Recently, Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism & Antiquity has launched the Holy Family Trail, stringing together some 25 stops along the celebrated route of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
The approach to Egypt’s Church of the Blessed Virgin atop Jabal al-Tayr (the Mountain of Birds), roughly 250km south of Cairo, once involved a perilous, vertical climb up a cliff rising straight from the Nile followed by a series of steep, rock-hewn steps. The handful of explorers to scale the mountain were intrigued by its mystical history. For centuries, the location – its current custodians explained to me – has produced untold miracles, even down to this day.
My recent approach to the church was much smoother – in an air-conditioned car along a well-surfaced road. Heading south along the Nile’s east bank past a chiselled, white landscape of quarries dating back to the pharaohs, Coptic Christian graves began to appear as I came closer to Jabal al-Tayr’s sacred core: a cave underneath the church. It’s here that the Holy Family – Jesus, Mary and Joseph – is thought to have rested after fleeing Bethlehem to escape King Herod’s wrath.
As recorded in the Bible’s Gospel of Matthew, the king had decreed the death of all Bethlehem’s baby boys, but an angel had appeared to Joseph in a dream, telling him to “take the young child and his mother and flee into Egypt”. According to Matthew, the trio obeyed this instruction and departed the very next night.
According to Coptic Christian tradition, based on alleged holy visions and local lore, the family would spend the next three-and-a-half years on the move, from Bethlehem to Egypt’s Nile Delta then tracing the river as far south as Upper Egypt. Marked with many dozens of miracles, their momentous, round-trip journey racked up more than 3,000km.
When I arrived at the Church of the Blessed Virgin, it was ringed by a small iron fence like a prized museum display and its walls were freshly plastered.
Hoping to bolster “spiritual tourism” and spotlight the country’s Christian claim to fame, Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism & Antiquity has launched the Holy Family Trail, which maps out some 25 stops along the celebrated route and comprises some of the country’s oldest houses of worship, of which the Church of the Blessed Virgin – and the sacred cave it was built to contain – is just one. In partnership with the various dioceses and other foundations – it has also been attempting to renovate these holy sites, enhancing them with landscaping, lighting and signage; improving the access roads; and developing accommodations along the route.
With some changes substantial and others merely cosmetic, the Ministry’s vision is far from complete. Nevertheless, word of the Holy Family Trail is trickling out. In October 2022, I set out to trace its southward route, starting from the Nile Delta, to Cairo, and then finally into Upper Egypt where the Church of the Blessed Virgin is located.
The Nile Delta
After following Egypt’s Mediterranean coast from the city of Rafah to the classical port of Pelusium, the Holy Family’s route cuts south towards Cairo through the ancient city of Bubastis. Here, according to Coptic Christian lore, the baby Jesus’ arrival caused the temples’ foundations to shake, echoing what Isaiah prophesised in the Old Testament when he said, “The idols of Egypt will tremble at his presence.”
When fleeing from the locals’ fury, Jesus then caused a spring to burst forth to quench the trio’s thirst. A well believed to have been built on the site of the spring is now ringed with a fence to keep pilgrims from drinking its water.
The family received a warmer welcome on the outskirts of modern Cairo in Mostorod, a town now swallowed by the city’s sprawl. I stopped at the 12th-Century church that was built to enclose al-Mahamah (the place of bathing), another well from which the family is thought to have drunk and washed. It was encircled by worshippers, some writing prayerful notes to be stuffed into a nearby sacred grotto.
The route then swerves to the north before crossing the westernmost fork of the Nile. I caught up with the family’s trail on the fringes of the desert in Wadi El Natrun, a valley where Jesus called forth yet another miraculous spring. Beginning in the early 4th Century, thousands of aspiring hermits would settle along its length. At three of the four surviving monasteries, renovations are now complete, including the careful uncovering of Al-Sourian monastery’s stunning medieval frescoes of Jesus’ life.
After fanning the Delta, the trail circles back to the outskirts of Cairo at Shagaret Maryam (Mary’s Tree), a twisted old sycamore said to have offered the Holy Family shade. Entering the complex containing the tree, I found another well from which the family is thought to have drunk, freshly coated in plaster, just steps from an inaugural plaque that was installed within the last week. Further along, the old trunk stood propped by supports beside a low picket fence erected to guard against pilgrims’ temptation to peel its bark or pluck its leaves as souvenirs.
In historical Coptic Cairo, I walked around the corner from Roman Babylon’s Hanging Church to the 4th-Century Church of Abu Serga, built over the family’s next major stop. The church encloses a sacred cave, which is thought to be among the family’s longest-serving places of rest and is among the trail’s holiest stations. The site is neatly labelled in Arabic and English for the crowds that bottleneck at the narrow set of stairs leading down to the crypt where the family resided for three months.
The family’s last Cairo stop was in today’s leafy suburban district of Maadi. Here, they are thought to have used the same steps that connect the Church of the Virgin Mary to the Nile, where they boarded a papyrus boat and sailed toward the ancient city of Memphis and Al-Bahnasa, the latter the site of another future monastic hub. When I stopped by the church, the old steps were barred by a locked iron gate, and a police boat docked nearby. Inside, along with icons of the Holy Family, is a glass-encased relic from a much later date: a water-worn Bible plucked from the Nile near the sacred steps in 1976, its pages miraculously open to Isaiah 19:25: “Blessed be Egypt my people… “
Hours later, I was speeding to the south on a train from Cairo’s Ramses Station, unaware that from here on out I wouldn’t be travelling alone.
At the junction of Lower and Upper Egypt, the Holy Family finally reached Jabal al-Tayr and the Church of the Blessed Virgin. Security concerns and long closures in the surrounding region have seen it scrubbed from the map since the 1990s, with tourists most often whisked past it on trains between Luxor and Cairo. Now open for a decade, this stretch of the Nile south of Cairo has been dubbed a key focus area for those developing the Holy Family Trail, with hopes that its slew of historical churches will add to the allure of its magnificent but little-visited temples and tombs.
Upon stepping off the train, it was clear that old security concerns have yet to fully fade. In line with the protocol for all foreign guests, police would insist on keeping me company for the remainder of the route through the governorates of Minya and Asyut.
Just steps from the new Holy Family Hotel, I slipped off my shoes to enter the Church of the Blessed Virgin, where the enormous, rough-hewn pillars of the nave appeared quite a bit older than the basilica-style church. From somewhere behind the church’s iconostasis (the ornate wooden screen separating the church’s sanctuary from its nave) came the sharp buzz of sandblasters, a cloud of fine dust seeping through the small cracks and rising to the ceiling. Renovations here, it appeared, were not quite complete.
Beneath the last stretch of scaffolding still to be taken down, I sat on a stone bench in the corner, watching the ebb and flow of pilgrims as they entered the church in noisy bursts, most having just stepped off tour buses parked in the new lot outside. When passing the altar, almost everyone paused to touch or kiss the curtain draped over its doorway, the haze of dust that now filled the nave only adding to the sanctuary’s spirit of mystery. Before leaving, almost everyone bowed at the tiny cave where Jesus and Mary took shelter.
I peered into the tiny cave myself, less adorned than expected and even smaller than most I’d yet seen. At the back stood an icon of Mary and Jesus propped on a small wooden stand; beside it was a large metal padlocked box with a slot for pilgrims to submit their offerings.
From this humble setting, the chief engineer on the site would explain, a great many “miracles” have occurred over the years – from healings and heavenly visions to the answering of all manner of appeals: for pregnancies, promotions or even the curbing of nagging doubts that miracles indeed occur at all.
After leaving the cave at Jabal al-Tayr, the Holy Family crossed the Nile and continued southward. They eventually reached ancient Hermopolis, now a vast field of rubble encircled by the scruffy town of Al-Ashmonein. Jesus’ miracles here, including the toppling of more temples, are described in the oldest surviving text on the family’s flight, A History of the Monks in Egypt, an anonymous account of the 4th-Century travels of trailblazing pilgrims.
Hugging the desert’s edge, the family soon arrived at the slopes of Mount Qusqam, their most hallowed stop. It was here that at last an angel told Joseph that Herod was dead and that it was safe to return North. The holy ground here is encircled by a fortress-like monastery known as Al-Muharraq. Considered a “Second Bethlehem” by Coptic Christians, the site is believed to have hosted the family for six months, far longer than any other stop on the route.
Past the monastery’s giant gates, a monk led me straight to Al-Muharraq’s oldest church. Inside, he pointed at a patch of the carpet beside the iconostasis and explained that a miraculous well from which Jesus once drank had stood on this spot. “We usually say that it ran out of water, but in truth it was buried”, purportedly to stop its flow of miracles. Such miracles, however, the monk went on, continue to occur to this day.
At the turn of the 5th Century, it was here at Al-Muharraq that Theophilus, Alexandria’s 23rd pope, first fleshed out an actual route, which he claimed to have received from the Virgin Mary in a vision. Over the centuries, further stops were added based on miraculous accounts. About 50km to the south, the Monastery of Saint Mary at Drunka is now widely considered the route’s final stop and is listed as such on the Ministry’s map of the route.
For the drive to Drunka, I tagged along with the required police detachment. The monastery complex here was the largest I’d seen along the entire route, stretching up a mountain near the city of Asyut with plenty of new construction underway. Speaking excitedly of various modern-day miracles, a young nun led the way to Drunka’s sacred caves, explaining that one had housed Joseph and the other the Virgin Mary and Jesus. She explained, while pointing into Joseph’s cave, that in 1986 the Virgin appeared right here “to confirm to us the truth” of the Coptic Christian tradition’s claims.
Like the line between chronicled history and myth, the exactness of the route is certainly murky. Even the Ministry’s announcements have varied regarding the stops, their number and even their order, reflecting the challenge of dealing with multiple accounts from so many centuries past.
One thing that’s for certain is that the Holy Family’s story continues to intrigue and inspire. And now, the sacred sites that dot their celebrated route are easier to visit, thanks in part to broad-based efforts to develop the Holy Family Trail. As for whether the Ministry’s vision will be fulfilled, that remains to be seen: the trail has yet to lure the desired busloads of visitors from abroad. In Egypt, however, the efforts have bolstered local pride, illuminating one of the country’s oldest, most cherished traditions – one that viscerally links the “miracles” of scripture to the Nile.