ASSIUT – 4 December 2017: After staying for more than six months in a cavern, now Muharraq Monastery, Saint Joseph was told in a dream to go back to Palestine. The Holy Family rested at Western Assiut Mountain, where Dronka Monastery now exists, on their way back.
Herod, who was pursuing the family, had died. The page of that pursuit was turned, and Christ could finally return home. The family departed from Qusqam Mountain, where Muharraq Monastery is located, arriving at a nearby cavern, and continued until they reached Dronka Monastery, where we saw simple people praying for children and healing.
From Upper Egypt, they left to the North, blessing the Nile, which had kept their secret and the land that had protected them from their fears. On every stop in the journey, churches and monasteries were to be built, celebrations were to be held and prayers were to be written down. In this land, Christ treaded, and the Virgin wiped his tears. Thousands of stories would be told and millions of tales would be recited about this extraordinary family, which left behind a legacy of never-ending benevolence.
Egyptians on their way to Dronka Monastery in Assiut, Egypt, in September 2017 – Egypt Today/Hazem Abdel Samar
It took us only 15 minutes from the city to Western Assiut Mountain. We could see the mountain on the horizon, looking as if it were ready to tell the rest of the story. Above it, we could see cemeteries of Christian Copts who had passed away. They were lovers of the Virgin Mary, who wanted to be buried near the place where she had lived. We could see crosses carved on rocks, domes parallel to the top of the mountain and military checkpoints run by army officers experienced in guarding deserts.
We crossed the first gate, then parked on the left-hand side of the road and went up a paved road on foot. Going up the mountain resembled Muslims’ pilgrimage while climbing Arafat Mountain. It was a high mountain and a long distance taken on foot only for the love of the Lady of Light. We could hear the hymns glorifying Virgin Mary: “Hail to you, Mary, the ark of the covenant; hail to you, Mary, fruit of the sweetest scent.”
On the mountain, we met young people who came on a trip organized by a church in Assiut. They had gathered for a weekend spiritual journey. They spent their nights in those small rooms along the sides of Cave Mountain, praying and worshiping for days before the start of the new academic year.
The church bells rang, which announced mass at 7 am every day. The sound is preceded by the voices of monks reciting the Bible, filling the air with solemnity and awe. Students prepared to enter the church.
Blessing a baby with Holy Water at Dronka Monastery in Assiut, Egypt, in September 2017 – Egypt Today/Hazem Abdel Samar
On the way to Cave Church, there were small stores, named after the different names given to the Virgin, selling the monastery’s products. The store selling poultry is called “Al-Hamama Al-Hasnaa” (The Beautiful Dove), a name the Virgin was given in the Bible. An animal products store was called Umm Al-Nour (Mother of Light), and the supermarket was called “Al-Mumtale’a Ne’ma” (The Bountiful). The Virgin has 150 titles, and one would feel that all places, names and images are all about her, as if trying to be blessed by her.
We continued climbing the mountain. There were many churches, but we could see Cave Church, the place where the Virgin, her Child and Saint Joseph stayed.
Inside, there was a maquette of the Virgin, in her blue garments, as she lovingly opens her arms wide to her visitors. A lady let out a trill of joy and said, “Bless you, Mother of Light; bless you, Virgin Mary.” She took a long hand-made necklace of roses and jasmine flowers and put it on the Virgin. She promised her to make a necklace made of pounds next year. Her husband, speaking to the Virgin’s maquette, said, “I would make you a necklace of gold if I could, Virgin Mary.”
Egyptian Coptic Christians lighting candles before a Virgin Mary icon at Dronka Monastery in Assiut, Egypt, in September 2017 – Egypt Today/Hazem Abdel Samar
Icons of the Virgin and many martyred saints, who had given their lives to Christianity in its battles against idolatry, dangled from the ceiling. To the right, there were marble baptismal fonts; above them, a wooden cross. On each were small aluminum flasks full of holy chrism. In baptismal fonts, newborns are immersed in water three times, and their bodies are rubbed with chrism.
Unlike all churches, the sanctuary lies at its furthest point. It was surrounded with a wooden fence, and, around it, Christians gathered and prayed.
To the left of the sanctuary, there was a long queue of people waiting to enter a shrine closed with a metal gate. Church deacons were keeping the queue to the Virgin’s shrine, the cave where she hid, in order. Inside, there was an ancient representation of her, flowers, two pigeons kept in a cage and a wooden prayer box where lovers of the Virgin would place their prayers. Small scraps of paper were around the box, with the visitors’ secrets and prayers from the heart.
Egyptians asked the Virgin to answer their simple prayers, like prayers for grace, healing and love.
Illiterate, Umm Mina asked a girl to write a note on her behalf to the Virgin. She asked her to write: “I pray Mina loves his mother as Christ loved Mary.”
Michael wrote: “I pray that the problems between Mira and me are resolved and that we stay together, thanks to the blessings of the Mother of Light. Amen.” Clearly, he had problems with his fiancée and prayed the Virgin would help them stay together.
There was another cave to the left of this one, with the same contents as the other one. The only difference was the Virgin’s icon.
Copts looking for blessings where the Holy Family is believed to have stayed in Dronka Monastery in Assiut, Egypt, in September 2017 – Egypt Today/Hazem Abdel Samar
We met Reverend Luka al-Assiut, who had served as the Monastery Secretary for years. He told us the story of the Virgin’s cave, saying that it goes back to the time of the Pharaohs, who carved it to hide from the flood 4,500 years ago. When the Holy Family arrived, they lived in the cave. Back then Assiut, from which the Holy family took the boat to return to Palestine, was the capital of the governorate.
“The Holy Family’s time in Dronka was a time of extraordinary phenomena and miracles,” said Reverend Luka. He added, “When the Holy Family left, the first church was built here, that is the Cave Church in the 1st century AD. It was not a church like those of today, but one in the spiritual sense – that is, a place where prayers are held and supplications said.”
The Reverend told us that the monastery welcomes a million visitors annually during the Virgin’s Fast mid-August. Church deacons and volunteers organize the processes of visitors’ entry and exit, while the Ministry of Interior provides security services outside the monastery.
Telling us the history of the monastery, the Reverend said, “When monasticism emerged in the 4th century in Egypt, this place became a monastery. Many monasteries were built, but Dronka Monastery survived, unlike them. They were, however, chronicled in Coptic history.” He continued, “Dronka Monastery used to be called the ‘Monastery of Writing Monks,’” as monks in it were active in copying books.
Next to Cave Church lies Father Mikhail, the Archbishop of Assiut, who passed away three years ago. He used to be called “Father of Archbishops.” He was ordained as bishop in Assiut by Father Joseph II and was the oldest of the archbishops until his passing away. It is noteworthy how he refused to pray outside diocese, and would not even seek treatment outside of it until he passed away. He was buried next to the Virgin’s cave, as he had asked before his death.
The monastery has a mini-museum of his belongings beside his shrine. We saw his white cassock, which he wore to mass conducted in celebrations and feasts, and his black cassock (his clerical clothes). We also saw his mitre and a few other belongings of an ascetic man who only wanted to serve his people. His people were loyal to him and crowded in front of his shrine.
We saw a woman teaching her young child how to pray in front of him. We saw a man leaning on his grave and crying. We also saw another woman saying, “Be with us, Father Mikhail!” On his shrine, people left scraps of paper with their prayers, just as they did with the Virgin’s icon.
In Father Mikhail’s shrine, we met Reverend Royce, a 70-year-old who knows all the stories of the monastery by heart. He told us that during some restoration works led by Father Mikhail years ago, a giant caterpillar machine rolled over the mountain. Monks hurried to help the driver of the caterpillar, only to find him alive and well, thanks to Mary’s blessings, as he came to restore her monastery and her shrine.
As for the story told by all people of Assiut, it is the one of how Father Mikhail’s prayers rocked the mountain. Reverend Royce told us that there were some difficulties with restoration in this rugged mountain. Father Mikhail asked an engineering committee to remove a rock that made the restoration process difficult. The committee told him the rock cannot be removed without dynamite, which would endanger the Virgin’s ancient cave. Father Mikhail kept praying until the rock fell.
We left the Monastery, amazed at the incredible stories about the Virgin. In every shrine, there was a miracle. In every church, there was a story. We went back to Assiut and took a look at the river, which the Holy Family took to their journey back home.
Back then, the Holy Family traveled one last time from the river. The Virgin held young Christ’s hand, a toddler then able to walk and talk. Saint Joseph helped them to the boat, as well as Salome. From Assiut, they traveled north to Misr Al-Qadeema (Old Cairo). They were back again to Abu-Serga Church, and spent a few days in its cave.
They then crossed the borders of Egypt to Palestine, where Christ began a new phase in his call to Christianity. As an extraordinary child, he taught Jewish priests. In his youth, he saved a woman from being stoned to death. He left these immortal teachings, which changed humankind, just as his steps changed the history of our lands.
Translated by Heba Fadel
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