Egypt

Egypt: One civilization of Harmonious Cultures

Egypt is the cradle of human civilization: a fact hardly contested among authoritative historians. But Egypt also enjoys a focal geopolitical position, connecting Africa, Asia, and Europe through the Mediterranean Sea. On its land, migrations of people, traditions, philosophies and religious beliefs succeeded each other for thousands of years. Evidence of this succession is still visible in the accumulation of monuments and sites attesting to a uniquely comprehensive cultural heritage. Indeed, one of the phenomena which shaped Egypt’s distinctive identity, and explains its pervasive influence on the then known world, was a dynamism that accommodated and re-formulated these successive cultures into one homogenous and harmonious Egyptian canvas. Egypt is one civilization woven of many strands, threaded by successive and intertwining eras; the Pharaonic, the Graeco-Roman, the Coptic Christian, and the Islamic eras.

Because the Egyptian people are the essential product of the “harmony in diversity”, “otherness” has become an integral component of their awareness, a basic constituent of their national and cultural identity. This characteristic has yielded one important result: Egypt was, and still is, the land of refuge in the widest sense of the word, a place of tolerance and dialogue for peoples, races, cultures and religions.

Fellowship will take you to the land where the events of the bible took place and other interesting places of visit in Egypt

An icon showing the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt – Coptic Museum, Old Cairo
The advent of the Holy Family to Egypt, seeking refuge, is an event of the utmost significance in Egypt’s long, long history. Moved by the spirit of prophecy, Hosea foresaw the flight from Bethlehem where there was no safe place for the Christ Child to lay His head, and the eventual return of the holy refugees from their sanctuary in Egypt, where Jesus had found a place in the hearts of the Gentiles, when He uttered God’s words:“Out of Egypt have I called My Son”. (Hosea 11:1)

In the Biblical Book of Isaiah, the prophet provides us with a divinely inspired prediction of the effect the holy Infant was to have on Egypt and the Egyptians: “Behold the Lord rides on a swift cloud, and will come into Egypt and the idols of Egypt will totter at His Presence and the heart of Egypt will melt in the midst of it”. (Isaiah 19:1) The authority of Old Testament prophecy, which portended the crumbling of idols wherever Jesus went, further foreshadowed the singular blessing to be bestowed upon Egypt, for its having been chosen as the Holy Family’s haven, and upon its people for having been the first to experience the Christ’s miraculous influence.

God’s message, also delivered through the prophetic utterance of Isaiah, “Blessed by Egypt, My People” (Isaiah 19:25), was an anticipation of the coming of St. Mark to Egypt, where the Gospel he preached took firm root in the first decades of Christianity. For Isaiah goes on to prophecy: “In that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt; and a Pillar to the Lord, at its border. And it will be for a sign and for a witness to the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt”. (Isaiah 19:19&20)

According to the traditions of the Coptic Church, ‘the altar’ mentioned is that of the Church of Virgin Mary in Al-Muharraq Monastery, a site where the Holy Family settled for a period of more than six months; and the altar-stone was the ‘bed’ upon which the Infant Saviour lay.

Church of Virgin Mary in Al-Muharraq Monastery

But the prophecy, knitting a perfect pattern of things to come, does not stop there. It continues, “Then the Lord will be known to Egypt, and the Egyptians will know the Lord in that day and will make sacrifices and offering”. (Isaiah 19:21). As Christianity in Egypt spread, churches were built throughout the length and breadth of the land, and the sites chosen were, primarily, those which had been visited and blessed by the Holy Family’s sojourns. The New Testament records the fulfillment of these Old Testament prophecies as they unfold in their historical sequence.

“Behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, take the young Child and His mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word, for Herod will seek the young Child to destroy Him”. (Matthew 2:13) Joseph complied

A donkey was fetched for the gently Mother, still so young in years, to ride with her new-born Child in Her arms. And so they set out from Bethlehem on their pre-destined journey, the hardened old carpenter, who was Mary’s betrothed, striding ahead, leading the donkey by its leash into the untracked paths of a wilderness dark as the desert nights, and unending as the months of never ending horizons.
Such an arduous journey it was, fraught with hazard every step of the way. In those far-off days, there were three routes which could be followed by travelers traversing Sinai from Palestine to Egypt, a crossing which was usually undertaken in groups, for without the protection of well-organized caravans, the ever-present dangers ““ even along these known and trodden paths ““ were ominously forbidding.

But, in their escape from the infanticidal fury of King Herod, the Holy Family ““ understandably ““ had to avoid the beaten tracks altogether, and to pursue unknown paths, guided by God and His Angel. They picked their way, day after day, through hidden valleys and across uncharted plateaus in the (then) rugged wastelands of Sinai, enduring the scorching heat of the sun by day and the bitter cold of the desert nights, preserved from the threat of wild beasts and savage tribesmen, their daily sustenance miraculously provided, the all-too-human fears of the young Mother for her Infant allayed by the faith that infused her with His birth.

And so they arrived, at last, safely, for God had pre-ordained that Egypt should be the refuge for the One who was to bring the message of peace and love to mankind.

The tortuous trails they followed in their passage across Sinai, and their subsequent travels within Egypt, are chronicled by Pope Theophilus, 23rd Patriarch of Alexandria (384-412 AD). He testifies, in his celebrated annals that on the eve of the 6th of Hathor (the Coptic month corresponding roughly with November), after long prayer, the Holy Virgin revealed herself to him and, after relating the details of the Holy Family’s journey to, in, and from Egypt, bade him record what he had seen and heard. It is a source which no Christian believer would question.

Besides, it is a virtual certainty that, at a time when happenings of a momentous or historical nature were transmitted by word of mouth from one generation to the next, the account of Pope Theophilus’ vision confirmed the oral tradition of supernatural occurrences which accompanied the arrival of a wondrous Child in the towns and villages of Egypt some 400 years earlier.

Ruins of Flousseya Church – El-Zaraniq, west of El-Arish

Ruins of Flousseya Church – El-Zaraniq, west of El-Arish

According to the sources of the Coptic Church, chief among which is the vision documented by Pope Theophilus, and recorded in the Coptic Senexarium the Holy Family proceeded from Bethlehem to Gaza, and then to El-Zaraniq (also known as Floussiat), some 37 kms west of El-Arish; then they threaded their way along northern Sinai until they reached Farma (ancient Pelusium) mid-way between El-Alish and present-day Port Said. It was their last stop in Sinai; and with the next leg of their journey they put the perils of the wilderness behind them.

Tel Basta ““ or Basta ““ which they now enter, is a short distance from Zagazig, the main town in the Sharqiah Governorate about 100 kms north-east of Cairo. Here, Jesus caused a water spring to well up from the ground, and His presence caused the idols to crumble, as foretold by the prophets of old. The townsfolk, in consequence, turned malevolent and aggressive, whereupon the Holy Family turned their backs on the town and headed southwards.

                                                                     The Holy Family at the Town of Mostorod

 

Icon of Virgin Mary

In due course, they reached Mostorod (which came to be called, in those days,

Virgin March Church – Mostorod

‘Al Mahamma’) only about 10 kms away from Cairo. ‘Al Mahamma’ means ‘the Bathing Place’, a name given to the town because the Virgin Mary bathed the Christ Child and washed his clothes. It is worthy of note that, eventually, on their way back to Palestine, the Holy Family stopped once more at Mostorod and, this time, caused a spring to gush from the earth which still flows forth to the present day.

 

 

Veil of the Sanctuary – Virgin Mary Church, Belbeis

From Mostorod, the Holy Family made their way north-eastwards to Belbeis (ancient Philippos), back in Sharqiah Governorate, and at a distance of about 55 kms from Cairo. They rested there in the shade of a tree which came to be called, “The Virgin Mary’s Tree’.

The Holy Family at Meniet Samanoud 

The Holy Family at Meniet Samanoud

According to the sources of the Coptic Church, chief among which is the vision documented by Pope Theophilus, and recorded in the Coptic Senexarium the Holy Family proceeded from Bethlehem to Gaza, and then to El-Zaraniq (also known as Floussiat), some 37 kms west of El-Arish; then they threaded their way along northern Sinai until they reached Farma (ancient Pelusium) mid-way between El-Alish and present-day Port Said. It was their last stop in Sinai; and with the next leg of their journey they put the perils of the wilderness behind them.

Having left their mark on Belbeis, the Holy Family set off in a north-westerly direction and, reaching the small township of Meniet Samannoud (known also as Meniet Genah), they crossed the Nile to the city of Samanoud (or Jemnoty) in the Delta, where the local population received them with a kindness and hospitality that earned them deserved blessing. There is in Samannoud, to this day, a large granite trough which, according to local belief, was used by the Virgin for kneading dough, and a water-well which the Christ Child Himself hallowed.

The Coptic name of the town, ‘Pekha-Issous’, (vernacularized to Lysous) means, ‘the foot of Jesus’; for the Holy Child’s foot-print was marked, here, in bas-relief on a rock. The rock was preserved, but hidden for centuries for fear of robbery, and only unearthed again 13 years ago. The natural course of the Holy Family’s journey from Samannoud to Sakha would have taken them through many of the towns and cities now lying in both the Governorates of Gharbia and Kafr El-Sheikh and, according to some folk traditions, through the Belqas wastelands as well.

Veil of Sanctuary-Virgin Mary Church-Sakha                                               

Veil of Sanctuary-Virgin Mary Church-Sakha

Their trail from Sakha, is recorded in the documentation of Pope Theophilus’ vision, and attested to by Coptic practice in the Christian era. For it was to Wadi el-Natroun (Natroun Valley) that they now came, after crossing the Rosetta branch of the Nile to the western Delta and heading south into Wadi el-Natroun (then called Al Asqeet) in the Western Desert of Egypt. In the earliest decades of Christianity, the desert expanses of Wadi el-Natroun became the site of anchoretic settlement and, later, of many monasteries, in spiritual commemoration of the Holy Family’s passage through the Valley.

 

 

 

 

St. Mary’s Tree – Matariyah, Cairo
Eventually, they left the desert behind them and made their way southwards, crossing the Nile to its eastern bank, and heading for Matariyah and Ain Shams (ancient Heliopolis, the site of the oldest ‘university’ in history called since earliest Pharaonic times, ‘On’). Both these adjacent districts are outlying suburbs of present day Cairo, only 10 kms or so from the city center. The Holy Family at Zeitoun

At the time of the Holy Family’s arrival there, Ain Shams was home to a large Jewish community, who had erected a temple the Synagogue of Unias, – for their worship. In Matariyah, a tree still stands to this day, still regularly visited, called “Mary’s Tree”, for the Family is believed to have rested in its shade. Here, too, the Infant Jesus caused water to flow from a spring, from which He drank and blessed, and in which the Virgin washed His clothes. She poured the washing water on to the ground, and from that spot, the fragrant balsam plant
blossomed: besides the healing and pain-soothing properties of this balm, its essence is used in the preparation of the scents and perfumes of which the holy Chrism is composed.

Virgin Mary Church – Zeitoun
Setting out next towards Old Cairo, the Holy Family rested for a while in Zeitoun, on their way; then proceeded along a course which traverses what are now crowded, bustling quarters of Cairo, within which the serene landmarks of an earlier Coptic heritage still stand, marking the paths the Holy Family followed. A listing of these landmarks, at this point, may be of pertinent interest.

The area now called Old Cairo, known as Misr El Kadima, is among the most important locations visited by the Holy Family where the spiritual impact of their presence is most felt still; though their stay was brief, for the Governor of what was then Fustat ““ enraged by the tumbling down of idols at Jesus’ approach ““ sought to kill the Child. But they took shelter from his wrath in a cave above which, in later years, the Church of Abu Serga (St Sergious) was built. This, and the whole area of the Fort of Babylon, is a destination of pilgrimage not only for the Egyptians but for Christians from around the world. An air of piety and devotion pervades the whole district Here, too, it is useful to list the sites which visitors to the Fortress of Babylon section of Old Cairo take in:

An icon of St. Demiana – Virgin Mary Church – Maadi
After their short, but all-too-felt, stay in Old Cairo, the Holy Family moved in a southerly direction, reaching the modern Cairo suburb of Maadi which, in earliest Pharaonic times, was an outlying district of Memphis, the capital of Egypt then; and, at Maadi, they boarded a sailing-boat which carried them up the Nile towards southern Egypt.

The historic church built upon the spot from which they embarked, also dedicated to the Virgin, is further identified by the denominative, ‘Al-Adaweya’, the Virgin’s Church ‘of the Ferry’. (In fact, the name of that now modern suburb, Maadi, derives from the Arabic word which means ‘the Crossing Point’).

Once more crossing the Nile, back to its west bank, the Holy Family traveled southwards to the town of Al-Ashmounein or Hermopolis Magna ““ but it seems that they did not tarry long there. Leaving behind them the rubble of fallen idols, they continued still in a southerly direction, for another 20 kms or so to Dairout Al-Sharif (which, like Al-Ashmounein, had an alternative Greek name: Philes); and thence to Qussqam (or Qost-Qoussia). Here, too, the recorded events testify that the townsfolk were infuriated when the stone statue of their local deity cracked and fell, and evicted the Holy Family from the town.

A historically recorded incident dating to that period refers to the devastation of Qussqam, and Coptic tradition asserts that the ruin that befell the town was the consequence of its violent rejection of the gentle visitors.
Egypt has an entirely different story in the warm welcome with which the holy refugees were met at their next stop at Meir (or Meira) only 7 kms west of Qoussia. Here, they found only consideration and hospitality wherever they went, for which treatment the town and its people were signally blessed.

The Holy Family at Mount Qussqam

The Holy Family at Mount Qussqam

Now it was time for the Holy Family to set out for what is, arguably, the most meaningful destination of all in the land of Egypt, the place where there would be “an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt”. Gabal (Mount) Qussqam, which takes its name from the town nearby that was laid waste, is 327 kms south of Cairo, and stand in the Governorate of Assiut. The Monastery of Al-Muharraq nestles against the western foothills of the Mountain. It was built around the area where the Holy Family remained just over six months. Their time was spent mainly in a cave which became, in the Coptic era, the altar of the Church of Virgin Mary, built at the western end of the Monastery compound. The altar stone was the resting place of the Child Jesus during the months He dwelt there.

 

 

The Oldest altar-stone in history – Monastery of Al-Muharraq, Assuit 

Monastery of Al-Muharraq, Assuit

The whole area ““ the Monastery and its surroundings ““ is redolent of the Coptic Christian ethos. So hallowed are its intimations, that the Copts of Egypt named it the Second Bethlehem. It was here, at the very spot where Al-Muharraq Monastery stands, that the Angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph 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&21)

 

 

 

An icon at the Virgin Mary Monastery – Gabal Dronka
And so they set forth on the return journey. The route they took deviated slightly from the one by which they had come. It took them to Mount Dronka, 8 kms south-west of the city of Assiut, and their blessing of this location was commemorated in the Christian era by the building of the mountain-top Monastery of Dronka. Eventually, they arrived at Old Cairo, then Matariyah, and on to Mahamma, retracing more or less their steps on their outward journey across Sinai to Palestine.

Virgin Mary Monastery – Gabal (Mount) Dronka.
Subsequent Biblical history says it all: at the end, they arrived home, Joseph’s old house, in the small town of Nazareth, in Galilee, in the land of Palestine, from where the message of Christ would, in the fullness of time, be heard. The whole journey, from the initial flight from Bethlehem to the return to Nazareth lasted over three years.
They had covered something like 2000 kms; their means of transport a weak beast of burden and the occasional sailboat on the Nile. But for much of the way, the delicate Mother and the rugged old Carpenter must have trudged on foot, enduring the fierce summer heat and the biting winter’s cold, suffering the pangs of hunger and the parching affliction of thirst “¦ like hunted outlaws. It was a journey of indescribable agony and anguish which the Child Jesus, His Virgin Mother and the Sainted Joseph bore with inner joy, and survived, for the sake of mankind.

 

The Holy Family’s Journey in the Land of Egypt

On the 24th day of the Coptic month of Bashans, which corresponds to the 1st of June, the Coptic Church celebrates the entry of the Lord Jesus Christ into the land of Egypt. On that day, the churches throughout the length and breadth of the land that gave the Holy Family shelter resound with the words of the Doxology: “Rejoice, Oh Egypt; Oh, people of Egypt and all ye Children of Egypt who live within its borders, rejoice and lift up your hearts, for the Lover of all mankind, He who has been before the beginning of ages, has come to you”.

Egypt could be said to have seven different tourist super-sites. Each has its own flavor, and mostly each serves a different purpose. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, most of these tourist areas do not depend on ancient monuments to sustain them. In fact, only Luxor is completely dependent on this trade. These SEVEN super-sites consist of:

Alexandria and the immediate area around the City.

The City of Alexandria
It could in fact be argued that this area extends to Marsa Matruh to the west on the coast. The area has a Mediterranean feel about it, and the attraction is the Mediterranean Sea, and to the people of Cairo, a somewhat cooler climate.

The second largest city in Egypt, Alexandria, known as “The Pearl of the Mediterranean”, has an atmosphere that is more Mediterranean than Middle Eastern ; its ambience and cultural heritage distance it from the rest of the country although it is actually only 225 km. from Cairo
Founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BC, Alexandria became the capital of Graeco-Roman Egypt, its status as a beacon of culture symbolized by Pharos, the legendary lighthouse that was one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The setting for the stormy relationship between Cleopatra and Mark Antony, Alexandria was also the center of learning in the ancient world. But ancient Alexandria declined, and when Napoleon landed, he found a sparsely populated fishing village. From the 19th century Alexandria took a new role, as a focus for Egypt’s commercial and maritime expansion. This Alexandria has been immortalized by writers such as E-M- Forster and Cavafy. Generations of immigrants from Greece, Italy and the Levant settled here and made the city synonymous with commerce, cosmopolitanism and bohemian culture. Alexandria is a city to explore at random. It’s as important to enjoy the atmosphere as it is to see the sights.

Cairo and the immediate area around the City.

Cairo has everything. Cairo has great hotels, entertainment, restaurants, all manner of monuments from throughout the history of Egypt and it is often the entry point for most people visiting Egypt. It even has bowling allies and several golf courses to chose from the Triumphant City, known officially as al-qhirah is one of the world’s largest urban areas and offers many sites to see. It is the administrative capital of Egypt and, close by, is almost every Egypt Pyramid, such as the Great Pyramids of Giza on the very edge of the city.

But there are also ancient temples, tombs, Christian churches, magnificent Muslim monuments, and of course, the Egyptian Antiquities Museum all either within or nearby the city.Cairo, Egypt is an amazing city full of life and movement, and it is that way almost 24 hours every day, with the noisy honking of horns, children playing in the streets and merchants selling their wears and services. And here, the Egyptians are most at home in this powerful, modern and ancient city Cairo, Egypt provides great culture, including art galleries and music halls, such as the Cairo Opera House, as well it should, being one of the largest cities in the world. It also provides some of the grandest accommodations and restaurants in the world, such as the Four Seasons and the Cairo Marriott.

Cairo offers an incredible selection of shopping, leisure and nightlife activities. Shopping ranges from the famous Khan el-Khalili souk, (or bazaar) largely unchanged since the 14th century, to modern air-conditioned centers displaying the latest fashions. All the bounty of the East can be here. Particularly good buys are spices, perfumes, gold, silver, carpets, brass and copperware, leatherwork, glass, ceramics and mashrabiya. Try some of the famous street markets, like Wekala al-Balaq, for fabrics, including Egyptian cotton, the Tentmakers Bazaar for appliqué-work, Mohammed Ali Street for musical instruments and, although you probably won’t want to buy, the Camel Market makes a fascinating trip. This is, and has been for over a thousand years, truly a shopper’s paradise.

THE GREAT PYRAMIDS
There are no more famous ancient sites within Egypt, or for that matter elsewhere in the world, than the Great Pyramids at Giza. They are, without question, the icon most associated with the Egypt. They have been both the main destination for tourists, and a source of imaginative thought to the world for over three thousand years.

However, there are actually over 100 pyramids in Egypt, many of which are relatively unknown to anyone who is not an ancient Egypt enthusiast. All but a very few are grouped around and near the City of Cairo, just south of the Nile Delta. Otherwise, only one royal pyramid is known in southern Egypt (at Abydos), that being the one built by Ahmose, founder of the 18th Dynasty and Egypt’s New Kingdom.It may have also been the last royal pyramid built in Egypt.

There are no more famous ancient sites within Egypt, or for that matter elsewhere in the world, than the Great Pyramids at Giza. They are, without question, the icon most associated with the Egypt. They have been both the main destination for tourists, and a source of imaginative thought to the world for over three thousand years.

However, there are actually over 100 pyramids in Egypt, many of which are relatively unknown to anyone who is not an ancient Egypt enthusiast. All but a very few are grouped around and near the City of Cairo, just south of the Nile Delta. Otherwise, only one royal pyramid is known in southern Egypt (at Abydos), that being the one built by Ahmose, founder of the 18th Dynasty and Egypt’s New Kingdom.It may have also been the last royal pyramid built in Egypt.

Luxor, and the surrounding area. Luxor is a living museum with vast numbers of ancient Egyptian monuments. It is also highly oriented to tourists, and might be thought of in the same regard as a theme park, where the attractions just happen to be real monuments.

Aswan and the surrounding area. Aswan is probably the least of the super-site tourist areas, buthas great hotels, along with the huge Lake Nasser just to the south.

Hurghada and the surrounding area, particularly El Gouna. Not to far apart are El Gouna, Hurghada and Safaga, and these areas contain just about everything a tourist would like to have, with the exception of ancient monuments. They make up for that with every variety of water sports, several golf courses, casinos and more. The Red Sea area has less of an Egyptian feel, but not as European as the Sinai.

Sharm El Sheikh, and the surrounding area including Sharks Bay.
This is the Sinai super-site, again with most everything any tourist might wish. There are even some wonderful Christian monuments nearby, and the water sports, as at Hurghada, are all inclusive. The simplicity of sun, sea and sand. The luxury of five-star hotels, water sports, shopping and entertainment. This is Sharm el-Sheikh, one of the most accessible and developed tourist resort communities on the Sinai peninsula.

All around are Bedouins, colorful tents, mountains and sea. There are small, intimate hotels with modern designs, as well as larger hotel complexes belonging to International chains, plus about all the amenities one could expect of a tourist center, including casinos, discos and nightclubs, golf courses and health facilities. In fact, with diving and snorkeling, windsurfing and other water sports, horses and camel riding, desert safaris, and great nearby antiquities attractions, it is almost impossible for a visitor to ever suffer from boredom. Four miles south the southern section of the town stands on a cliff overlooking the port. and is a great view. Na’ama Beach is one of the center of the tourist activities. Located just north of Sharm, this area is developing into a resort town of its own. Most hotels at Na’ama Bay have their own, private beaches with comfortable amenities such as chairs, shades and even bars. Shark’s Bay is also nearby, and again is a growing resort community with more and more to offer, along with several diving centers. The small harbor known as Sharm el-Moiya is located next to the civil harbor, has accommodations for boats, and includes a Yacht Club with rooms. For those who live to shop, the Sharm El-Sheikh mall provides shops with both foreign and local products, including jewelry, leather goods, clothing, pottery and books. It has been said that this is a must visit for all diving enthusiasts. There are many diving sites along the 10 mile beach between Sharm el-Sheikh and Ras Nusrani.
This is not to say that there are many more tourist destinations, particularly on the Red Sea and in Sinai, and on Egypt’s mainland interior, the oases. However, in much of the rest of the mainland interior, travel and destinations are limited. However, the tourist super-sites encompass perhaps ninety-five percent of the ancient monuments, and most else there is to do in Egypt.