Christianity came early to Egypt with St Mark and devolved into the Coptic Orthodox Church of today, which has a rich history starting with the Holy Family’s travels in Egypt.
The church suffered continued persecution particularly between 250 and 350 AD and under the emperor Diocletian, when many were martyred for refusing to change their beliefs, all which resulted in many more conversions to Christianity so when the Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity official Christians could have been in a majority. 57 egyptian saints and martyrs are listed and churches were built on many of the related sites, although many of these have in the past been ravaged by Berbers and plague which wiped out whole villages.
The Church of Rome/Constantinople eventually separated from the church in Egypt. However when Pope Shenouda 3rd visited Pope Paul XI in the Vatican in 1973, a reconciling document was signed. Subsequently 120 Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Coptic, Armenian, Syrian and Indian bishops and theologians met in 1991 and – while recognising different theological traditions – agreed that they all adhered to the same fundamental faith.
Today approximately 10% of Egyptians adhere to the Coptic faith. Visit www.Coptic.net for a more detailed history.
The flight of the Holy Family from Herod
This is a summary of events, and on most of the sites in Egypt that are mentioned there have been built churches or monasteries. The main reference is the book ‘Christianity in the land of the Pharaohs, the Coptic Orthodox Church’ by Jill Kamil (see further reading). The relevant places are also given in the book ‘The Holy Family in Egypt’ 2000 by Pope Shenouda 3rd, St Mina Monastery with the route map of the travels of the holy family; and greater detail on the Coptic Pope’s web site.
+ After entering Egypt Joseph sought shelter from the people in a village but was refused. A farmer Aqloum found the family sheltering under a tree and asked them what they were about and on being told that they were a poor jewish family he invited them in. He said that his wife Sarah was ill and couldn’t join them so Jesus called out to Sarah saying ‘you are well, rise and join us’, which she did.
+ Mary wished to see a large temple at Bastet which had in it large statues. As they all entered with Sarah who had the child in her arms the idols disintegrated into dust (see also Isaiah chap19.)
+ The authorities then wished to send the family back to Herod so they made off to Belbeis where they were made welcome. There used to be a tree there referred to as the Virgin Mary’s tree. This tree bled when Napoleon’s surprised and shocked soldiers tried to cut it down for firewood (more than 200 years ago). The mosque of Osman el Haress now stands at the site, built in commemoration of the original visit.
+ A sacred sycamore tree in Pharonic times, the tree of the Virgin at Mataria (Heliopolis) opened its trunk to allow the holy family to escape from brigands. Its leaves are said to have healing properties.
+ The Abu Serga church, Hanging church and Greek Orthodox church of St George in the roman fortress city of Babylon (OC) are all said to have been built over a spot or cave where the holy family sheltered.
+ At Maadi, the holy family visited several Jewish families and the site of the Church of the Holy Virgin is where they hired a boat to escape south. It is said that they purchased it with some of the wise men’s gifts.
+ The Church of the Lady of the Palm, Gebel el Tair (just north of Minya) is the site of a cave where the family sheltered. When a rock threatened to fall on their boat, Jesus stretched out his hand to prevent it.
+ At Oxyrhynchus (just south of Beni Suef on W side) local Sheikhs (in quoting the Koran) say that Jesus and his mother stayed there high up in a good bit of ground. He attended a school there and when asked to recite the alphabet, did not but instead explained the meaning behind every letter…..alef stands for the good deeds of God…..da for his glory…..geem for his splendour … ka is the word of God that will never change…..
+ The family arrived thirsty at a village Ashneen el Nassara (further to the South West). Mary placed Jesus’ finger on the well and water rose to the surface. Water still rises for pilgrims each year which cures the sick.
+ They eventually stayed in a cave above which there is now the monastery of Deir el Muharraq (opposite side and not far from Assuit) where the Angel told Joseph to return with the family to Nazareth.
+ Sakha (north of Cairo in the delta) was probably the place where, when Mary was thirsty, Jesus placed his foot on the ground and water sprouted. In 1988 a large block of stone was found with a foot imprint, believed to have been hidden during the oppressive Mameluke regime. The Church of the Holy Virgin has now been restored there.
+ At Wadi Natroun (somewhat to the west of Cairo) there is a sweet water spring known as el Hamraa where water miraculously came to the surface when the tired Holy family arrived. Now, in the middle of a lake, it can be reached by a causeway and many pilgrims do so.
+ At el-Qusia there was once a temple. When approached the people and priests came after the holy family with sticks and drove them out of town, but they rested in a cave where some local people brought them food.
These events have been passed down by word of mouth by priests and local inhabitants and writings over the years. The sites were revealed to Theopolis, Bishop of Alexandria (384-412AD), in a vision and he then visited them and restored the churches and buildings that had been built on them. The first writings however are in Isaiah 19 and Hosea 11 v1.
For a fuller journey through Egypt following the holy family with photos visit www.copticpope.org.