Column: The Holy Family in Egypt
Western Christians seeking sites associated with Jesus’ birth usually go to Bethlehem, where the Bible says Jesus was born. Egyptian Christians (“Coptics”) are more likely to seek out sacred sites in Egypt.
According to the “Gospel of Matthew,” after Jesus was born in Bethlehem an angel warned Joseph in a dream that King Herod was out to kill Jesus because he was destined to become the “King of the Jews.” Following the angel’s advice, Joseph took Mary and Jesus to Egypt, where they stayed until Herod was dead. The Bible does not say where they went in Egypt or how long they stayed. Coptic Christians, relying on visions and revelations, have mapped out the route of a three-year journey of the Holy Family, memorialized along the way by about 25 churches and monasteries.
According to the traditional itinerary, Joseph initially walked, leading a donkey on which Mary and Jesus rode. When they eventually reached Memphis, they boarded a felucca and sailed south on the Nile until reaching Assuit. When an angel informed Joseph that Herod had died, they headed back to Israel.
Today, the Church of the Virgin, about seven miles south of Cairo, celebrates the beginning of the Holy Family’s Nile voyage. The church, dubbed “El Adawia” (“The Ferry”), is located in the modern town of Ma’adi, a name derived from an Arabic word meaning “The Crossing Point.” Steps accessible from inside the church lead down to the spot on the Nile River where tradition says Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus stepped onto their boat. Displayed inside the church, covered in plastic, is a Bible discovered in 1976 floating in the Nile outside the church, found opened to a page in “Isaiah” mentioning Egypt. Congregants believe this miraculous find confirms their church’s proper role in remembering the Holy Family’s escape to Egypt.