Holy Family Trail: a new path through Egypt’s holiest sites

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After leaving the cave of Jabal al-Tayr, the Holy Family crossed the Nile and continued south. They finally reached ancient Hermopolis, now a vast field of rubble encircled by the scruffy city of Al-Ashmonein. Jesus’ miracles here, including the overthrow of several temples, are described in the oldest text on the family’s flight, A History of the Monks in Egypt, an anonymous account of the journeys of pioneer pilgrims in the 4th century.

Skirting the edge of the desert, the family soon arrived on the slopes of Mount Qusqam, their holiest stop. It was there that an angel finally told Joseph that Herod was dead and that he was safe to return to the North. The sacred ground here is encircled by a fortress-like monastery known as Al-Muharraq. Considered a “second Bethlehem” by Coptic Christians, the site is said to have hosted the family for six months, far longer than any other stop on the road.

Passed the giant doors of the monastery, a monk led me directly to the oldest church of Al-Muharraq. Inside, he pointed to part of the carpet next to the iconostasis and explained that a miraculous well from which Jesus had once drank had stood there. “We usually say he ran out of water, but in truth he was buried,” supposedly to stop his flood of miracles. Such miracles, however, continued the monk, continue to occur to this day.

At the turn of the 5th century, it was here in Al-Muharraq that Theophilus, the 23rd Pope of Alexandria, first fleshed out a veritable itinerary, which he claimed to have received from the Virgin Mary in a vision. Over the centuries more stops were added based on miraculous tales. About 50 km to the south, St. Mary’s Monastery in Drunka is now widely considered the last stop on the route and is listed as such on the ministry’s route map.

For the journey to Drunka, I accompanied the required police detachment. The monastery complex here was the largest I had seen on the whole route, sprawling on a mountain near the town of Asyut with many new constructions going on. Speaking enthusiastically about various modern miracles, a young nun led the way to the sacred caves of Drunka, explaining that one had housed Joseph and the other the Virgin Mary and Jesus. She explained, while pointing to Joseph’s Grotto, that in 1986 the Virgin appeared here “to confirm to us the truth” of the claims of the Coptic Christian tradition.

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