the pieces  of wood which He  had
planted,  and  straightway they took  root,   and put   forth  leaves,  and an
exceedingly sweet perfume was  emitted by them, which  was  sweeter  than  any
other perfume.  And these pieces  of wood grew and  increased and  they called
them 'Balsam'.  And Jesus said  unto His Mother,  'O My  Mother, these Balsam,
which I have planted, shall abide here for ever, and  from them shall be taken
the oil for Christian baptism when they baptize in the name of the Father, and
the Son and the Holy Ghost.'

In the Armenian tradition the balsam is replaced with a palm-tree, a tradition
which is also preserved in the Quran.  According  to the  Quranic version, the
Blessed  Virgin saw a palm-tree and  wished to  rest  under it.  When she  was
seated there, she saw fruit on it, and she said to Joseph  that she would like
to  have some.  Then  Jesus,   sitting in  His   Mother's   lap, with a joyful
countenance, bade the palm-tree to give to His  Mother of  its fruit. The tree
bent as low as her feet, and she gathered as much as she wanted. He bade it to
rise again, and give to them of the water concealed below its roots.  A spring
came  forth, and all rejoiced and  drank thereof.  The Armenian tradition adds
that when the  Blessed Virgin had washed the  swaddling clothes  of Jesus, and
had hanged them out to  dry upon a  post, a  boy possessed with the devil took
one of them down, and put it  upon his head. And  presently the devil began to
come out of his mouth, and fly away in the  shape of crows  and serpents. From
that time,  the boy  was healed by the  power  of Jesus, and  he began to sing
praises and give thanks to the Lord who had healed him.

The village of Matariyah enjoyed  great popularity among the  pilgrims  to the
Holy Land.   This blessed site  must have  appeared  like a paradise to  these
pilgrims who  had crossed the desert from  Mount Sinai, for  the well with its
beautiful surroundings  was a resort for  such wealthy   Mamelukes as the Emir
Yashbak, who built   a domed housse here   in  which,  from time  to  time, he
entertained  his  master and friend Qait   Bey  (1467-1496).   Entrance to the
garden cost the pilgrims six ducats for which sum they could  enjoy relaxation
and  bathing in the  pool, the  waters  of which  both Christians  and Muslims
believed   to be holy and medicinal.   The Dominican Friar  Felix Fabri (1480)
noticed close to the  gate an immense fig-tree. In  its hollor trunk,  as in a
small chapel, two lamps hung, for the  tree had once  opened to provide refuge
for the Blessed  Virgin.   There was  a   tradition that the Holy   Family was
pursued  by two brigands,  and  that the tree  miraculouslv  opened to conceal
them. According to Pero Tafur  (1435-1439) only five  pilgrims at a time  were
permitted to enter the Garden of Balm, and  none were allowed  to pinch or nip
off leaves or twigs to  take away with  them. The  reason for this  protective
policy  may be  explained by the fact that   the earlier pilgrims were in  the
habit of depleting the balm-trees. Indeed, Burchard of Mount  Sion (1285-1295)
records that he went to Matariyah and carried off much Balsamwood,  and bathed
in the well which waters the garden, wherein the Blessed Virgin had dipped her
Son. All  the pilgrims are unanimous  in their  observation that the Garden of
Balsam was tilled by  Christians only. Ludoph  von Suchem (1336) saw among the
Christian guardians four  Germans,  one  from Schwartzenburg, who  had  been a
renegade, and another, a one-eved man named Nicholas, who was a very good man,
as the Christian captives bore witness. The balm was either obtained  from the
fruit of the bush, or by boiling  the  branches.  It  was used medicinally and
also  in the concoction  of  the Chrism which  is used at Baptism. The Muslims
recommended its use for nasal trouble, lumbago or pain  in the knee, while the
Christians prescribed it for snake-bites, toothache and poisonings.

As a recognition of their share, the Sultan was  accustomed to give to the two
Christian patriarchs a portion  of balm.  Thus   when De Lannoy (1421)  was in
Egypt, the Patriarch of the Copts was able to present to him, as Ambassador of
France, a phial of pure balm.

Felix Fabri explained  the presence  of the   bushes of  balm at Matariyah  by
quoting Flavius  Josephus, according to whom the  Queen of Sheba had presented
them to King Solomon, and that they had blossomed in the  Holy Land until they
were transplanted by Augustus Caesar to Matariyah. But Fabri  was confident of
one thing, namely that the plants never flourished until the visit of the Holy
Family. There was a general belief that the Balsam-trees could not produce the
balsam without the water of the  spring. It is  said that  the Sultan al-Malik
al-Kamil (1218-1238) once  asked his  father, al-'Adil,  to plant some  of the
trees in  a  neighbouring  plot  of land, but   there  they did   not blossom.
Thereupon he received the permission to irrigate the  trees  with the water of
the well of the Blessed Virgin, and consequently the trees revived and brought
lorth an abundant crop. Marino Sanuto (1321) and  John Poloner (1421) believed
that they had seen the actual palm-tree which had bowed  itself to the Blessed
Virgin, that she might gather dates  from it, and  had  then  raised itself up
again. When  the heathens  saw this,  so Sanuto  remarks,  they cut   down the
palm-tree, but it joined itself together again the following  night. The marks
of the cutting were still seen at the time of his pilgrimage.

The balsam  shrubs have long  since disappeared. The  sycamore  tree which now
stands at Matariyah was planted in 1672. Ihe fall of this  venerable tree, due
to old age, took place on June 14,  1906,  but fortunately a living shoot from
it remains to this day.

From Matariyah the Holy Family went to a locality where now  stands the Church
of  the Blessed Virgin in the  Harat Zuwaila of  Cairo. It  is situated in the
north-east district of Cairo, at the  end of a lane  leading off the street of
Sharia Bain as-Surain, and was  probably first erected  in the tenth  century.
From the fourteenth  century to  the year  1660 it  served  as the patriarchal
church in Cairo. The lower church is dedicated to the Blessed  Virgin, and the
upper church to St.  George. In the north-west  corner  of  the lower church a
doorway gives access to another church, which  is dedicated to  St. Mercurius.
Annexed to the Church  of the Blessed  Virgin of the Harat Zuwaila  there is a
convent of nuns. The nuns of this  convent relate the tradition that  when the
Holy Family rested at this locality, Jesus blessed the water  of the well, and
the Blessed Virgin drank from  it. This well  is  situated in the floor before
the southern sanctuary of the  lower church, and the  water is still used  for
healing the sick.  Every year on the day  of the  feast of the consecration of
the  first  Church of the  Blessed Virgin  at  Philippi (June 20th), Ethiopian
priests come  to take some  water of this   well. According to  the nuns, they
drink  it   and wash  themselves with  it,   a common   practice among Eastern
Christians as regards holy water.

Continuing   their  way  southwards, the  Holy  Family passed  the Fortress of
Babylon (Old Cairo)  which commanded the route  to Upper Egypt  and where they
halted  on  their return to   Palestine. They  would  have certainly  seen the
triangular pyramids of Gizah which may have seemed to them, as to the pilgrims
several centuries later, to be Joseph's granaries. At the time of their visit,
two of these pyramids, the Cheops and the Chefren pyramid, were reckoned among
the  seven wonders of  the world.  According  to al-Hafiz Abu Bakr ben  Thabet
al-Khatib who had received the tradition from  Nabit ben Sharit, there used to
be  at Gizah  the palm-tree under which  the Blessed Virgin suckled Jesus, and
this palm-tree was said to have been the only one in the region which bore any
fruit. On their  way  southward, they would have seen  the site on the bank of
the  Nile where  Moses  was  hid in  an  ark of   bulrushes and  where  he was
discovered  by Pharaoh's daughter (Exodus 2:3-5).  Al-Maqrizi states  that the
ark in which Moses was hid at the banks  of the Nile  is kept at the Mosque of
Tubah at Gizah.

Some twelve kilometers south of Cairo, at Maadi on the very bank of  the Nile,
there  is  the Church of   the Blessed Virgin  with  its three  cupolas. Here,
according to an oral  tradition, there was  at the  time of the  Holy Family's
visit a  synagogue which the Holy  Family attended.  Joseph  became acquainted
with  the sailors of the Nile  boats, and the  Holy Family  was invited  to be
taken  south  to Upper Egypt. One  of the monks  of the  Dair al-Muharraq (The
Monastery of the Blessed Virgin) added that the Holy Family was able to afford
these   rather   extensive   travels    because of  the    treasure, the gold,
frankincense,  and myrrh which had  been presented to  the Christ child by the
wise men  from the East  (Matthew 2:11). To  this  day,  the flight  of stairs
leading from the churchyard to the Nile  marks the site  where the Holy Family
embarked on their journey southwards.

In addition to  this oral tradition of the  Holy Family's  visit to Maadi, Abu
El-Makarim, incorrectly  called Abu Salih, speaks  of the Church   of the Pure
Lady Mary, called al-Martuti, which was surmounted by  a  cupola. According to
this thirteenth-century writer,  this particular  site was in   ancient days a
place of  worship of the  Israelites when  they were in  bondage in Egypt; and
when the Holy Family came down into Egypt, they sat in this place, where there
is now a picture of the Blessed Virgin  before the holy  altar. The church was
founded by the Copts under the name of  the Lady, and  was  called al-Martuti,
which is from  the Greek  words  Meter Theou (Mother  of God).   According  to
al-Idrisi,  the Church of al-Martuti was  situated in Munyat as-Sudan,  on the
western (sic) bank of the Nile, about twenty-five kilometres  south  of Cairo.
This would place the locality in question south of Badreshein.

Al-Maqrizi,    the  Muslim  historian  of  the fifteenth  century,  mentions a
palm-tree in Ahnassiah  al-Madinat, the ancient city  of Herakleopolis  in the
Province  of  Beni Suef, which was seen  there until the   end of the 'Ummayad
Dynasty (750 A.D.). This palm-tree is supposed to  have been  the one of which
the Quran speaks: "And the pangs of childbirth  drove her (the Blessed Virgin)
unto the trunk of the palm-tree. She said: 'O, would that I had died ere this,
and had become a thing of naught, forgotten'. Then  (one)  cried unto her from
below her, saying: 'Grieve not,  thy Lord  has placed a rivulet  beneath thee.
And shake the trunk of the palm-tree toward  thee, thou  wilt cause ripe dates
to fall upon thee'." (XIX, 23-25)  Passing through the  Nile Valley,  the Holy
Family must have crossed several  times the many irrigation  canals which were
constructed during the Roman occupation  by the epistrategoi of  Middle Egypt.
These canals, we are told, were full of crocodiles,  which in Arsinoe (Fayum),
the ancient Crocodilopolis, were even accounted sacred.

Situated twelve  kilometers south-west  of Maghaghah  is the small  village of
Ishnin an-Nassarah. A local oral tradition relates that the water of the well,
about eighty meters north of the  Church of St.  George,  was blessed by Jesus
when the Holy Family passed through  this village  on their way to where later
Dair al-Ganus was built. Another  version of this local  tradition speaks of a
well under  the  baptistry at the western   end of the  southern  aisle of the
church. In former times, many people offered prayers in  Ishnin, so that there
were as many churches in this locality as there were days in the year.

In the Ethiopic  Synaxarium it  is stated  that  the Holy  Family went  to   a
locality which  is called Baysus  ("Bet Iyasus", or House  of  Jesus) and here
Jesus dug a well whereof the water cured every sickness and every pain. And He
also set a sign in a certain river of  Egypt, which rose in flood  every year.
At the time of prayer  at which they offered  up incense at mid-day to  God by
that well, as soon as the reading of the Gospel was ended, the water which was
in the well would rise up and come to the mouth of the  well, and they used to
receive a blessing from  it, and  straightway  the water would recede until it
reached its former  level, and the people   used to measure  by the  cubit the
height to which it rose above  its normal level at the  bottom of the well. If
the height were twenty cubits, there would be great abundance  in  the land of
Egypt, if the height were eighteen  or  seventeen cubits, there would  also be
abundance, but if the height were only sixteen cubits,  there would be a great
famine throughout the Land  of Egpt. Maqrizi adds to  the tradition by saying,
that this well was  situated  in the church of  the Monastery of Arjanus,  and
that on the night of the 25th of Bashons (June 2nd)  the people would assemble
to  remove the stone cover from  the well, when they  would discover  that the
water within had risen and begun to sink again.

The fact that  an older church  existed  at this site  is  testified  by M. de
Maillet (1703), French  Consul-General, who developed  a keen  interest in all
things pertaining to Egypt.  He mentions  a village called   by the Arabs  Bir
el-Gernous, and states that in  this  place the  Copts  have a sacred well, by
which they foretell  the  height of the  annual inundation. With an  elaborate
ritual, a cotton cord marked at regular intervals by threads of white and blue
is let down into the well, so that the end touches the water.  Then a table is
placed  over the mouth  of  the well, and  the   bishop celebrates the  Divine
Liturgy. When the Liturgy is finished, the table is taken away and the cord is
examined.  According  to Coptic  belief,  the height to  which  the water  has
penetrated the cord marks the height to which the water will rise.

Doubtless  we  have here  a  reference to  an  ancient Nilometer.  There  were
Nilometers also at Philae, Edfu, Esnah, Luxor, Memphis and  the Island of Roda
(Cairo) by which the government calculated the annual  revenue. Apart from the
above-mentioned sources, I have not found any further reference to a Nilometer
at this locality.

The site of Baysus is now the village of Dair al-Ganus, about seven kilometers
west of Ishnin  al-Nassarah, and eihteen  kilometres south-west  of Maghaghah.
Here  it should be  pointed out  that the  village of  al-Ganus should  not be
confused with the village of Dair al-Ganus, where to this  day the sacred well
is  to be found. The well  from  which according to  local  tradition the Holy
Family drank, is situated at the western end of  the south aisle of the Church
of the Blessed Virgin. This church was built in about 1870.

In commemoration of the  blessings  which this village received  through   the
visit of the Holy Family, the people celebrate  annually a fair "mulid" on the
15th and 16th of Misra (August 21st and 22nd), during which time  the pilgrims
are said  to be  never  bitten by vermin, while  the  children even  play with
scorpions. The number of pilgrims who attend this fair varies between  5000 to
6000 people, who use the water of the well for drinking purposes.

Ten kilometres in a southerly direction, there is situated on  the edge of the
desert the ancient  city of Oxyrhynchus, in  Coptic Pemje, the present town of
al-Bahnasa,  a  city  which in ancient  times was  the  capital of  a nome. In
Pharaonic times  the fish  Oxyrhynchus, a species of  mormyrus, was worshipped
here. Plutarch relates that the people  of the  neighbouring town of Cynopolis
used  to venerate  the dog, and  how a  quarrel  arose  between the two towns,
because the citizens of the one had killed and fed on the sacred animal of the

According to  Al-Maqrizi, the Copts are  in  agreement that  the   Holy Family
visited al-Bahnasa,  and a commentator of  the Quran mentions that the passage
"and we have made the Son of Mary  and His Mother  a portent, and we gave them
refuge on a height, a place of flocks and  water-springs," (XII, 50) refers to
al-Bahnasa. Another Muslim tradition relates that the  Holy Family traveled on
a donkey to al-Bahnasa, where  there was  a well in  the chapel from which one
could receive healing from infirmities. It was here, where the  Blessed Virgin
and  her Son washed  before prayer, that all  the water spilled  over and then
disappeared. Another  commentator adds  that at the time  of  their arrival at
al-Bahnasa, the Holy Family went  to the place of  the  famous well, and  that
Joseph returned,  leaving the Blessed Virgin near  the well.  Then Jesus asked
for water, and He began to weep because of His thirst, and there  was no water
at that time, but the level of the water rose so  that  Jesus could drink, and
since that day the Christians have celebrated this event.

Muhammad al-Baqir (676-731 A.D.) says that when Jesus was nine months old, His
Mother took Him to the school in al-Bahnasa.  The teacher  said to Jesus: "Say
the alphabet." Jesus lifted up  His head and said: "Dost  thou know what these
words mean?" The teacher wished to strike Him, but Jesus  said: "Do not strike
me, but if thou dost not know, ask me and I  shall  explain to thee." "Speak,"
said the teacher. "Come down from thy desk," answered Jesus.  The teacher came
down and Jesus took  his place and  began  to teach while all watched. "Well,"
said the teacher to the Blessed Virgin, "take thy Son and watch over  Him, for
God hath given to Him wisdom and He doth  not need  a teacher." This tradition
should be compared with the almost identical  story in the book  of Thomas the
Israelite (140-160 A.D.)

Wahb (d. 728 A.D.) relates that the  Holy Family stayed  at a hospice  for the
poor at al-Bahnasa, which was supported by a  diqhan, a  nobleman of the king.
One day,  an important  part  of the   diqhan's treasure was  stolen, and  the
Blessed  Virgin was  afflicted about the misfortune.   When Jesus realized His
Mother's distress,  He said to her:  "Mother, dost  thou wish me to show where
the diqhan's money is?" The Blessed  Virgin informed  the diqhan of what Jesus
had said. When they were all gathered together, Jesus  approached two men, one
of whom  was blind and the other  lame, the  latter being carried by the blind
man. Then Jesus said to the blind man:  "Arise!" "This I  cannot do," said the
blind man. "How then was it possible for you  to steal?" When they heard this,
they struck the blind man until he showed  Jesus where the  treasure was. This
then was their trick. The  blind man  used  his strength and  the lame man his
eyes. The stolen treasure was restored to the diqhan.

Oxyrhynchus (al-Bahnasa) used to be an Episcopal See, and in the fifth century
it  is  said to have  possessed 10,000 monks and  12,000 nuns.  Among the many
famous Christians  who  have come from  Oxyrhynchus,  there  is  Dermataus, an
ascete and founder of a monastery, and Harman, Bishop of Qaou in  Upper Egypt.
There is  evidence  that  the  persecutions by the  Emperor   Diocletian  were
especially severe at Oxyrhynchus. Elias the Eunuch, Isaac of Tiphre and Epiuse
suffered martyrdom here.

In 1897 Grenfell and A S. Hunt, whilst excavating, discovered in the mounds of
Oxyrhynchus the famous Logia or Sayings of Jesus, which form  part of the find
known as the Oxyrhynchus Papyri.  Today, al-Bahnasa possesses  only one church
and this is dedicated to St. George and  was  built in 1923. The Christians of
al-Bahnasa believe that  the Holy Family stayed  on  the west bank of the Bahr
Yusuf Canal, which strictly speaking is an  arm of the  Nile, though there are
no traces left which would indicate their visit.

Near the ancient Cynopolis, the present  village of al-Kais,  the  Holy Family
embarked  on a boat  to travel  southwards. After thirty-five  kilometers they
passed Gabal at-Tair, which  is   almost  opposite  to  Samalut and Bihu.  Abu
al-Makarim  recalls  that, when the Holy Family  passed this mountain, a large
rock  threatened to fall  upon  the  boat,   and the Blessed  Virgin  was very
frightened. Jesus  however  extended  His hand and prevented   the   rock from
falling, and the imprint of His hand remained on  the rock.  In the imprint of
His  hand  there is  a  fine perforation,  large enough to   admit a collyrium
needle, into which the needle  is inserted and, when it  is pulled out, brings
upon it a  black collyrium  which makes an indelible  mark. It is said however
that when Almeric, King of  Jerusalem  (1162-1173 AD.)  invaded Upper Egypt to
drive out Shirkuh the Kurd and his men from Egypt, they  cut away the piece of
rock upon which was  the mark of the palm  of the hand,  and took it back with
them to Syria in 1168.

In order to visit the famous Church of the Blessed Virgin in Gabal al-Tair, it
is advisable to take a sailing-boat either from  Minya or from  Samalut, since
there is no road on the east bank of the Nile (as of 1986). Alternatively, one
can cross the Nile by boat from Bihu, twenty kilometres north of Minya, though
one should allow at least two  hours for  the crossing,  as it depends  on the
wind. Having reached the east bank of  the Nile, one climbs  the 166 steps cut
in the face of the cliff and reaches the church which is reputed to  have been
built by St. Helena, the mother  of St. Constantine. A memorial  tablet on the
west wall  of the nave states  that  the first  church was built   in  44 A.M.
(according to the Coptic Calendar  of Martyrs) or  328 A  D., and  that it was
repaired by Anba Sawirus, Metropolitan  of Minya,  in  1938.  To this day, the
Church of the Blessed Virgin attracts annually up to  10,000 visitors who come
by sailing-boats from as far as Assiut, and even from Cairo.

From  Gabal at-Tair  the Holy Family  sailed southwards, passing  on their way
first the  port of Khoufou, the present  Minya,  then the rock-temple  of  the
goddess Pekhet, called by the Greeks Speos Artemides, on  the site of which is
the present village  of Beni  Hassan  ash-Shuruk, and finally, the  temple  of
Ramses II, on the ruins  of which the Roman  Emperor Hadrian built in 130 A.D.
the town of Antinoupolis. The site is  occupied by the  present village of the
Shaikh 'Abadah.

Opposite to the ruins of Antinoupolis there is the town  of al-Rodah, which is
built on the site where the Holy Family disembarked in order to proceed to the
famous city  of Khmunu, the Hermopolis  Magna of the Greeks, at   present, the
village of al-Ashmunain.

In their  travels, the Holy   Family took advantage  of  the natural  means of
communication by water along the Nile, and where this or a  side-canal was not
available, donkeys or camels were used. Generally  speaking, during the latter
period of the reign of  Augustus, Egypt remained  in a   state of  comparative
tranquility. At the same time, the Romans collected a  large number of various
taxes which became a real burden for the Egyptians. The receipts of tolls paid
by  travellers give abundant  evidence of  this  important means  of gathering
revenue. Strabo mentions that tolls were collected at Hermopolis which was the
nearest  town to the dividing line  between the   Thebaid and Middle Egypt. In
most cases an "ad valorem" duty was collected, which in  Upper Egypt consisted
of two percent on the goods or commodities. Thus, the Holy Family was taxed at
least once during their travels to Upper Egypt.

According to the book "vision of Theophilus", the Holy  Family found images of
horses at all four corners of the gate which led into Hermopolis Magna. These,
however, fell down and were broken when the Holy Family  entered the city. The
Book of  the  Bee, on the other  hand,  states that  there were  by   the  two
buttresses of the gate two figures of brass which  had been  made by the sages
and philosophers. And when the Holy Family passed through  the gate, these two
figures cried out  with  a loud  voice saying:  "A  great king   has come into
Egypt!"  The  Armenian tradition, which also attests   the  visit of  the Holy
Family  to Hermopolis Magna,  mentions  that Aphrodosius,  the Governor of the
city, when he saw that the idols were destroyed, adored the Child and  said to
those present:  "Unless this were  the God of our  gods,  they would  not have
fallen. If we do not  adore Him,  as they have done, we  are in danger of such
destruction as fell upon Pharaoh who was drowned with his army." When the King
of Egypt, however, heard this, he was troubled and  moved, for he  feared lest
his kingdom should  be taken away  from him. And  he  commanded the heralds to
proclaim throughout the whole city: "If a  man knoweth,  let him point Him out
to us without delay." And when they had made  such a search,  and did not find
Him, the king commanded all the inhabitants of the  city  to go outside and to
come in one by one. When  Jesus entered, the  two figures of  brass cried out:
"This is the king!" And when Jesus was revealed, the king sought  to slay Him.
Now a Jewish man, Lazarus, whom Jesus raised from the dead, was there, and was
one of the king's officials, and he was held in much  esteem by  the king.  He
drew near to Joseph and asked them: "Whence are  ye?"  They said to him: "From
the  land of Palestine." When he  heard that they  were from Palestine, he was
sorry for them and  went to the king and  pledged himself for  the Child. This
then   is  the cause of  the  love between  Lazarus  and  Jesus. The  Ethiopic
Synaxarium states that the Holy Family  dwelt here with a  man  called Apelon,
whereas the Coptic Synaxarium calls the host Taloun.

There was a tree in Hermopolis Magna which  worshipped the traces of the steps
of Jesus,  and Jesus said unto the  tree: "Let no   worm be found in thee  for
ever, but be  thou  a remembrance  to all of my  entry into this town," and He
touched the Mukantah tree. The Byzantine historian Sozomen (Hist. Eccl. V, 21)
calls this tree Persea.

On the following day, great multitudes of sick  people assembled around Jesus,
and Jesus laid His hand on each of them  and healed them of their infirmities.

Abu  al-Makarim  adds  further  that the  Church  of  the Blessed   Virgin  at
al-Ashmunain contained several altars  and marble pillars.  One altar was used
for the celebration  of the Divine  Liturgy all the time,  for upon it was the
mark of the hand of the Lord. Outside the church was a Syrian  tree which bore
the  fruit called Sebastan,  which is of  red colour. This  is the  tree which
bowed its head  when Jesus approached it. The  governor of  the town wished to
cut  down this tree,  but  Agathus, the thirty-ninth Patriarch  of  Alexandria
(658-677 A.D.), was standing under  the tree, and  when the wood-cutter struck
it with his axe, the axe flew back into his face. Thereupon the governor never
again gave orders to cut down the tree.

Today there is no trace left of the Holy Family's visit to al-  Ashmunain, and
there is  not now even a  Coptic Church in  this once  famous  Christian city.
About  ten kilometres southwards, the  Holy Family stayed  for a  few  days in
Manlau,  the present town of  Mallawi. There are numerous Coptic  churches  in
this town; among others, one is dedicated to St. Mercurius, one to St. George,
and two to the Blessed Virgin.

Two days further traveling in a southerly direction brought the Holy Family to
the town  of   Kenis, (Nikyas,  Funkus) the present   Dairut  al-Sharif.   The
inhabitants of this tovn  were very charitable,  and the Holy Family  remained
there for several days, and Jesus  wrought innumerable miracles in that place,
and all those  who had  diseases or afflictions came  to Him with faith to  be
healed. After this,  Dianos, a carpenter who  had known  Joseph in  Jerusalem,
invited the Holy Family to stay with him. He had a son who was possessed  of a
devil, and when Jesus came near unto  him,  the devil took the  boy and dashed
him to the  ground and cried  out: "What have  I to do with  Thee, O Jesus  of
Nazareth? We left Jerusalem to Thee and came to this town, and  Thou followest
us to  torment us.  Verily, Thou  art the  Son of  God."  Then Jesus  said: "O
accursed  devil, shut up thy mouth  and  come out of him."   And the child was
healed in  that  very hour, and  many people  believed in Him.  AfterJesus had
performed these miracles, the idols in the town were broken up and  smashed to

From  Dairut  al-Sharif,  the  Holy Family  traveled  via Pepleu,  the present
Beblaw, to the town of Sanabu. At  one time, Sanabu was  an episcopal See, but
already in the fifteenth century the Monastery at Sanabu was deserted.

According to    the  Armenian  tradition,   the Holy Family   always  received
sufficient   provision for their  journey  from the  people who received them.
Once, when they  entered a certain town,  there was a  marriage which was then
about to be performed.  The arts of Satan  and the practices of the sorcerers,
however, caused the bride to  be dumb, so that  she could  not so much as open
her mouth. But when this dumb bride  saw the  Blessed Virgin entering into the
town, and,carrying the Child in her arms, she stretched out her hands to Jesus
and took    Him into   her  arms, and   closely hugging    Him, she kissed Him
repeatedly, and straightway the  string of her tongue  was  loosened, and  her
ears were opened and she began to sing praises unto God  who had  restored her
speech and hearing.

Thereupon, the Holy Family entered the city of  Cusae or Kuskam,  nowadays the
village  of al-Qusia where,  according to Aelianus, Venus  Urania  and her cow
were worshipped. As the ancient city of Gosu  it  had served as the capital of
the Lower Sycamore Nome. At the time  of the Holy  Family's visit there  was a
temple of  idols which  was surmounted by  an idol on which  there  were seven
veils.  When  Jesus reached the  gate of  Cusae,  the seven   veils  were rent
asunder, and the idol fell to  the ground and  was dashed to pieces.  Then the
devils who were in  the  idol threatened the  priests and cried: "If thou dost
not pursue that woman and  the Child who is with  her, and the old man  who is
with them, and the other woman, namely Salome, and drive them away,and if thou
let them  enter this town, they  will put an end to  thy service, and  we will
leave the town." When the priests of the idols,  who were a hundred in number,
heard  this  speech of the idols, they  pursued the Holy  Family with rods and
axes  in order to strike them.  Thereupon the  Holy Family left the  town.

Today,  al-Qusia  is an insignificant village  except for its  railway-station
which is used annually by thousands of pilgrims to the fair ("mulid") which is
held in commemoration of the  first Church of  the Blessed Virgin at  Philippi
(June 20th) at the Dair al-Muharraq.

After that the   Holy  Family went on   a short  distance  south (actually six
kilometres west) of   the town, and  they  rested  for a while   in  a certain
locality on account   of their  weariness  and  fatigue. Here, in  the present
village of Meir, Jesus took the  olive-wood staff of Joseph  and planted it in
the ground and said: "Thou shalt serve as a testimony of My arrival here." And
immediately the staff took root and began to blossom.

Then in  the evening the Holy  Family went up  to a  mountain,  probably up to
those hills situated one kilometer west of Meir, and lo, the two brigands whom
the Holy Family  had met at Basatah  (Tell al-Bastah)  came towards them. They
had followed them from one place to another, and when they saw the Holy Family
in this deserted mountain, they approached them with drawn daggers, unsheathed
swords and their faces masked and said: "Ye have exhausted us, because we have
pursued  you for many days and  have  not found  you,   and   have  not had an
opportunity to meet with you so as to plunder you, except at this moment, when
ye have fallen into our hands. To-day, we will strip you  of your garments and
rob you." And they snatched Jesus from the arm of His  Mother and stripped Him
of His garments. Then they took the garments  of the Blessed Virgin,  and they
even took  her veil.  Then they stripped   also  Joseph, who  was  standing by
speechless as a lamb. As for Salome, when she perceived what was taking place,
she threw her garments to them before they came to her.  After they  had taken
the garments, the brigands went away a short distance, and  the Blessed Virgin
who was greatly perturbed said within herself: "Perchance they will return and
kill  my Son. Would that  I were in Bethlehem,  because  then they  would have
recognized the old Joseph who  would have  implored them not  to kill my  Son.
Would that they would kill me before killing my Son,  that  I  may not see His
great affliction.  If they were  to kill  my Son, I would  kill myself with my
own hands."

While the Blessed Virgin  was uttering these  words and lamenting and weeping,
her tears streamed down her cheeks.  Then  one of  the brigands looked towards
her  and saw her  weeping, and his nerves  were  shaken, and he  spoke  to his
companion who was a Jew, a Syrian, and said to him: "O my companion, I beseech
thee today not to take the garments of these strangers,  because I perceive on
their faces a light greater than that on all the faces  of mankind. This child
resembles  a prince, the like  of whom I have never  seen." The Jewish brigand
said to the Egyptian brigand: "I will not listen to thee this  time, as I wish
to take their garments,  because they  are royal garments  which will bring us
much wealth for our living."  Then the Egyptian  brigand asked for his portion
of the garments that it should be given to him, for  he was much distressed at
the nakedness of the Holy Family, and he retumed  his portion of  the garments
to  them. When  Jesus had put on  His garments, He  looked at the brigand  and
stretched out His finger and made the sign of the Cross over Him. Then the two
brigands proceeded on  their  way,   and (according  to the Armenian   written
traditions) Jesus  said to  His  Mother: "O Mary,  the Jews will crucify Me in
Jerusalem.  And these  two brigands   whom   thou  seest, one of  them will be
crucified on my right hand,  and the other on  my left hand. The Egyptian will
be crucified on my right  hand, and the Jew on  my left,  and the brigand  who
hath returned our garments will confess Me and believe in Me on the Cross, and
he   will be the first  to   enter  Paradise. even   before  Adam  and all his
descendants." This written  tradition concludes the story  with the  following
advice: And all sick persons who shall  come in future  to the place where the
brigands stripped Jesus, and  shall   be  stripped  of their garments  and  be
bathed, Jesus will heal them in honour of the  fact that there He was stripped
of His garments.

Not far away, about eight kilometers south of Meir, the Holy Family discovered
a well, though it was dried up.   However, when the  Blessed Virgin took Jesus
to the well and He stretched forth His finger  and blessed it, it became full.
While searching around, Salome came upon  a wash-basin and  a water-jug, as if
they  had  been  placed  there purposely for  them.  It  was always Salome who
bathed Jesus  and His Mother  who  gave Him milk.  And often while her nipples
were  in the  mouth   of Jesus,   she saw   the   angels  and celestial beings
prostrating themselves and worshipping Jesus.

Continuing with this Armenian tradition, Satan  appeared to Herod and  said to
him: "Thou  slewest the innocent  children of Bethlehem in  order to find Mary
and her Son, and thou didst not find them.  I shall  tell thee now  where they
are; the woman and her Son are hidden in  a desert place  on the southern side
of the Land of  Egypt.  Arise and dispatch ten  of thy soldiers  to repair  to
that place and to kill them, and thus thou wilt be  confirmed in  thy kingdom.
If thou dost not listen to me and dost not do what I  tell thee, then tomorrow
this Child will grow up and go to Jerusalem, both  He  and  His Mother, and He
will perform numerous  and great miracles there. When  thy soldiers depart  to
inquire after them,  let them  proceed as far as  Cusae (Kuskam), and then let
them travel to the west side of  it, as far  as the  mountain, until they find
them in the place,  where they are living alone,  for they  have sought in all
the  Land of Egypt  and not  found  anybody who would   offer  them  shelter."
Thereupon, Herod assembled all the chiefs  and  elders and told them  what had
taken place and they said: "O our Lord, let it be as thou desirest." And Herod
chose ten  valiant men  and he  informed them of  the place  in which the Holy
Family were to be found, and he said to them: "When ye  have found them, bring
them unto me  that I may  kill them with my  own hands. If ye  do what  I have
commanded you, I will give unto each of you ten talents of gold, and  ye shall
be great in all my kingdom." And the soldiers mounted their steeds in order to
pursue the Holy Family.

Now there was a man from the Children of Israel, of the tribe of Judah and the
family of the kings, who was related  to Joseph, and  his name was Moses. When
he heard this news, he went unto Joseph with great speed and Divine  help, and
he came unto the Holy Family within three days, for he  travelled in the night
more than in the day. When Joseph saw Moses, he recognized him, and he rose up
to greet him. And Moses told him what had taken place, and  of what  Herod had
done, and how he had killed the  children of Bethlehem  and Jerusalem, and how
he had searched for the Divine Child. When the Blessed Virgin heard  all this,
she was exceedingly sorrowful and she trembled  with fear, but Jesus comforted
her, and they turned to Moses,  and Jesus said unto him:  "Thou hast come unto
us  in order that  thou mayest inform us  of   this thing. Thy  coming and thy
labour shall of a truth be rewarded, but because of  the fear which  thou hast
caused to My Mother, take hold of this stone on which I was bathed, and put it
beneath  thy head, and sleep and  rest for a little  while."  And  he took the
stone and placed it beneath his head, and turning his face toward the east, he
gave up the ghost. Joseph took his body and buried it in  this house under the
threshold, towards the interior. And  his memory survives  till this day. Thus
the spirit of Moses became a  guardian of  the house  against the intrusion of
evil spirits.

After this, the Holy Family sojourned for six months in this house. Then Jesus
said to His Mother:  "This house in which we  are shall  contain holy monks on
whom no rule in this world shall be able to inflict any injury, because it has
been a refuge to us. Any barren woman who beseecheth  Me with a pure heart and
calleth to mind this house, unto her will I give sons.  There shall, moreover,
be in this place a blessed congregation who shall remember and  bless My Name,
and pray unto  Me  at   all times,  and  so gain  strength  against  all their
adversaries.   Those women in travail  who shall  be mindful of  Me and of the
labour which thou didst endure  with Me,  their prayers will I hear,  and they
shall be relieved."

This holy place, blessed on account of the Holy Family's presence  in  it, was
dedicated   to  the  Blessed Virgin  and  is known  as   the Dair al-Muharraq.
Pilgrimages to this  church have been made  by multitudes of  people  from all
districts of  Egypt from  ancient times to  the present  day, by reason of the
signs and wonders which have been manifested here.

Abu al-Makarim states that  the Holy Family stayed  in a  chamber on the upper
story of the church, which is  reached by mounting  a flight of steps. In this
chamber there is a window which was opened by the breath of Jesus, for  it was
not opened by the hand of man nor by any tool.

According to tradition,  the   Church    of the  Blessed Virgin at    the Dair
al-Muharraq was the first  church  built in Egypt,  and the monks believe that
this church was built immediately after St.  Mark's arrival in Egypt, sometime
about 60 A D. The present church may be  assigned to the twelfth or thirteenth
century. It lies about 1.20 metres below the present ground-level of the inner
court of the monastery, and it is used for the daily celebration of the Divine

The   Dair al-Muharraq   belongs to that   group  of  monasteries  which  were
established by  St. Pachomius or Anba Bakhum  as he is   called in Arabic (349
A.D.) or by his immediate successors. Of its sixteen hundred years  of history
almost nothing is known, except for the fact that  four patriarchs of  the See
of Alexandria came from  there. Since  the  nineteenth century, this monastery
has been known for its wealth and the charitable work  which it performs among
the peasants of the Nile Valley.

An oral tradition in Assiut asserts  that the  most  southern place visited by
the Holy Family in Egypt was ten kilometers south-west  of Assiut, the ancient
Lycopolis or wolf-town. To this  day,  about 80,000 pilgrims assemble annually
at the foot of Istabl 'Antar (Antar's stable), a mountain range rising west of
Assiut, to commemorate and celebrate the stay of  the Holy Family in the large
rock-tombs of the Ninth to the Twelfth Dynasty.

The  fact that the above  mentioned site has  had  a  long Christian tradition
cannot be denied, since Maqrizi lists  numerous monasteries and churches which
were situated here.  In times of persecution,  pious believers took  refuge in
the caves of this ancient  necropolis to live a  life of penitence  apart from
the  world.  One  of these,  John   of  Lycopolis   (fourth century), bore the
reputation  of a saint  and even  a prophet. Yet the  oral tradition, which is
upheld  by hundreds of   thousands of Copts  and   which  is supported by Anba
Mikhail, Bishop of  Assiut, that  a first century  church  was   built here in
commemoration of the stay of the Holy Family, cannot be verified.

The Church of the Blessed Virgin at Dair al-Adhra was built by Anba Mikhail in
1955. The church  is   situated east of   the cave  in which the  Holy  Family
supposedly rested. The episcopal residence  is  situated  north of the church,
and the present building activities lead one to believe that this annual feast
which is held between  August 7th  and August 22nd  will eventually become the
largest Christian "mulid" in Egypt.

From Assiut, so the oral tradition continues, the  Holy Family returned to the
site of the present Dair al-Muharraq.


                  The Return of the Holy Family to Palestine

And it came to pass that during their sojourn at the place where there  is now
the Dair  al-Muharraq, while   Joseph was sleeping, the   Angel  of   the Lord
appeared unto him in a dream and said: "Arise and take the young child and his
mother, and go into  the  land of Israel, for they  are dead which  sought the
young child's life." (Matthew 2:20). Obeying the voice of  the angel, the Holy
Family thereupon  retumed to alestine. Having left  Cusae, they  came again to
the town of Hermopolis  Magna  (al-Ashmunain), and we  read in the   Vision of
Theophilus, that its inhabitants received  them with great joy and jubilation.
The present   village of al-Ashmunain   is  situated near the famous  city  of
Khmunu, which was the chief place of worship of Tut, the god of writing and of
science. Furthermore, it was also the capital of the Hare-Nome of Upper Egypt.
Fr. Claude  Sicard,  who  visited this town  in 1716,   wrote to the  Count of
Toulouse that it contained the remains of a large number of palaces, of marble
and granite columns,  all  of which  pointed to its  former splendour.  Recent
excavations at the "Great City of  Hermes" as carried  out by Dr.  Sami Gabra,
substantiate that the site  of Hermopolis Magna was one  of the most important
cities in ancient Egyptian history.

A local oral tradition in the village of  Dair al-Barsha, on the east  bank of
the Nile opposite to Mallawi, states that  the Holy Family visited the village
and stayed for some time in a cave nearby. The Magharat al-Adhra, the  Cave of
the  Holy  Virgin, is  situated   in  the   mountains east of Dair  al-Barsha.
Normally, the cave  is  locked  with an  iron  door, and  those  interested in
visiting it ought  to obtain the  key from the  Coptic  priest either  in Dair
al-Barsha  or  in Dair Abu  Hinnis. On  the east wall of  the cave, there is a
painting on  plaster showing the Holy  Virgin seated on a chair  and knitting.
Moreover there is a carpenter's bench and a  plane, objects which according to
tradition were used by St. Joseph. Every year, on the occasion of the Feast of
St. Bishoi on July 15th,  people visit the cave in  commemoration of the visit
and stay of the Holy Family in Dair al-Barsha.

There is good reason to believe that the Holy Family returned to  Palestine by
the same  way they had  come.   According to the Coptic  Synaxarium,  on their
return the Holy Family  lodged in a cave which  today  is situated beneath the
Church of St. Sergius (Abu Sargah) in Old Cairo, the ancient Babylon of Egypt.
Supposedly this church was built during the patriarchate of John II (505- 516

It is quite likely that the Holy Family stayed for some time at Babylon, where
since  the  days of the   Exile (597-538 B.C.)  Jews had    lived. The present
Synagogue of Abraham Ben Ezra (ca. 1150 A.D.), the former Coptic Church of St.
Michael, was built  on the site  of an ancient synagogue where,   according to
Jewish tradition, Jeremiah had preached. No  doubt the  Holy Family would have
been attracted to stay with their countrymen, especially since they  had lived
for three   years  in  an environment  which,   culturally speaking, must have
appeared to them so alien. An oral tradition states that  Joseph met with some
members of his  family at Babylon who  persuaded  him to spend  some time with

Babylon, according to Strabo, was a strong fortress, and  as  mentioned above,
one of the three legions stationed in Egypt was  encamped there. A mountainous
ridge extended from the encampment as far as the Nile. At this ridge, the Holy
Family must have seen the wheels and screws by which water was raised from the
river. One hundred and fifty prisoners were employed in the  operation of this
aqueduct. It should be remembered, however, that since the construction of the
fortress, the Nile has changed its course, which means that the Nile flows now
some four hundred meters farther west than it did back then. The present ruins
of Babylon near the Coptic Museum in Old  Cairo, however,  are the  remains of
second-century fortifications. Trajan (98-117  A.D.)  had  replaced the  older
encampment which was situated on higher ground in order to obtain better water
supply and river communication.

The tradition of their visit to Babylon is well attested  by the Synaxaria and
the reports of the pilgrims. When the pilgrim of Placentia, known as Antoninus
Martyr (560-570 A.D.) passed through Egypt, he saw at Memphis  (sic) a temple,
which is now a church, a door of which had closed of its own accord before our
Lord when He was there with the Blessed  Virgin, and  it could  not be opened.
"There he saw a linen cloth, upon which was a portrait of the Saviour, Who, as
the people said, wiped His face upon  it, and  His image  remained there. This
image is  adored  at certain times,  and  we adored  it, but   because  of its
brightness we   were  not  able to look   fixedly  upon it,  because  the more
earnestly you fix your  gaze upon it,  the more it changes  before your eyes."
The fact that our pilgrim speaks of  Memphis  does not necessarily exclude the
probability that  his report really refers  to Babylon,  for it  is well known
that Arab writers  often transferred the  name of Memphis to Misr  al-Kadimah.
They imagined,  indeed,  that the  city of Memphis   had occupied  the site of
Babylon.   Furthermore,   Alfred  Butler  points   out that at   the   time of
Diocletian, the city names of Memphis and Babylon were used interchangeably.

For the mediaeval pilgrims to the Holy Land, the Cave of the Holy Family was a
site which was included in their itineraries.  John Poloner (1421) went out of
his way to visit the underground chapel, where he  saw a  cross which had been
made over the place where the Babe  had slept.  At  the time of his visit, the
church was  called the Church of Our  Lady  of Cana  in Babylon.   Felix Fabri
(1483) refers to the church which was dedicated to  the  Blessed Virgin, where
they took out their processionals and made  a  tour of the  building, visiting
the crypt, and noticing near the altar in the upper church  a great deep hole,
like a  big tomb, full of  water, from which they were  told Joseph drew water
for  washing the  Divine  Child. That Western  Christians also  accepted  this
tradition  is  confirmed by  the fact  that until  the eighteenth century  the
Franciscan Friars used to celebrate the Holy Mass on the altar in the crypt.

The crypt is situated beneath the centre of the choir and part of  the central
sanctuary of the Church of St. Sergius. It is entered  by two  stairways which
lead down from the northern and southern sanctuaries. During the inundation of
the Nile, this crypt is flooded for about two months. By its contact with this
sacred spot  this water is considered holy,  and is much resorted   to  by the

From Babylon the Holy Family continued their way northwards, stopping again at
On, near the site of the present village of  Matariyah.  Here they bathed, and
the well  was blessed thereby.  Today  Matariyah is  a   townlet which  can be
reached from Cairo by bus or train. The sycamore tree stands in a small garden
enclosed by  a wall on  the right-hand  side of the  main  street coming  from
Cairo, just before the Catholic Church of Our Lady of Matariyah.

The next place which the Holy Family is said to have  visited  on their return
to  Palestine was al-Mahammah, or  the place of bathing.  In  ancient times, a
temple with many idols  stood  there, which however collapsed  and  broke into
pieces when the Holy Family came near. According  to  the Coptic Synaxarium, a
source of water commemorates the place where the Holy Family bathed.

We should  remember  that  the  practice of  frequent  lustrations, partial or
entire, was enjoined  on all  Jews  by the Law, while on  the other hand,  the
Graeco-Roman habit of  bathing the entire  body must have penetrated  far down
through the  social strata of  the day. This would  explain, at least  to some
extent, the emphasis laid upon  springs and wells  as  stopping-places for the
Holy Family.

In the Church of the  Blessed Virgin at Musturud, about  three kilometres west
of Matariyah, on the western bank  of  the Ismailiyah Canal,  there is to this
day a well which was blessed by the Holy  Family.  The well is situated in the
north-east corner of the church, east of the cave, where the Holy Family found
shelter. Stairs from the  east and  the  west lead down to  the cave  to which
thousands of people come  for the annual  fair ("mulid") which is held between
August 7th and 22nd.

From al-Mahammah,  the next halting-place of the  Holy Family was Leontopolis,
known  today as the  ruins  of Tell al-Yehudiyah and referred  to in old Roman
maps  as Vicus Judaeorum.  An   oral tradition of  the  Christians  of  Shibin
al-Kanatir (two kilometres north-west of the  ancient Leontopolis) states that
the Holy Family visited their countrymen who  had settled around the Temple of
Onias. The high priest Onias IV went to Egypt in 154  B.C. to seek aid against
the tyranny of the  Seleucids at the  court of  the  Ptolemies who were  their
political enemies. With the permission of Ptolemy IV  (Philometer) he built at
Leontopolis a temple which, though comparatively small, was modeled on that of
Jerusalem. This town  was so   important  that     after the destruction    of
Heliopolis, it became the capital of the Nome of Heliopolis.

Onias doubtless expected that after the desecration of the Temple in Jerusalem
by Antiochus  Epiphanes (170 B.C.), the  Egyptian temple would  be regarded as
the only legitimate one, but the traditional teachings of Judaism as contained
in the Mishnah concede only quasi-legitimate status to the temple of Onias, in
fact even for the Egyptian Jews the latter did not possess the same importance
as did the  Temple   in  Jerusalem.  Today  most  of  the ruins are  buried in

From Tell al-Yehudiyah, the Holy Family returned to Palestine the way they had
come  to Egypt,  passing through  Bilbais, the  Wadi  Tumilat,  the isthmus at
al-Oantara, and then  traveling on the caravan-route from   Egypt to Palestine
along the Mediterranean coast. According to a local tradition, the Holy Family
rested for several  days near Gaza. In a  garden between the  Gabal Muntar and
Gaza, the Christians of Gaza point out the place where the Holy  Family stayed
on their return.

Generally speaking,   the Holy Family  would   have stayed with   people whose
acquaintance they had  made during their  travels in Egypt, except, of course,
where they chose to journey by a different route.   The writings of St. Thomas
records   that the three-year-old  Jesus joined  one day some   boys  who were
playing. He took a dried fish and put it into a basin and commanded it to move
to and fro, and it began to move. Then He said to the fish: "Cast out the salt
which is in thee  and go into the water,  and it  came to pass."  But when the
neighbours saw  what was  done, they told  it to  the widow in whose house His
Mother dwelt. And she,  when she heard  it, hastened and  cast them out of her

When the Holy  Family entered Palestine,  Joseph  heard "that  Archaelaus  did
reign in Judaea in the room of his father Herod, he  was afraid to go thither,
notwithstanding, being warned of  God in a dream,   he  turned aside  into the
parts of Galilee, and  he  came and dwelt  in a city  called Nazareth, that it
might  be fulfilled which was spoken  by the  prophets,  He  shall be called a
Nazarene."  (Matthew 2:22-23).