ASYUT, Egypt – 28 November 2017: The Holy Family left Gabal at-Tayr and returned to the other bank of the river Nile where they sailed south till they arrived at Hermopolis. They did not stay in Hermopolis for long, for they soon mounted their beasts again and departed in the direction of Philes, which is now known as Dairut el-Shareef, their first stop in Asyut governorate.
1: Edited map of the Holy Family’s route in Egypt – Egypt Tourism Authority
According to the Coptic tradition, a carpenter named Dianus hosted them in Philes. Dianus had a sick child who was healed by the blessed power of Jesus; besides, the presence of Jesus caused idols in the village to fall apart. The two incidents sent the powerful men of the village into rage, so they sent soldiers to capture the strangers.
News reached Dianus, he managed to secure them passage to escape in the early morning, shortly they arrived at Cusae, now known as el-Qusiya. When the people of Cusae hunted them down, the family fled to the nearby village of Meir. It was then when God made a revelation to Joseph telling him to ascend the western mountain, and they did. They were followed by two thieves, one of which felt pity for Mary who was sick and in pain at the time, so he returned what he had stolen from her, and the family spent the night in a deserted house on the mountain top.
2: A woman and a child inside one of the Muharraq Monastery churches, Asyut Oct. 15, 2017 – Maher Eskandar
The morning sun had just shone upon the small Family when one of them saw a dry and deserted well. Fresh water flew back into the well when Jesus blessed it, making the place suitable for long-term living. No pursuits, thieves or idols collapsing here. Joseph the Carpenter decided to build a hut using palm fronds, which would later become a church, the first church in human history. As days go by, it would become a monastery, home to dozens of monks. Today, it is called Muharraq Monastery.
3: The altar of the claimed first church in human history at Muharraq Monastery, Asyut Oct. 15, 2017 – Maher Eskandar
After traveling from one village to another, we arrived at a village named after the monastery. We saw its crosses high up on the horizon and a giant gate in the middle of an ancient wall that looks like old cities’ walls erected in the middle of farmlands. Later, we learned that the wall was built in the 4th century as a tribute to the walls of Jerusalem. According to the beliefs the church holds, Muharraq Monastery is the second Jerusalem, so it is natural for it to be surrounded by a wall that resemble Jerusalem’s.
Upon entering the monastery, we saw a big portrait of Reverend Sawiris, the abbot of the monastery who passed away months ago. The legacy he left behind was a rich monastic school.
4: A woman at one of Muharraq Monastery churches, Asyut Oct. 15, 2017 – Maher Eskandar
In the monastery, we met Reverend Philoxenus al-Muharraqi, a middle-aged monk: tall, eloquent and neat-looking. As soon as we took a few steps in with him, we saw a magnificent palace that looked like a pashas’ palaces surrounded by old homesteads. It was called the Abbot’s Palace and was built in 1910 during Father Pachomius’ term. Father Pachomius was the first abbot.
Reverend Philoxenus stopped outside a small door adorned with stones, at which people took off their shoes. This was the ancient church, the first church in history, where Christ lived safely for six months and five days and where he finally slept in peace after a difficult journey. This is where his virgin mother could rest and close her eyes, maybe for the first time since she fled her home in fear, moved her baggage from village to city and from land to water. Only here could Joseph the Carpenter build a home for his small family. Only here was he finally relieved that he could protect them and that God’s promise was fulfilled. And here is where blessed Mary settled, too.
5: Women and children at an icon of Mary and Jesus that reads “mother of God” in Arabic at Muharraq Monastery churches, Asyut Oct. 15, 2017 – Maher Eskandar
This is where the Holy Family could rest, but not for long because an angel came to Joseph to tell him that their difficult journey was over. In a blessed night, the angel came to Joseph in a dream with glad tidings, telling him to go back home.
Herod had died and his death announced the end of the evil persecution of Jesus’s followers and the madness of pursuing the Family. Jesus laid the grounds for his first church here and then began the easy journey back. No mountains or caves, nor difficult roads and no hiding.
6: The door to the altar of the claimed first church in human history at Muharraq Monastery, Asyut, that exhibits Coptic and Arabic writing on Oct. 15, 2017 – Maher Eskandar
Reverend Philoxenus entered the church and showed us in. Before the church altar, which had a wooden curtain, he said, “this is the altar Prophet Isaiah prophesied 700 years before the birth of Christ when he said ‘In that day there will be an altar to the LORD in the heart of Egypt and a monument to the LORD at its border.”
The Reverend interpreted these words saying that the monastery is in fact located in the middle of Egypt and Egypt itself is located in the middle of the world. Therefore, its blessings engulf the whole world.
7: One of the buildings inside Muharraq Monastery, Asyut on Oct. 15, 2017 – Maher Eskandar
The reverend indicated that the house where the Holy Family lived was built with mud-bricks. It was first used as a church during the late 1st century A.D., when Christ came and built the altar with his apostles. Throughout the years, it was expanded and restored, until the last restoration in 2000.
On the wooden cover of the church sanctuary, we saw small carved white crosses, and above them, icons of Christ’s 12 apostles. Next to it, there was another sanctuary for Habesha monks who lived in the monastery for many decades and built a church above this one.
8: A woman at an icon of Virgin Mary at Muharraq Monastery, Asyut on Oct. 15, 2017 – Maher Eskandar
Reverend Philoxenus said that Habesha monks wanted to live in Jerusalem, but could not travel there, so they lived in Asyut’s monastery alternatively.
There was a famous icon for the Virgin Mary called “The Virgin Queen” painted by Anastasias the Roman in the 19th century. He was a painter from Jerusalem who used his brushes and colors to create immortal art in most stops of the Holy Family’s long journey.
9: A woman and children at the relics of saints at Muharraq Monastery, Asyut on Oct. 15, 2017 – Maher Eskandar
Reverend Philoxenus opened the sanctuary, moved the iconostasis to the side and stood exactly at the spot which the Holy Family blessed. As in other Coptic churches, the sanctuary was covered with a curtain and above it was an icon of the Virgin and her Christ Child. Next to it, there was a copper candlestick, with two candles lighting up Christ’s icon near the ceiling.
There was a unique icon of the Virgin, called “The Villager Virgin.” It depicted the Mother of Light wearing peasant clothes that resemble the garments women from the Egyptian countryside wear. Her skin color was darker and her eyes looked more Egyptian. Christ himself was shown wearing a jellabiya, a traditional Nile Valley garment and looked like a child in an Egyptian Delta village. Above them were three stars, Reverend Philoxenus told us they stand for virginity.
10: A man at the relics of saints at Muharraq Monastery, Asyut on Oct. 15, 2017 – Maher Eskandar
He said the first star symbolizes that she was a virgin before getting pregnant with Christ. The second symbolizes that she was a virgin during her pregnancy. The third symbolizes that she stayed a virgin after his birth. Beneath her, there were depictions of Saint Mercurius the Martyr (Abu-Sefein), Saint George, Saint Antonius (the first monk), and Saint Paul the First Hermit. Reverend Philoxenus said that the depictions of the martyrs and saints beneath the Virgin’s icon demonstrate that she is their mother.
In the church, we saw a little girl, Flomina, in her white baptism gown. Her mother carried her away after being baptized; the mother took such a long journey in order to baptize her in the first church built by Christ.
11: A man taking a selfie with a young girl in front of an icon inside at Muharraq Monastery, Asyut on Oct. 15, 2017 – Maher Eskandar
The sacrament of baptism is one of the Coptic Church’s seven sacraments and goes back to the time when Christ baptized a young man in the Jordan River. Priests immerse babies three times in water, after the mother recites a prayer called “The Woman’s Prayer.” The child is anointed with chrism before they are immersed in water.
We went back to the monastery’s humid cloister and entered the Church of Mar Girgis, the largest church in the Monastery. Reverend Philoxenus told us it dates to 1881 and was built over the ruins of another old church. What was especially striking about it was the marble iconostasis as well as the style of the icons themselves. They were painted in red and gold, above them a Bible verses carved in Arabic calligraphy.
12: Father Philoxenus at relics of saints with Egypt Today contributor inside at Muharraq Monastery, Asyut on Oct. 15, 2017 – Maher Eskandar
The verses read, “To fear the Lord is fullness of wisdom” and “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” The Reverend clarified that the artistic style of this church is Byzantine, not Coptic like the rest. Two of the most famous painters and saints painted it, Georgie Demetri and Nikola Georgie and there are elements of Arabic calligraphy in the style as well.
We went back to the hallways of the monastery and Reverend Philoxenus took us to the ancient fortress: old bricks, tiny windows in the middle of the doors to watch out for raiders, crosses carved on walls and a passage that connects the entrance of the fortress to its end, surrounded with wood on both sides. We ducked and followed Reverend Philoxenus inside. He told us that the architectural style of the fortress does not resemble that of the church. The military style adopted by those monks who feared Berber raids goes back to the 7th century, and is similar to those built in Wadi El-Natrun. Many fortresses were built in different monasteries, but this one was never used for the protection of Muharraq Monastery.
13: Father Philoxenus outside the fort of Muharraq Monastery, Asyut on Oct. 15, 2017 – Maher Eskandar
We followed Reverend Philoxenus through the fortress as if he was our guide into the desert. We continued walking till we saw the first monk to occupy this fortress. We saw a wooden maquette of a monk in his black monastic garments and he had a cross on his chest that seemed as if it were his beating heart.
In his hand, there was a piece of wood that he used to control the doors of the fortress downstairs and to close the passage as well. Behind him, there was an engraving of a pigeon, which symbolizes the Virgin. There were also palm fronds, which the people of Jerusalem waved for the victorious Christ as he returned on Palm Sunday.
On the left there was another door to the first room in the fortress where we saw other maquettes of other monks doing handiwork, like using fronds to make bags and tools. There was a second room with a small table and around it, maquettes of monks. Like all tables of ancient monasteries, monks leave their monastic cells which are carved into the rock and gather to eat together at the table once a week. In the fortress, there was also a small church named the Church of Saint Michael, the Archangel as the Bible calls him.
14: Maquettes of monks at their dining table inside Muharraq Monastery, Asyut on Oct. 15, 2017 – Maher Eskandar
Churches in fortresses are usually called after him since he is the protector. In the church, there was an icon depicting him with his huge wings and sword, treading over the devil, which symbolized defeating evil. There were also upside-down pillars. Reverend Philoxenus told us that this is how pillars in churches usually look, symbolizes the fall of idolatry.
15: Father Philoxenus at the top of Muharraq Monastery with Egypt Today contributor in Asyut Oct. 15, 2017 – Maher Eskandar
The sun went down and Reverend Philoxenus invited us to the monastery’s guesthouse. Dozens of visitors come here to eat food which has been blessed by Christ and his family’s presence here centuries ago. In the evening, monks light the whole monastery and leave for a short nap in their cells and at midnight, they wake up and light candles for their mid-night prayer again.
Translated by Heba Fadel