A child getting a cross tattoo in Musturud in August 2016 – Hassan Mohamed
QALYUBIA, Egypt – 28 October 2017: On a Sunday, just before the divine liturgy which starts at 6 a.m., we entered the Virgin Mary Church of Musturud with a congregation of local worshippers; women, children and elderly people. A tuk-tuk was carrying people to the church before returning to pick up more worshippers. He served at the church and was tasked with transportation.
The journey of the Holy Family in Egypt - Edited picture from Egypt Tourism Authority
We walked through security scanners and the police securing the church searched our bags. Meanwhile, church boy scouts at the gate took us to father Abdel Maseih Baseet, the priest of the church.
The historical church lies in a small alley in Musturud, a blue-collar district in Qalyubia that is about 13 kilometers away from Cairo. It was the holy family’s third stop in Egypt, and it is where Mary bathed and washed the clothes of Jesus Christ, according to the Coptic tradition.
Not all tattoos in Musturud are religious. This man is getting an elaborate tattoo of a skull in August 2016 – Hassan Mohamed
They are believed to have stayed in the cavern, next to the well, for about two months. The body of the church crumbled and was restored a few times in its long history, but the cavern and the well have remained intact. The main iconostasis is now 743 years old, Baseet said.
We were immersed in the aroma of incense being burned in all corners of the church, and after the mass, the priest was spraying worshippers with blessed water.
The echoing hymns of Mariam’s name, an Arabic variation of Mary, were most emotional. Worshippers repeated the hymns after a female and male choir members - “Mariam, your name is dear to me. You heal me with your intercession. Your heart is full of compassion.”
A man carrying a goat during the celebration of the Assumption of the Virgin in Musturud in August 2016 – Hassan Mohamed
Visitors lit candles at the icon of Virgin Mary, and sometimes at the icon of St. George.
The church includes the cavern where the holy family stayed after having arrived from Bubastis, now known as the Tell Basta archeological town. The ancient well from which Christ drank as a child is also well preserved.
Ancient icons and depictions of Christ and his mother at the church reveal high quality art. The church was built around the cavern and well in the 12th century. The church is held dear in the Coptic tradition and books throughout centuries.
A girl gets out of the cavern in Musturud in August 2016 – Hassan Mohamed
In the past, many of those who visited Jerusalem completed their pilgrimage at the church of Musturud.
In front of the icon of St. George, a mother and father held their child, begging the saints to heal him from an illness. “Shillah, oh Virgin, shillah, oh mother of light,” pleads the mother. “Shillah” is an Arabic term used by Egyptian Muslims and Christians that can be translated as “give us something for the sake of God.”
Outside of the church, we met a man who had vowed to distribute cards of Mary in her blue dress, opening her arms to the people and giving them love and light, and another of her holding Christ and promising salvation and redemption.
Lighting candles in the cavern of Musturud church in August 2016 – Hassan Mohamed
In a side passageway next to the church, visitors take short, wet stairs to the sacred well. Volunteers gave out plastic bags filled with fresh well water, and there were also taps supplying the same water.
The well is rectangular; its lower part is domed in the Byzantine-style; domed and surrounded by thick walls. The upper part was built in the late 19th century during the papacy of Cyril V.
Below the well is another shrine that we reached on a small, ancient staircase. The shadows of the candles in front of the old icons and the smell of incense captured our senses.
Plastic bags of blessed water in Musturud church in August 2016 – Hassan Mohamed
Notably, the Assumption of the Virgin is celebrated by millions of Christians and Muslims alike at the church every August in a festive event called “moulid.”
Moulids in Egypt celebrate the birth of iconic Islamic or Christian figures and are attended by the followers of the two religions, although more of the followers of one religion attend their respective moulid.
Muslim men and women, including ones with headscarves, were in the church of Musturud to see the ancient shrines or in search for blessings. At the end of the day, Muslims deeply respect Mary and Christ, and the ancestors of many Muslim Egyptians were essentially once Christian.
The ancient well at Virgin Mary Church of Musturud in August 2016 – Hassan Mohamed
The holy family’s next stop would be northeast of Musturud to land in Sebennytos, now known as Sammanud. Neither are included in the eight locations in Egypt which the Vatican has recently announced as official Christian pilgrimage sites.
This story was in part originally written in during the Assumption of the Virgin celebrations in August 2016
Additional reporting by Hanan Fayed
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