44Christian Sites of Egypt
- Feb 3, 2004Christian Sites of Egypt
writer: Jacky Tuinstra
EGYPT TODAY MAGAZINE
Follow the trail meandering throughout the cradle of Christian civilization
Whether you're a pilgrim looking to drink from holy water or an art buff
with interest in iconography, Egypt, the cradle of Christendom, has an
extensive index of Christian sites, all within weekend (or long-weekend)
travel distance of Cairo.
Keep in mind when you are planning your trip that not all churches and
monasteries have guesthouses. In many cases, you will need permission to
stay overnight, so arrange these details beforehand. Geographically,
Christian sites are located around the Delta and the Sinai, in Cairo itself
and in Upper Egypt.
Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus are believed to have stayed in Egypt for
four years after an angel told Joseph to flee to Egypt, fulfilling an Old
Testament prophecy. The locations the holy family visited are said to have
been revealed in a dream to the Coptic Patriarch Theophilus, around 500 AD.
These holy family sites often revolve around wells or places where visions
have appeared and are the scene of lively mulids. But these mulids are not
always accessible to foreigners. You might be able to check out the mulid of
Mar Girgus (St. George), near Luxor. It takes place in November and has some
spectacular horse performances and lots of music.
Because water was so important to Egyptian life, many of the sites you can
visit revolve around wells blessed by or miraculously created by the child
Jesus. Several of these wells have been polluted, so ask before you drink.
Starting in Upper Egypt, at Ishin Al-Nasara near Wadi Rayan (see page 105)
pilgrims await the rising of the well water on August 21. Travel about 10 km
west to Dayr Al-Garnus and the pilgrimage site of the Church of the Holy
Water, which in addition to be being blessed with another well, has a 16th
century iconostasis and an intricate liturgical book. Expectant mothers and
those suffering from a variety of sicknesses, both Muslim and Christian,
come to the well at Bir Al-Sahaba, south of Beni Hassan, said to have been
divinely created during the holy family's visit there.
Back in the Delta, the town of Samannud, near Mansoura, is famous for the
relics of a 3rd century child martyr, but the church there also has a
blessed well in its courtyard, from which water is pumped and purified so
you can drink it. There is also a bowl where the Virgin Mary is said to have
baked her bread.
Besides the wells, places where the Virgin Mary is believed to have appeared
in visions command a lot of attention. In Assiut, the holy family embarked
on a journey by boat. Today, Assiut is receiving renewed attention after a
mysterious light was photographed there. But of more interest may be the
convent at Dayr Durunka, 9 km south of Assiut - in August, the moulid of the
Virgin attracts thousands of visitors, drawn after she was said to have made
repeated appearances there. Stay at the rest house outside the main gate for
about LE 5, but bring your own food.
To really, really walk in the footprints of Jesus in the most literal way,
go to Sakha in the Delta. It is well-known for the 1984 "discovery" of the
footprint of Jesus, now preserved in a glass case.
There are even holy sites in Cairo: The Virgin Mary is said to have appeared
and performed miracles in Zeitun at the Church of the Holy Virgin for many
weeks in 1968.
In Matariya, enjoy the shade of the Tree of the Holy Virgin, where, after
Jesus had been bathed in a well of his own creation, his bathwater brought
forth a fragment balsam plant. This tree is used today for the process of
preparing holy oil, which has, since antiquity, involved adding a little old
oil to the new, so that the blessings are passed on from apostolic times to
the present day.
In Klot Bek, near Downtown, the Cathedral and Monastery of St. Mark have
another well blessed by the holy family, as does a church in Musturud, which
also has an inspiring collection of icons.
If you're planning to walk in the steps of the Holy family, pick up The Holy
Family in Egypt, or Be Thou There: The Holy Family's Journey in Egypt, both
available at AUC.
The Art of Faith
Coptic art and architecture have a unique style that offers a glimpse into
that short blip of history where the ancient Egyptian religion crossed over
with the Coptic Christian era. Without ever leaving Cairo, you can check out
quite a few examples of Coptic icons, illustrated manuscripts and beautiful
The Catholic Holy Family Church at Matariya has some excellent paintings of
the angel appearing to Joseph and instructing him to flee with his family to
Egypt. A great place to buy pictures of saints is near the Church of the
Holy Virgin at Harit Zuweila, near Al-Muski. A popular trading district, its
narrow streets make an interesting shopping expedition. Stop in the church
to see some intricate iconography or have your illnesses "cured" at the
The Franciscan monastery close to Harit Zuwayla has a sizable library. Comb
through a selection of books, encyclopedias and manuscripts related to
Christianity in the East, or check out the delicately decorated Bibles.
Art buffs should not miss the Coptic Museum. Jump off the Metro at Mar
Girgis to see ancient Coptic scriptures, remains from excavations,
manuscripts, ancient icons, crosses and mosaics.
It is believed the Holy Family stayed in Coptic Cairo as well, so there are
several other points of interest in the area. A huge, ornamented door is
hinged inside the Convent of St. George and you can ask to be wrapped in
chains to receive a blessing. A short walk down Mar Girgis St. brings you to
the Hanging Church, with its beautiful collection of restored ancient icons
and an old iconostasis inlaid with ivory and ebony.
Mosaic lovers should visit the Church of the Holy Virgin in Maadi, where the
Holy Family is said to have departed in a boat for Upper Egypt.
If Upper Egypt is on your vacation itinerary, make a stop at the Christian
village of Dayr Abu Hinnis, near Mallawi. Here there are many 6th century
caves used by hermits and a rock-cut church. The church has the oldest
murals in the world depicting the flight into Egypt, including paintings of
the angel's visit to Joseph and of King Herod. In June, a procession through
the village commemorates the Holy Family's crossing into Egypt. The bishop
of Mallawi crosses the Nile in a boat decorated with paintings of the Holy
Family. Travel just a few kilometers south to Dayr Al-Barsha to see more
paintings and a variety of crosses at the Church of St. Bishoy.
In the Delta, the monastery of the Holy Virgin of Al-Muharraq marks the
place where the Holy Family stayed the longest. It also where Jesus appeared
after the resurrection. Inside the monastery is the first-century Church of
the Holy Virgin, surely one of the oldest in the world. Notice the 18th and
19th century icons.
The monastic craze
There are two kinds of monasticism, both developed in Egypt: eremitic, which
entails a life of complete solitude, and cenobitic, which is the more
common, communal life. Egypt has the distinction of being the birthplace of
Christian monasticism, which spread like fire to the rest of Christendom.
Many monasteries that once flourished are now in ruin, but you can still
visit some of the functioning ones.
In the Sinai, the Coptic monasteries of St. Anthony and St. Paul are the
oldest the world. Located in the cliffs of Gebel Al-Galala Al-Qibliya, they
are accessible from Zaafarana. They're open to visitors during the day and
you can hike between the two, but you need a guide and a superfit body. You
can stay overnight at St. Paul's, but need permission from its residence in
Cairo (tel: (02) 590-0218, 26 Al-Keneesa Al-Morcosia). There is a guesthouse
for men inside and one for women outside. St. Paul was known as the first
Christian hermit, but it is St. Anthony who is credited for founding
monasticism, and the monastery that bears his name was built in the 4th
century. It houses a collection of old crosses and manuscripts, as well as
some impressive wall paintings. The nearby cave of St. Anthony is worth the
No visit to the Sinai would be complete without trekking up Mount Sinai. Hop
on a bus or flag down a service taxi from Nuweiba, Dahab or Taba. There is a
chapel at the top which houses some excellent paintings, as well as a
mosque, but it is now kept locked. St. Catherine's Greek Orthodox monastery
below has a collection of icons and jeweled crosses. It is also possible to
Wadi Natrun, 100 km northwest of Cairo, is where 4th century Christians came
to escape Roman persecution. Of the 60 monasteries, only 4 remain. The
Coptic pope is still chosen from among the Wadi Natrun monks. Deir Anba
Bishoi monastery contains St. Bishoi's preserved body. Each year in July,
the tube containing the body is carried in procession. You need permission
to stay overnight and women are generally not permitted.
In the Nile Valley, near Sohag, the White and Red monasteries are an
interesting day trip. The White Monastery was built in 400 AD with chunks of
white limestone from a Pharaonic temple. It once had 2000 monks, but now has
four. The Red Monastery has a 1000-year old icon and some interesting
For help organizing it all, check out www.holyfamilytravel.com. Churches
often arrange pilgrimages and can help you find a Cairo residence for any
monasteries you need permission to visit.