A New Holy Family Site and the Development of Coptic Tradition

Gebl al-Tayr

Gebl al-Tayr, overlooking the Nile River

From my new article at Arab West Report:

The Holy Family came to Egypt, says the Biblical text. But it is silent on what they did once there. Coptic Orthodox tradition has filled in the details… And now they have one detail more.

The article describes our visit to Gebl al-Tayr, or Mountain of the Bird, which is a Holy Family site recognized by Coptic tradition. The article explores some of this history, which includes an alleged reference to Empress Helena, mother of Constantine.

If some of these details strike the reader as legendary, it must also be remarked that the existence of many Holy Family sites is mentioned in the writings of antiquity. As Egypt became majority Christian prior to the arrival of Islam, these became locations of renown. This does not provide historical confirmation of the Holy Family itinerary, but it does testify to very early narratives upon which ancient churches were naturally constructed.

But other sites are much less certain. Coptic tradition designates the Patriarch of Alexandria, Theophilus, who presided from 384-412 AD, as source for many locations, which he was believed to have received in a vision from the Virgin Mary. Without impugning the character of clergy or church historians, it is not difficult to imagine the benefit – spiritual or commercial – that a diocese would draw from connection to the ancient tradition. In any case, in Be Thou There, Dr. Stephen Davis chronicles the numerical increase of Holy Family Sites from the fourth century onward.

The article then describes a modern example of this phenomena, in the duelings Asyut monasteries at Deir al-Muharraq and Durunka. But then it returns to Gebal al-Tayr:

Gebl al-Tayr Stairs

The 166 step ascent from the river below

Though this location is part of the ancient Holy Family tradition, on this visit Hulsman noticed an oddity. Approximately 500 meters down the road from the Church of the Holy Virgin, now semi-accessible from above for modern transportation, is excavation work at another part of the mountain.

A Muslim policeman-turned-impromptu-tour guide proudly described it as a recent discovery, understood to be the lodging of the Holy Family upon their return from Upper Egypt. Work had been underway for the last year, he said. Hulsman, a frequent visitor to the area, had neither heard nor seen of this before.

After a simple stairwell decline of around ten meters from the mountain plateau there is a gradual descent into the mouth of what opens into a long, narrow cave. Inside has the beginnings of a rudimentary altar along with icons and candles, and already there is the graffiti of visiting pilgrims. Outside a new church building has been established.

Hulsman remarked that the identification of a cave with the Holy Family fits within longstanding Coptic themes. Being so close to the ancient church, it would be natural for ecclesiastic authorities to imagine Jesus taking refuge there, as tradition indicates he did in caves throughout Egypt.

Walking back to the main site, a local priest standing with villagers stated the discovery was made around five years ago, and that Bishop Paphnotius of Samalut had done the investigations and research to ascertain its antiquity.

Gebl al-Tayr Cave

The new cave, recently discovered and renovated

Gebl al-Tayr Graffiti

Inside there is now an altar, icons, and modern graffiti

The article next moves to describe the modern miracle tradition at the Virgin Mary Church in Maadi, itself a Holy Family site where a Bible is said to have floated down the river and rested at its Nile descent.
It also introduces the character of Dr. Otto Meinardus, a theologian-scholar who once told Hulsman a fascinating anecdote directly related to the topic:

Perhaps in the end it does not matter to local believers. In personal discussions, Hulsman said, Meinardus would use the term ‘pious fraud’ to describe the legendary in Coptic history. In his writings he was more careful to avoid offending church hierarchy, but imagined the process like this.

Somewhere at some time a bishop’s sermon employed an illustration drawn from history, creatively illustrating a Biblical moral. Once popularized, it lodged into local consciousness and became commemorated.

But beyond imagining, Meinardus was also a one-time practitioner. He was the first to narrate the story of St. Bishoy carrying Jesus disguised as an elderly pilgrim up a mountain, only afterwards to enjoy his epiphany.

The story first appeared in his 1961 book, Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert,  published in Egypt with AUC Press. All texts and icons of this event post-date his book, Hulsman said, and can be seen across Egypt including at the Monastery of St. Bishoy. According to Bishop Marcos of Shubra al-Khayma, the story was not known to the monks of Egypt until they read it in Meinardus’ book, wrote Paul Perry in Jesus in Egypt.

Perry also quotes Meinardus, saying, “That’s how tradition is, Once a story leaves someone’s mouth, it spreads like wildfire.” Though not recorded in the book he told Perry and Hulsman, “Many stories are based on dreams. Why should I not also have dreams?”

The article concludes with a story from Hulsman’s own history, how a heroic uncle morphed in memory into a family saint. Tying all the themes together, it ends with a necessary reflection:

Therefore, let the reader consider the real-time development of tradition in Jabl al-Tayr. For half a century later in Asyut, the church recognizes officially the Monastery of Muharraq as a Holy Family site, while Durunka remains disputed. Even so the latter continues to attract the faithful and is an ever-expanding site of pilgrimage. But more is at stake than simple religious commerce. Only a few verses earlier in the same chapter celebrated in Maadi, Isaiah prophesies there will one day be an altar to the Lord in the middle of Egypt. Asyut roughly qualifies, and only 70 kilometers separate the two sites. Where is the epicenter of God’s promised blessing?

Perhaps to God the details are not important. But to man, the interactions of God in human history are worthy of record. And now in Egypt, there is one more.

Please click here to read the full article at Arab West Report.

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