Egypt is the cradle of human civilization: A fact hardly contested among authoritative historians. Egypt also enjoys a focal geo-political position. Connecting Africa, Asia and Europe through the Mediterranean Sea. On its land, migrations of people, traditions, philosophies and religious beliefs succeeded each other for thousands of years. Evidence of this succession is still visible in the accumulation of monuments and sites attesting to a uniquely comprehensive cultural heritage. Indeed, one of the phenomena which shaped Egypt’s distinctive identity, and explains its pervasive influence on the then known world, was a dynamism that accommodated and re-formulated these successive cultures into one homogenous and harmonious Egyptian canvas. Egypt is one civilization woven of many strands. Threaded by successive and intertwining eras; and of these. The most luminous are, without doubt, the Pharaonic, the Graeco-Roman, The Coptic Christian, and the Islamic eras.
Because the Egyptian people are the essential product of this “harmony in diversity”, “otherness” has become an integral component of their awareness. A basic constituent of their national and cultural identity. This characteristic has yielded one important result: Egypt was, and still is, the land of refuge in the widest sense of the word.
A place of tolerance and dialogue for peoples, races, cultures and religions.
On this land of Egypt, the first voice of proclaiming the oneness of god rang out in the 14th century B.C. through Akhnaton’s Monotheistic creed. Moses and Jesus lived in the same land. Later, Islam entered without conflict.
The advent of the Holy Family to Egypt, seeking refuge, is an event of the utmost significance in our dear country’s long, long history.
Moved by the spirit of prophecy, Hosea foresaw the flight from Bethlehem where there was no safe return of the holy refugees from their sanctuary in Egypt, where Jesus had found a place in the hearts of the Gentiles, when he uttered God’s words:
“Out of Egypt have I called my son”. (HOSEA 11:1).
In the biblical book of Isaiah, the Prophet provides us with a Divinely inspired prediction of the effect the holy infant was to have on Egypt and the Egyptians. “Behold, the lord rides on a swift cloud, and will come into Egypt, and the Idols of Egypt will totter at his presence, and the heart of Egypt will melt in the midst of it” (Isaiah 19:1)
The authority of old testament prophecy, which portended the crumbling of idols wherever Jesus went, further foreshadowed the singular blessing to be bestowed upon Egypt, for its having been chosen as the Holy Family’s haven, and upon its people for having been the first to experience the Christ’s miraculous influence.
God’s message, also delivered through the prophetic utterance of Isaiah, “Blessed be Egypt, my people” (Isaiah 19:25), was an anticipation of the coming of St. Mark to our country, where the gospel he preached took firm root in the first decades of Christianity.
For Isaiah goes on to prophecy: “In that day there will be an alter to the lord in the midst of the land of Egypt; and a pillar to the Lord, at its border. And It will be for a sign and for a witness to the Lord of Hosts in the Land of Egypt” (Isaiah 19:19 & 20)
According to the traditions of the Coptic church, “The Alter’ mentioned is that of The Church of Virgin Mary in Al-Muharraq Monastery, a site where the Holy Family settled for a period of more than six months; and the Alter-Stone was the ‘bed’ upon which the infant saviour lay. Al-Muharraq Monastery is located, literally, “In the midst of the Land of Egypt” …. Standing at its exact geographical centre. As for the “Pillar at its Borders…. Which will be for a sign and for a witness…” Surely there can be no more demonstrable, concrete proof of the fulfilment of the prophecy than that the patriarchal see of the Apostolic Church in Egypt, established by St Mark himself, is situated in Alexandria, on Egypt’s Northern borders. But the prophecy, knitting a perfect pattern of things to come, does not stop there. It continues, “then the Lord will be known to Egypt, and the Egyptians will know the Lord in that day and will make sacrifices and offering” (Isaiah 19:21).
As Christianity in Egypt spread, churches were built throughout the length and breadth of the land, and the sites chosen were primarily, those which, had been visited and blessed by the Holy Family’s sojourns.
The new testament records the fulfilment of these old testament prophecies as they unfold in their historical sequence.
“…behold, an angel of the lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, arise, take the young child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I bring you word, for herod will seek the young child to destroy him: (Matthew 2:13).
Joseph complied. A donkey was fetched for the gentle mother, still so young in years, to ride with her new-born child in her arms. And so, they set out from Bethlehem on their predestined journey, the hardened old carpenter, who was Mary’s betrothed, striding ahead, leading the donkey by its leash into the untracked paths of a wilderness dark as the desert nights, and unending as the months of never ending horizons.
Such an arduous journey it was, fraught with hazard every step of the way. In those far-off days, there were three routes which could be followed by travellers. Traversing Sinai from Palestine to Egypt, a crossing which was usually undertaken in groups. For without the protection of well organised caravans, the ever-present dangers – even along these known and trodden paths – were ominously forbidding.
But, in their escape from the infanticidal fury of king herod, the Holy Family – Understandably – had to avoid the beaten tracks altogether, and to pursue unknown paths, guided by god and his angel. They picked their way, day after day, through hidden valleys and across uncharted plateaus in the (then) rigged wastelands of Sinai, enduring the scorching heat of the sun by day and the bitter cold of the desert nights, preserved from the threat of wild beasts and savage tribesmen, their daily sustenance miraculously provided, the all-too-for her infant allayed by the faith that infused her with his birth.
And so, they arrived, at last, safely, for god had pre-ordained that Egypt should be the refuge for the one who was to bring the message of peace and love to mankind.
The refuge for the one who was to bring the message of peace and love to mankind. The tortuous trails they followed in their passage across Sinai, and their subsequent travels within Egypt, and chronicled by Pope Theophilus, 23rd Patriarch of Alexandria (384 – 412 AD). He testifies, in his celebrated annals, that on the eve of the 6th of Hathor (The Coptic month corresponding roughly with November), after long prayer, the Holy Virgin revealed herself to him and, from Egypt, bade him record what he had seen and heard.
It is a source which no Christian believer would question. Besides, it is virtual certainty that, at a time when happenings of a momentous or historical nature were transmitted by word of mouth from one generation to next, the account of Pope Theophilus’s vision confirmed the oral tradition of supernatural occurrences which accompanied the arrival of a wonderous child in the towns and villages of Egypt some 400 years earlier.