A Coptic Orthodox priest at prayer. (photo: Paul Souders)
The Virgin’s Well, Heliopolis. (photo: Jeanne Conte)
There exist in Egypt several wonderful tales of the Holy Family that remain unknown throughout much of the world, legends about Mary, Joseph and the Christ child that have been recited from generation to generation. They are held close to the hearts of Egyptians Christians and Muslims alike because they are of the very soul of the people who believe fervently that the Holy Family visited their homeland nearly 2,000 years ago.
These narratives sketch the path of the family as they fled the forces of Herod for security in Egypt:
the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you. Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him. Joseph rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed for Egypt. He stayed there until the death of Herod, that what the Lord had said through the prophet might be fulfilled, Out of Egypt I called my son.
Today in the Cairo area three such tales prevail; anyone who hears them is touched by their simplicity and sensitivity.
In Heliopolis, once an ancient seat of learning and now a suburb of modern Cairo (Moses is believed to have been educated there), a shrine marks the spot of the Virgin Tree and Well. According to the story, the Virgin Mary rested under a tree. Afterwards, she washed her sons clothes in the nearby well. As she pulled them out of the water, droplets fell onto the desert sand below. The droplets sprouted into balsam trees.
For centuries pilgrims have spoken of this miraculous balsam grove that surrounds the ancient well. Some stories even credit Jesus for creating the running water.
Today this hallowed site is shielded from the noise and grime of the city by a protective wall. The shrines caretakers are gentle people whose simple way of life resembles the way of life of their first century predecessors.
A second legend relates how the Holy Family traveled to the town of Babylon, which later became the site of a Roman fortress, and still later the core of Cairo. After months on the run, Joseph sought refuge for his wife and son in a stone cave. The cool cavern promised relief from the scorching sun and shelter from the blowing sand. Tradition claims the Holy Family lived in this cave for several months.
In the seventh century a church dedicated to the Egyptian monk Sergius was rebuilt over the cave an earlier Roman built church had been damaged during the Arab invasion in 641 A.D. Today one may look down a series of steps inside the ancient Coptic church to see the seeping waters of the Nile.
Our third tale recounts how they stopped for a night at a temple beside the Nile in the town of Maadi. According to the legend, Jesus told his mother a shrine would be built and that it would bear her name forever. Today the Monastery of the Holy Virgin stands on the sacred spot.
From inside the ancient church, a stairwell descends to the river where the local people are certain the Holy Family embarked as they left the town for the security of Upper Egypt. Each year a pageant commemorates this event. A boat, bearing a leader of the church, departs from this site for a sail along the Nile.
Later in the first century, long after Christ commissioned his disciples, Mark the Evangelist brought the Gospel to the land of the Copts Coptic is derived from the Greek word Aigyptios, meaning Egyptian. A disciple of Peter and Paul and the author of the Gospel, Mark established the first patriarchal see in Alexandria, which in its day was second in importance only to Rome. It is commonly believed that Mark was martyred in 63 A.D. His remains rest in Cairos modern Cathedral of St. Mark.
These are just a few of the tales of the Holy Family remembered in modern Egypt. These narratives are proudly preserved by Copts and Muslims treasures of the spirit in a treasure-filled land.
Jeanne Conte is a freelance photojournalist based in Columbus, Ohio.