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A FACELIFT FOR EGYPT'S SACRED SITES.

With violent conflict raging in Jerusalem and the Occupied Territories, Christian pilgrims are looking for alternative pilgrimages. Egypt, with a wealth of spiritual sites important to followers of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, has not been slow to latch on to the new potential for religious tourism.

The nation-wide restoration of historic monuments in Egypt shows the tolerant face of Islam, in marked contrast to the destruction by the Taliban of the fourth-century Buddhist statues in Afghanistan. Far from erasing its past, Egypt considers its ancient Pharoanic and Graeco-Roman heritage, along with its more recent Christian legacy, to be an integral part of its national identity within a Muslim state.

Restorations which are constant and ongoing across the country are currently focused on the places associated with the travels of the Christian Holy Family in Egypt when Jesus was a boy.

These sacred sites have to date received little publicity compared to the attractions of Giza or Luxor, but the Egyptian National Tourist Office -- arguably with an eye on the tourist dollar -- has begun promoting them to the potentially huge market of Christians world-wide. And with the deteriorating political situation dissuading pilgrims from visiting sites in the Holy Land, the timing could not be better.

The Holy Family spent almost three years in Egypt after fleeing Roman persecution in Palestine. Travelling by donkey and on foot, they followed an apparently aimless route leading out of Sinai to Zagazig, and meandering north-west to Wadi Latrun, then south to Misr Al Kadima (Old Cairo).

From the now leafy southern suburb of Maadi, they caught a boat to Memphis, the ancient Pharoanic capital, travelling down the Nile Valley to Minya before turning around at Dirunka and retracing their steps north again via Deir Al-Muharraq in Middle Egypt.

Wherever they stayed, whether just overnight or for several months, is greatly venerated by Coptic Christians -- the Virgin Mary Church at Dirunka near Assiut is visited by more than a million pilgrims a year.

As Christianity spread, so churches were built throughout the length and breadth of Egypt in places blessed by the Holy Family's sojourns. Most are in ruins. Of the ancient churches at Farma on the route across Sinai, only scattered stones remain.

Meanwhile, other churches, their wooden beams ravaged by insects, walls hoary from centuries of burning candles, are being saved in the costly restoration project undertaken by the Ministry of Culture in association with the Department of Antiquities.

Occasionally works fall short of aspirations, as in the case of recent protestations by Father Marcos Aziz of the Hanging Church in Cairo, but the long-term plan remains: to revive the route taken by the Holy Family and to give prominence to sacred sites along the way.

Wadi Natrun, where the Holy Family are believed to have stayed after crossing the Nile at Rosetta, is the most accessible site for visitors being only 95 kilometres from Cairo.

Following in their foorsteps, thousands of Christians, also escaping persecution, hid in caves in the long, dry valley, before venturing out to build great fortress monasteries, deir in Arabic, to protect them against Bedouin attack.

Of the former hundreds, four monasteries remain, of which the Coptic Christian Monastery of Baramus and the Syrian Suriani Monastery remain in good repair.

Early icons featuring the 12 apostles are a highlight of Harat Zuweila in the Muski quarter of Cairo, one of Egypt's most engaging churches, but hardly known to anyone except Coptic Christians and locals.

Dating from the fourth century and now situated below street level, that Harat Zuweila has survived at all is something of a miracle. The original church was built over a spring -- one of many said to have been struck by Jesus in Egypt -- which until recently flowed along the aisle of the church.

Rising damp, subsidence and ants devouring its priceless teak and ivory iconastasis have all been tackled in the restoration project led by icon restorer Sami Girgis. When works are complete, an admission charge along the lines of London's Westminster Abbey is being considered to help with maintenance, but like other churches -- if not all the mosques -- at present entrance is free.

The area known popularly as the `Coptic Quarter' is an oasis of calm in the maelstrom of Cairo, its cluster of ancient churches having a spiritual impact remarked on by Muslims as well as Christians.

In the crypt of the Church of Saint Sergius -- whose site, also below street level, indicates its great age, is a cave where the Holy Family is believed to have stayed. Columns in Abu Serga, as the church is known in Arabic, are crowned with Corinthian capitals and support a women's gallery, similar to the nearby Ben Ezra Synagogue, which was restored on donations from Jews living abroad and works carried out by the Egyptian government.

The 11th-century Church of Saint Barbara, reached along the same quiet passageway, is another dark little church below ground level, but to enter the celebrated Hanging Church (so called because it is built between the twin towers of a Roman fortress) you have to climb a staircase up, rather than down.

From Cairo the Holy Family travelled to Maadi where they boarded a felucca which carried them down the Nile towards Middle Egypt. A curious triple-domed church on the site is known as Al Adaweya -- the Virgin Mary Church `of the ferry crossing'.

On display in the sanctuary is a Holy Bible of unknown provenance found floating in the Nile in 1976. Water-logged, but undamaged, it was discovered to be open at the book of Isaiah chapter 19, verse 25 reading: Blessed be Egypt, my People. The date of its discovery -- 12 March -- is now the occasion of a major Christian pilgrimage.

Whenever you look out over a town in Middle Egypt you will see, along with the minarets, the domes of churches topped by Coptic crosses, as well as many bell-towers of Protestant and Roman Catholic places of worship, a testament to centuries of religious tolerance in Egypt.

Assiut, a five-hour train journey south of Cairo and the farthest point on the route followed by the Holy Family, made news in August 2000 with a reputed sighting of the Virgin above St Mark's Coptic Church.

Father Zakka Labib of St Mark's was honest enough to say he had not seen the apparition himself, but thousands of other people claimed they had. If I climbed onto the roof of a particular shop on Thursday evening, I would see her myself, I was told by an excited 10-year-old girl.

While this event temporarily captured the limelight, Assiut is best known for the Monastery of the Virgin on Mount Dirunka, above a vast cavern where the Holy Family supposedly stayed. Built in the fourth century, it is now surrounded by scores of modern hospices to accommodate pilgrims who bring their children here for baptism. On 21 August last year, 4,800 children were baptised at multiple fonts inside the cave.

From Dirunka the Holy Family headed north again to Deir Al Muharraq, a big monastic complex in the desert, midway between Assiut and Minya.

A Hebrew inscription on a slab of rock records the visit, the longest halt -- six months -- of their wanderings in Egypt. Following a passage from Isaiah: "There will be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the Land of Egypt" a church was built over the cave which had provided them shelter.

Dating from the first century AD, the Church of the Holy Virgin Mary at Deir Al Muharraq is also undergoing extensive restorations in the government's drive to preserve its national heritage. Minya, a peaceful market town on the Nile, is perhaps best known for its remarkable Muslim necropolis, but here too are several sacred Christian sites -- a tree where Jesus is said to have knelt in prayer and early rock churches.

Overlooking the Nile flowing past hundreds of feet below, Jabal El-Tair, (Bird Mountain) has a special spiritual quality and from this point, having covered some 2,000 kilometres, the Holy Family worked their way back to Palestine.

Every year on 1 June, the Coptic Church celebrates their historic journey, which, now that Middle Egypt is considered safe once again can and undoubtedly will be retraced by other Christians.
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Author:Osborne, Christine
Publication:The Middle East
Geographic Code:7EGYP
Date:May 1, 2001
Words:1375
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