By Engy Magdy
CAIRO — Last week, Coptic Christians in Egypt celebrated the memory of the Holy Family’s Flight into Egypt, when Mary, Child Jesus, and Joseph fled to Egypt to take refuge from the persecution of King Herod, during which they visited more than two dozen places, from Arish through the Delta and Cairo, to Assiut in Upper Egypt.
According to the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Holy Family’s journey in Egypt lasted three years, six months and 10 days. One of the most famous places they passed through is Gabal “Mount” al-Tayr, adjacent to the River Nile, 150 miles south of Cairo in al-Minya.
The Church of the Holy Virgin lies on top of Gabal “Mount” al-Tayr, where thousands of Christians, and even many Muslims, celebrate the memory of the Holy Family in a mega-traditional carnival called in Arabic “Mawlid” that lasted from May 27 through June 1, which marks the day that Jesus came into Egypt. After the lifting of COVID restrictions there were around two million pilgrims participating in the celebration, according to local media.
The Church of the Holy Virgin (Gabal al-Tayr) was built in 328 AD by Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, the first Byzantine emperor to convert to Christianity, according to the Egyptian ministry of tourism and antiquities website. The Church is carved entirely out of the rock. It follows the early Christian basilica plan, consisting of a nave with two side aisles, a western return aisle, and three ambulatory shrines.
The celebration involves a mix of religious and cultural customs. Outside the church, vendors set up tents to display their goods, including food, accessories, traditional clothes, toys for children, and other goods. “The tents of vendors and games form a semi-village in the foothills with a new, temporary geography,” said Mina Adel Gayed, a Coptic author who wrote a novel about what takes place during the celebration of Gabal al-Tayr.
The spiritual side during the festival is one of the astonishing celebrations, as Copts dedicate traditional songs that praise Jesus and Mary. Alongside the Church are rituals that involve songs, veneration, the psalms, the doxologies, and glorifying blessings for God.
Gabal al-Tayr is one of the most important pilgrimage destinations, as it also hosts the annual celebration of the Feast of the Assumption of the Holy Virgin on August 22, when people from all around Egypt flock to attend the church during the festival. The Church celebrates the feast of our Lady the Virgin beginning on August 7 and lasts for 15 days.
In 2018, the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism launched a project in collaboration with the Coptic Orthodox Church to implement a huge program to develop the 25 sites of the Holy Family’s journey in Egypt, as well as to restore archaeological sites, and qualify them to receive tourists along a route that extends more than 1,864 miles. This initiative to highlight the path of the Holy Family in Egypt has the potential to attract two billion Christians from around the world.
On Oct. 4, 2017, Pope Francis incorporated the path of the Holy Family into the Christian pilgrimage program adopted by the Vatican.
On this occasion, a Mass was held at St. Peter’s Cathedral in the presence of an Egyptian delegation, as Pope Francis blessed an icon for the Journey of the Holy Family to Egypt.