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Restored Holy Family site in Minya – Heritage – Al-Ahram Weekly

Atop the cliffs of Gabal Al-Teir, in the Upper Egypt Governorate of Minya, stands the rock-hewn Monastery and Church of the Virgin Mary, with its distinguished architecture and magnificent views of the Nile Valley overlooking carefully cultivated fields and lush palm groves.

According to tradition, the area is called Gabal Al-Teir, which means Mountain of the Birds, due to the thousands of birds that live and nest in the cliffs. It is one of the places the Holy Family visited and stayed for three days during their trip to Egypt in the early first century AD.

According to the historian of the Christian monasteries and churches of Egypt Abul-Makarim, passing by the place in a small boat during the visit of the Holy Family, the Virgin Mary noticed a huge rock coming off the mountain and on about to fall on the boat.

But the child Jesus stretched out his hand and prevented the rock from falling, and the shape of his palm was imprinted on the rock. In 1168 CE, the then ruler of Jerusalem removed the part of the rock bearing the imprint and took it with him to Syria.

Osama Talaat, head of the sector of Islamic, Coptic and Jewish antiquities at the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, said that the Church of the Virgin Mary in Gabal Al-Teir was built in 328 CE by the Byzantine Empress Helena (mother of the Emperor Constantine) in memory of the passage of the Holy Family in Egypt.

In 1938, Severus, the Bishop of Minya, restored the church and removed the original stone roof in order to enlarge it.

The church consists of a nave with three sanctuaries and two aisles and a west aisle separated from each other by 10 rock-hewn columns. To the south of the church, the baptismal font is carved into a column. The area in front of the middle shrine serves as a choir.

Hisham Samir, assistant minister of tourism and antiquities for archaeological projects, said work on the monastery and church restoration project began in 2018 after approval by the Standing Committee for Islamic, Coptic and Antiquities. Jewish. The works were carried out in two phases, with the first phase covering the western corridor and being fully completed. The second phase includes the southern corridor and should be completed soon for the official inauguration.

The works included the restoration of the walls and the ceiling of the church, the elimination of cracks, the consolidation of the walls, the repair of the bell of the bell tower of the church and its four arcades and domes. The facades of the church were mechanically cleaned and the modern mosaic installed in 1987 on the east wall of its southern entrance was replaced by another mosaic depicting the journey of the Holy Family.

A fine restoration has been carried out on all the decorations and icons of the church as well as on the icon frames. New lighting and fire safety systems have been installed as well as electronic gates. To improve the visitor experience, new services have been introduced, including information panels, new walkways, umbrellas and seating.

The facilities around the church are also being upgraded and infrastructure is being installed to help visitors follow the itinerary of the Holy Family’s stay in Egypt. The objective of the Greater Holy Family Trail includes the development of poorer areas and communities in the Delta and Upper Egypt, the restoration of archaeological sites and the creation of visitor-friendly services at sites along the path.

All this is part of the ministry’s desire to develop spiritual tourism that can appeal throughout the year and not just during special periods.

THE HOLY FAMILY IN EGYPT: The Holy Family traveled in Egypt for about three years and six months, their stay in the places visited varying from a few days to a few months.

The flight of the Holy Family to Egypt is associated with archaeological sites from Sinai to the Delta and Assiut in Upper Egypt. The Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, in collaboration with the Coptic Church of Egypt, has carried out a number of restoration and development projects in churches and monasteries along the route.

These include the restoration and inauguration of Abu Serga Church in Old Cairo, St Abba Noub Church in Sammanud, monks’ cells and other structures in the monasteries of Wadi Al- Natrun, and now the Church of the Virgin Mary in Gabal Al-Teir.

The late Coptic Pope Shenouda III approved established routes for Christian pilgrims visiting Egypt to follow the route in 2000. During an audience at St. Peter’s in Rome in 2017, Roman Catholic Pope Francis blessed an icon of a Vatican artist depicting the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt and has effectively given his blessing to the millions of Christians around the world who may wish to follow in the footsteps of the Holy Family.

The flight of the Holy Family to Egypt is associated with many archaeological sites, Osama Talaat noted. They traveled south from Palestine through the desert, avoiding the main roads for fear of capture. They entered Egypt at Rafah today, where a lone sycamore is believed to have survived at the site since their visit.

The Holy Family reached Arish, and from there they followed the ancient route of Horus along the Mediterranean coast to Zaraniq, where the Byzantines then built three churches. They continued on to Al-Mohamediya, and their last station in the Sinai was on the northwest coast near the edge of the delta in the town of Pelusium, now the sprawling ruin of Tel Al-Farama. Here, archaeologists have discovered traces of several Romanesque churches.

They then traveled south along the Pelusiac branch of the Nile, which had long since dried up. They stayed in the city of Bubastis, now the ruin of Tel Al-Basta near the modern city of Zagazig. They then traveled to Mostorod, where the Virgin is said to have bathed Jesus. There is a church in Mostorod named after the Virgin Mary which was built in the 12th century and has recently been restored.

They then turned north towards the town of Bilbeis, traveling northwest through the delta. Arrived at Damietta, they embarked on a ferry which took them to Sammanud. The Holy Family then continued north to Borollos. The next stop was Sakha in the Western Delta. Here, the Virgin Mary is said to have held her son against a rock which retained her imprint. A relic in the church dedicated to the Virgin of the region bears this mark.

The Holy Family then moved to the Western Desert, eventually reaching Wadi Al-Natrun, where monastic settlements were later established. They then proceeded to present-day Cairo, where they stopped at Ain Shams and Matariya, where they took shelter under a sycamore tree, now known as the Virgin Mary’s tree. A story goes that when the Virgin Mary sat there, a spring of water sprang up from the ground.

The next stop for the Holy Family was Al-Zeitoun, then Al-Zweila. Traveling south, they reached Old Cairo and hid in a cave which is now the crypt of St. Sergius Church. In what is now Maadi, they traveled to the place now named the Church of the Virgin of the Ferry. From there, the family took a ferry to Memphis and embarked on a boat that took them to Upper Egypt.