Our Lady of Mantara, Lebanon (photo: courtesy of Fr. John Elya)
Miraculous icon venerated in the Shrine (photo: courtesy of Fr. John Elya)
Holy Family’s legendary resting place (photo: CNEWA files)
Bible scenes are depicted in St. Sargius icons (photo: CNEWA files)
Far away from the troubles and turmoil of humanity the sanctuary of Saidet-el-Mantara, Our Lady of Safe Custody, rises above the Mediterranean Sea and Lebanons port city of Sidon. In the village of Maghdoushy in June of 1911, the French consul to Lebanon, a priest, a few businessmen and other pilgrims, beheld what they considered a miracle. As they entered the grotto of Mantara a picture of the Virgin appeared to be smiling at them. The phenomenon lasted a full ten minutes, reducing the visitors to amazed tears. Stories of other miracles associated with the site abound, and local people believe it was here that Mary waited for Jesus while he entered the town of Sidon.
Another location rich in tradition is St. Sargius Church in Cairo, Egypt which lies within the old Roman Fortress of Babylon, first constructed by Emperor Trajan in 98 AD. The columns of St. Sargius are designed with capitals peculiar to third or fourth century architecture suggesting that it is one of the churches built by the Romans when the Fortress was remodeled and enlarged in 395 AD under the Christian Roman Emperor Arcadius.
Beneath the choir and sanctuary, and predating the main church by centuries, is a small, dark, subterranean crypt.
Legend has it that the holy family rested in this place when they first arrived in Egypt, having fled Bethlehem because King Herod was determined to slay the child hed been told was the infant king of the Jews. The spot has been walled, protected, and kept sacred since Christianity in Egypt first began.
Both sites, Saidet-el-Mantara in Lebanon and St. Sargius in old Cairo, are replete with history, and are characterized by many legends and reports of miracles. To visit either of them is to travel back in time thousands of years.
The hill on which the sanctuary of Saidet-el-Mantara is located offers a view of the south shore of Lebanon which is magnificent. From the north of the grotto one can see the entire city of Sidon and the mountain called Barouk. Scattered over the surface of the hill are ruins which archaeologists have identified as the remains of Franche Grade, an old castle which dates back to the time of the Crusades.
Other ruins nearer to the grotto are said to be those of a sanctuary built by the ancient cult of the Canaanites. Known as traders and the originators of the alphabet, the Canaanites inhabited Palestine, lower Syria and what is now Lebanon from the Middle to the Late Bronze Age, or roughly 2000-1200 BC. In the south they became displaced by the Israelites and the Philistines, while in the north they became known as Phoenicians from the Greek word for purple because they were famous for a purple dye which they obtained from shellfish.
Sidon itself was the most ancient city of Phoenicia. From here and from Tyre, 22 miles to the south along the coast of Lebanon, Phoenician fleets set sail carrying vast amounts of timber cargo from Lebanons well-wooded slopes to the carpenters of Egypt. Today Sidon is still an important port and center of trade.
Although the origins of the legend that Mary rested at the hill overlooking Sidon while her Son visited the port are now lost in obscurity, the tradition remains very much alive. The name Mantara itself means lookout or place of waiting, and many people have claimed they were cured of various afflictions while visiting the hillside shrine.
The site itself is not vastly impressive. Amid the ruins there is a natural cavity in the hill. Curiously long and horizontal, it leads to an altar at the back which has been cut right out of the solid rock. Surrounding the altar lies a panoply of votive lamps, pictures and vases. A marble plaque dated 1949 graces the front of the altar and replaces the one donated by the French consul in 1880. A door at the left leads into an area where the mentally ill once were chained by relatives and friends in the hope for a cure. Another alcove sheltered diseased flocks brought by a shepherd who is said to have discovered the site two hundred years ago while searching for a lost lamb.
Standing outside and looking over the triply arched entrance one can see a cross which was erected in 1868 by the English consul in Sidon in gratitude for being miraculously cured of apoplexy. Four years after this event, a religious of the order of St. Joseph of the Apparation, almost blind from the disease of ophthalmia, crawled up the hill to the grotto where, cured, she left her thick glasses at the foot of the Virgins altar.
The Church of St. Sargius is named after two villagers of Al-Rasafah in Egypt who were martyred in 269 AD by the Roman Emperor Maximian, the last pagan emperor before the reign of Constantine and the Christian emperors began. When the Moslems conquered Egypt in 641 AD and the Roman militia evacuated the Fortress, local Christians turned the Church into a Coptic place of worship.
The church and its three sanctuaries are rich with marble pillars, inlaid ivory, Coptic crosses and life-sized icons.
The crypt can be reached by descending a staircase from the north and south sanctuaries. The present crypt is believed to be a replacement of an original shrine, and to date from the sixth century. Its ceiling is domed, and its nave and two wings are separated by five-foot-high marble pillars.
The south aisle contains a baptistry in which a stone basin font is set near the floor in solid masonry. In the very center of the crypt lies a white slab of inset marble which is believed to mark the site of a well from which the Holy Family drew their water during their stay.
A similar legend concerning the Holy Family survives in the tiny village of Matarieh, a few miles from St. Sargius. The village boasts a spot shaded by what is called the Virgins Tree which Coptic Christians say was also a resting place for the family in their exile. Neither legend is inconceivable, since the Holy Family stayed somewhere in Egypt, and the area of old Cairo on the Nile River was, at the time of the birth of Christ, a center of commerce and population.
Saidet-el-Mantara, St. Sargius and Matarieh represent the hundreds of Near Eastern sites richly steeped in symbolism. Torchbearers of tradition, the people of the region have passed their stories on through the years father to son and mother to daughter, and much like living oral museums, have thereby preserved the meaning and importance of nearby holy places.
Veronica Treanor, an anthropologist, is a freelance writer.