Very good John, now take it away and I will interrupt if needed
Ok, so before going to the story, I would like to highlight some important historical facts that is important to keep in mind as you listen
First, The Coptic church takes a great pride in the fact that Jesus took refuge in Egypt and even until today, the landscape is filled with pilgrimage sites where supposedly the holy family
From a historical point of view, there is a few written historical sources that attest to any of the sites so it is mostly based on oral tradition with new sites added as recent as in the last century
The earliest, and perhaps most important of these sources is a manuscript named, the Vision the Theophilus which is presented as a work written by Pope Cyril in the 5th century retelling a vision in which his predecessor Pope Theophillius experienced in upper Egypt, in what is now a large Monastery given the name “El-Muhrraq”
But based on analyses of the multiple manuscripts that survived, historians see the work as written between the 11th and 15th century in Arabic and attributed to Cyril and Theophilius for added legitimacy
Now, I would like to emphasize that the oral tradition could have extended prior to the written one, it’s just we don’t have any written evidence prior to the vision of Theophilius
Additionally, I would like to highlight the important role that pilgrimage sites served in Byzantine Egypt and later Islamic Egypt
First, they served as commercial hubs where a local community can meet and celebrate various local traditions
Secondly, they also stimulated trade and became valuable financial resource for struggling monastic communities under Islamic rule
Would you say that they could have been used to Christianize pagan sites as well?
It is hard to tell, we have several accounts of Christianizing pagan sites by building a church or a monastery, but nothing concrete one way or another when it comes to the Holy family sites
Anyway, to give you a brief biblical background, shortly before Jesus was born, Augustus issued a decree that all men should return to their hometown for a census which led to St. Joseph and St. Mary to go to Bethlehem where Jesus was born.
The story then goes on and Herod finds out through the wise men and decides to find the new born king and kill him
So, St. Joseph was warned by an angel in a dream and told to flee to Egypt. This ends the biblical account and begins our story of the Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt.
In the Coptic tradition, the group who travelled included St. Joseph, St. Mary, Jesus, and St. Mary’s cousin, named Salome.
To help the listeners, we were able to find a map that outlines some of the sites.. Now, it is important to note, that the map is just a modern outline and based on oral tradition, the map is not well sourced academically and has a lot of sites that is not mentioned in the vision of Theophilius. I have posted it on the Podcast facebook page.
The first place visited by the holy family in Egypt was Pelusium, an important city in Roman Egypt and a major seaport and on the typical caravan route from Palestine
The Holy Family entered the Nile Delta through Wadi Tumilat. They passed through Pithom, and Tum.
The Holy Family then came to the city of Basata, which is two kilometers southwest of the modern-day city Zaqaziq.
Basata is the first city in the Delta that The Holy Family stayed in.
The inhabitants of the city, however, did not accept the Holy Family, despite their discovery of a spring of water which became a source of healing for many, except for the inhabitants of Basata.
Now there was also an interesting story of two thieves mentioned in the Vision of theophilus, right, John?
Yes, but for now, they lost the family, but they will appear again in our story.
Sounds good, since we didn’t get to the 11th or 15th century yet in our Podcast, I would like to go briefly over some of the religious sentiments of the Copts during the period where the tradition was written
Egypt was increasingly being Arabized starting in the 10th century and its Muslim rulers were actively playing the various religious groups living in Egypt against each other as a policy of divide and rule
As a result of that policy, and Christian hostility toward Judaism in the wider medieval middle east, in the story of thieves we can detect both nationalistic feeling and anti-Jewish sentiments, but I will let you finish their route
Yea, I agree, it’s definitively an interest story, and we will see it shortly
The Holy Family then come to the city of Bilbais. Tradition hold, that when the Family entered this city, a funeral procession was coming out. Jesus, about 2 years old at the time, had compassion, and healed the dead man, who was the son of a widow. And because of this miracle, everyone in the city believed that he was truly the Messiah.
After this, the Holy Family came to Wadi el Natroun. When they came to Wadi el Natroun, Jesus said to St. Mary: “Know, O my Mother, that in this desert there shall live many monks, ascetics, and spiritual fighters, and they shall serve God like angels." Today, Wadi el Natroun has four monasteries, and many great saints came out of these monasteries.
Indeed, since the time of St. Anthony in the 4th century, Scetis or Wadi-El Natron has been a vital monastic center
They then proceeded to Matariya. At this place, Jesus dug a well with his divine hands, and out of that well came very sweet water. Also, at Matariya, St. Mary sat under a palm tree. Jesus commanded the palm tree to give his mother some of its fruit. It then came down low, and it gave St. Mary the fruit she wanted. Then, he told it to go back up, and give them the water that was under its roots, and then a spring appeared, and they all drank from it. This tree fell in 1906, but the spring still exists.
A while after this, the Holy Family passed by the Pyramids of Giza.
About 12 kilometers south of Cairo, in a city called Al Ma3adi, there was a synagogue which the Holy Family attended, and then they met some sailors who offered to take them South to Upper Egypt.
When the Holy Family arrived in Al-Bahnasa, a city in Upper Egypt, they took Jesus to a school. When the teacher at the school saw how smart Jesus was, he said that Jesus was given wisdom by God and that he does not need a teacher.
Al bahnsa was one of the biggest cities in Egypt. Its roman name was oxyrhynchus, it has wielded to historian a great amount of information and manuscripts. Most of the information about Roman Egypt is actually from there. Anything below it, can be consider Upper Egypt. Just to keep our listeners oriented
The Holy Family continued to the modern-day city of al-Qusiya. As Jesus entered into this city, idols fell and crashed to the ground. The priests of these idols chased them, and they fled. When they had reached a safe distance, Jesus turned around and cursed the city saying: “Let its people be in an estate lower than that of all other people, and let them be more lowly and suppressed than all the inhabitants of the land of Egypt."
After that, the two thieves from Basata appear in our story
One of thieves was an Egyptian, and the other was a Jew. Both of them came to the Holy Family and stole their clothes.
The story then goes that when the Egyptian thief saw St. Mary crying, he told the Jewish one that he did not want to leave the family in this state. However, the Jewish one disagreed.
The Egyptian one then told his fellow thief to give him his share of the robes. He did so, and the Egyptian thief gave his share back to the Holy Family. When Jesus had put his clothes back on, he said to his mother, "O Mary, the Jews will crucify me in Jerusalem. And these two brigands whom you see, 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 has returned our garments will confess to me and believe in me on the cross, and he will be the first to enter Paradise"
Interesting, so the thief that was crucified on the cross and asked to be remembered in paradise was the same one who robbed and then returned the cloth of the Holy family and he was an Egyptian
Yes, according to the Vision of Theophilius anyway, which as we already established, is an apocryphal book from medieval Egypt
So just to clarify to our listeners, the modern Coptic Church while it respects the oral traditions, as far as I can tell, doesn’t necessarily insist on its authenticity
True, for their final stop, the Holy Family came to Asyut and what is now, the monastery of St. Mary known as El Muhrraq.
They stayed there for about 6-12 months until an angel appeared in a dream to St. Joseph, saying that Herod was dead, and it was safe to return to Palestine. After which, they returned to Nazareth in Galilee
The story of the Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt is a significant and interesting story. While not necessarily historically verifiable, it is nonetheless a source of pride to the Copts and an ancient memorial of various traditions
It is also a wonderful itinerary for a trip in Egypt for someday. Thank you John for the wonderful podcast
Next week we will resume with the usual Podcast schedule, as always I am open for feedback. Farewell and until next week.
Two Thousand years of Coptic Christianity by" Otto F.A. Meinardus
The Coptic Encyclopedia by" Aziz S. Atiya (editor)
Vision of Theophilus: The Book of the Flight of the Holy Family Into Egypt by" A. Mingana (translator)