The Sources of Egypt's Traditions Related to The Flight of the Holy Family

The Sources of Egypt's Traditions Related to

The Flight of the Holy Family

by Jimmy Dunn

A Combination of Religions as the Island of Philae, with a church set up in the Temple of Isis

In Egypt today, there are certain "Hot Topics" related to tourism. Anyone who is an observer of Egyptian tourism may recognize this. Examples include the new library complex in Alexandria , that has received considerable attention and is one of several reasons that this ancient city is seeing a revival in the tourist trade. We also see a big push in nature travel, with the introduction of " protected area ", basically National Parks that have been established mostly since the early 1990s. One very important development that has received considerable attention both by the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and the Coptic Christian Church is the Route of the Holy Family through Egypt. Much cultural and tourism development efforts have been put into this project, which opens up new tourist destination in Egypt. Yet at the same time, many Christian sites on the Route are also convenient to more ancient antiquities , so one need not limit oneself to only Christian monuments when taking this type of tour.

We have devoted considerable efforts at documenting many of these Christian monuments, including churches and monasteries , as well as providing an overview of the Route of the Holy Family. Yet, how did the traditions surrounding the flight of the Holy Family actually develop? Many of our readers will be familiar with the basic accounts, but perhaps not with the local customs within Egypt related to this journey.

A modern Egyptian icon of the Flight of the Holy Family

At first, the western mind may wonder how the Egyptians, over the past two thousand years, could possibly know where and what the Holy Family did while they were in Egypt. There are, of course, few hard documents to provide this information. However, one must understand certain aspects of the ancient Egyptians to comprehend their traditions surrounding the events of the Holy Family's journey.

Modern archaeology really began in Egypt, but the Egyptians were always great historians themselves. They have always had a special place in their hearts, even in the most ancient of times, for their heritage. Thus, for example, while the New Kingdom priests may have lacked complete knowledge of who exactly was buried at one of their oldest necropolises at Abydos , several thousand years after the most ancient Egyptian Kings were buried there, the Egyptians still knew that it was a place of great antiquity, and they honored this site as the resting place of Osiris , one of their high gods. Throughout ancient Egyptian history, these people remained highly aware of their own ancient past, and the ground upon which it was built. Hence, there should be some acceptance of the events that took place, and the regions that the Holy Family visited while in Egypt.

There is a special place in the hearts of the faithful Christians of Egypt for the traditions connected with the flight of the Holy Family. For literally centuries, the journey has been celebrated in their liturgy. And while they have built churches and monasteries over many sites they believe were visited by the family, historians still seek the sources of these traditions.

Of course, the earliest Christian sources for the journey of the Holy Family in Egypt is the New Testament Gospel of Matthew. Matthew provides us with a genealogy of Jesus (1:1-17) and a record of his birth in Bethlehem during the reign of King Herod (1:18 - 2:12). He then documents the Holy Family's flight into Egypt:

"Now after the wise men had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." Then Joseph got up, took he child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, 'Out of Egypt I have called my son.' When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 'A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.' When Herod died, an angle of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 'Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child's life are dead.' Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel (2:13 - 21)."

A Nineteenth Century icon of the Flight of the Holy Family from the Church of Abu Sarga in Old Cairo

One element of Matthew's account is its emphasis on geography. There is considerable mention of place names, such as Bethlehem, Egypt, the land of Israel, but little mention is made of the places (or for that matter, the period of time spent in Egypt) that were actually visited by the Holy Family within Egypt. Hence, there developed local traditions that were first oral, and then written, concerned with the events surrounding the Holy Family's journey in different Egyptian towns. From these traditions, the contemporary Coptic church has attempted to reconstruct their actual route.

Another indirect biblical reference are various interpretations of Isaiah 19:1 as a prophecy of the Holy Family's flight in Egypt. By the fifth century, writers had begun citing Isaiah to support local traditions about where the Holy Family traveled while in Egypt, as well as the wonders that Jesus performed in those locales.

Outside of biblical references, the flight of the Holy Family in Egypt may also be found in the writings of Hippolytus of Rome. He was a theologian, as well as a biblical commentator during the early third century, and was active as a church leader. Expanding on the theme of the Holy Family in Egypt in his Commentary on Matthew, he writes, "Concerning 'the days which will be cut short' (Matt. 24:22 because of the anger of the Antichrist - so the length of time of the Antichrist is three years and [six] months, for as long a time as Christ remained in his flight in Egypt."

Hippolytus does not get the time frame of thee and one half years from Matthew, so where does his information originate? In Revelation, the reference to three and a half years is mentioned twice, and he may have had this in mind. However, he may have been aware of early local traditions within the Christian church in Egypt just over a mere 200 years after the death of Christ. He may have even studied in Alexandria. Regardless, to this day in the Coptic Church, three and a half years remains the traditional duration that the Egyptian family is believed to have traveled in Egypt.

However, even earlier references to the story of Jesus in Egypt may be found outside of the Bible. In fact, the story was a source of controversy for the early Christians in their debates with both pagans and Jews. As early as the second century, less then two hundred years after the death of Christ, Celsus, a Greek philosopher, literally accused Jesus of "having worked for hire in Egypt on account of his poverty, and having experimented there with some magical powers, in which the Egyptians take great pride." Later Jewish writers expanded upon this theme, claiming that Jesus brought forth "witchcraft from Egypt by means of scratches upon his flesh" and that he "practiced magic and led Israel astray." The association of Egyptians with the magical arts was a pervasive cultural stereotype even in ancient times, and the accusations of magic were a common way of disparaging an opponent.

These arguments drew lively responses from such early Christian writers as Origen who was the head of the famous theological school in Alexandria. He wrote a treatise "Against Celsus" in the early third century, defending the Christian teachings. However, the primary value of Origen as well as the earlier writers including those critical of Egypt is their knowledge at such an early date, outside Christian circles, of the Holy Family's journey to Egypt.

Local Tradition

The colossal Corinthian columns of the basilica of Hermopolis

Hermopolis Thoth . It remained an important religious center into the Christian era, evidenced by archaeological finds including the remains of Christian churches built literally within the ancient pagan temple, along with a monastery dedicated to Saint Severus and at least seven other churches. It was also the first Egyptian city to be associated with the Flight of the Holy Family. In fact, one Coptic scholar has referred to it as the "place of origin" (Ursprungsort) for local traditions about the Holy Family's travels in Egypt.

In " A History of the Monks in Egypt ", who's author is questionable but which has served as an invaluable source for the study of early Egyptian monasticism and pilgrimage, we are told the story of seven pilgrims who traveled to Egypt from Palestine in order to visit the holy sites. When they stopped in Hermopolis, the author records: We beheld also another holy man named Apollos in the Thebaid , within the limits of Hermopolis, to which the Savior along with Mary and Joseph came fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah: 'Behold the Lord is sitting on a light cloud and is coming to Egypt. The idols of Egypt will be shaken by his presence and will fall on the ground.' For there we see the temple where, after the Savior had entered the city, all the idols fell on the ground upon their faces."

We really do not know which temple exactly they refer to, but it is clear that local tradition already connected Hermopolis with the flight of the Holy Family. For pilgrims in this early period of Christianity, the Isaiah's prophecy was clearly fulfilled by the ruins of an ancient temple and it was visible proof the the Holy Family's visit.

However, this account helps reveal how the Holy Family traditions helped the church "Christianize" the Egyptian landscape by connecting ancient pharaonic sites with biblical stories.

Another source of the Holy Family tradition in Hermopolis was a work composed by the Christian historian Sozomen in the middle of the 5th century. His "History" covered events during the years 325 to 425, providing more information about local sites in Hermopolis. In chapter five, he records:

"At Hermopolis, int he Thebaid, is a tree called Persis of which the branches, the leaves and the least portion of the bark are said to heal diseases, when touched by the sick; for it is related by the Egyptians that when Joseph fled with Christ and Mary, the holy mother of God, from the wrath of Herod, they went to Hermpolois; when entering at the gate, this, this largest tree, as if not enduring the advent of Christ, inclined to the ground and worshiped him."

Hence, in the fifth century, pilgrims visiting Hermopolis could witness not only ruined pagan temples, but also an ancient tree whose limbs still bent down to the ground in honor of the Holy Family.

Hermopolis really became fairly well known, as the tradition was confirmed and developed in later ancient and medieval sources, including monastic biographies, Coptic maryrdom accounts, non-canonical gospels about Jesus' childhood, church histories, sermons and other liturgical writings. They attempted to reaffirm the Hermopolis tradition, often by identifying famous Egyptian church leaders as authoritative sources. For example, a biographer of the famous Egyptian monk, Shenoute, relates how Christ appeared to the monk while he was traversing a mountain in Upper Egypt. During this vision, Shenoute comes across the unburied corpse of a man who had lived in the first century AD. Christ then raises the corpse, and the corpse tells Shenoute his life story. He recounts how he had heard about the Holy Family's visit to Egypt:

"The news had been spread abroad and came south to us by those passing through [the area] that a woman had entered the city of Shmoun [the Coptic name for ancient Hermopolis] with a little boy in her arms."

Hence, even in late antiquity, reports about miraculous visions experienced by famous figures were commonly used by writers to bolster the authority of existing local traditions.

The Spread of Traditions

An old picture showing pilgrims sitting beside the Tree of the Holy Virgin at Matariya

The existence of folklore not initially attached to specific sites is significant for our understanding of how the Holy Family tradition spread and developed in Egypt. In one tradition about the Holy Family actually recorded in the Quran, Islam's holy book, when Mary is about to give birth to Jesus, she withdraws to a "far place" where she rests against "the trunk of a palm tree." There, a voice cries out to her:

"Grieve not! Thy Lord has placed a rivulet beneath thee. And shake the trunk of the palm tree toward thee, thou wilt cause ripe dates to fall upon thee. So eat and drink and be consoled...".

Stories such as this may have had an effect since any place in Egypt where there was a fruit bearing palm was, at least potentially, a site where the Holy Family may have rested. In fact, today there are a number of sites connected with the flight to Egypt where sacred trees and holy springs are featured as local 'relics' of the Holy Family's visit.

From Hermopolis, the traditions related to the Holy Family's flight spread to other areas of Egypt. By the twelfth century, as more oral legends were being written down long after the Islamic conquest of Egypt, Coptic writers began to draw up quasi-official itineraries where the family was thought to have stayed during their flight into Egypt. The sources for these legends fall into four categories: homilies that can be attributed to prominent Egyptian bishops; historical-geographical works on the church in Egypt; liturgical documents such as lists of saints' days and psalter readings; and infancy gospels. However, there are many pitfalls in the complexity of these sources.

Often, the author, or even the date of the source may not be known. Also, the itineraries very frequently presented different places even when one compares different manuscripts of the same work. One reason for this was that later scribes who tried to update the older sources sometimes added new sites to their lists. In fact, these itineraries really kept evolving as local traditions were assimilated.

A modern Egyptian icon of the Holy Family traveling on the Nile

Deir al-Muharraq . After Hermopolis, it was one of the first sites to develop an extensive local tradition related to the Holy Family. In fact, in medieval sources, this area is recognized as the southernmost stop on the Holy Family's journey into Egypt.

The primary source for this tradition is the "Vision of Theophilus", a homily that is believed to have been credited by Alexandrian patriarch Theophilus. It describes a vision he had of the Virgin Mary while staying as a guest at Deir al-Muharraq, though it was later composed by his successor, Cyril of Alexandria. Actually, scholars believe that neither may have actually been responsible for this work. It was in fact probably composed by a later Coptic Bishop.

Some Conclusions

Almost all Christians believe that, as the New Testament indicates, the Holy Family traveled to Egypt. Provided that Jesus did not arrive on a "light cloud" but rather by more conventional transport, they probably traveled along the Mediterranean coast into Egypt. Of course, at this time, Alexandria was very Roman, so they may likely have traveled along the Nile down south. Perhaps, like with the three wise men, their passage was noted by the local population and some oral traditions are founded in reality. Others may not be, though many locales are marked by churches of great antiquity where, even if the Holy Family did not trod there, are nevertheless holy. They are the places of martyrdom, where early leaders spread the word of this great religion, sometimes even when it meant their death. They are the monasteries of the earliest Christian monks, as well as the places where one may reflect upon the grand edicts that separated the Eastern and Western Christian churches.






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