Books on the Holy Family in Egypt

I recently picked up a couple of stunningly beautiful books, “coffee table books” as they say, and wanted to recommend them to others.

For the Biblically illiterate, the Gospel According to Matthew describes that, after the birth of our Lord Jesus in Bethlehem, St Joseph is warned to take Mary the Theotokos and the infant Lord Jesus to Egypt to escape the murderous intent of King Herod (unfathomably called “the Great”). Coptic tradition has the Holy Family wandering through the country for a period of three and a half years, during which they made their way as far south as Assiut. An angel told Joseph when it was safe to return to the Land of Israel, specifically to Galilee, and Joseph then took the family to Nazareth, out of the territory of Herod’s equally brutal son Archelaus. The two books are related to the traditions of the Holy Family in Egypt.

The first is one that I’d heard of from several sources, but it was Gina at Book Dust who really inspired me to pick up a copy after her post on it. She was fortunate enough to attend a presentation of the book by the editor. The book is The Churches of Egypt: From the Journey of the Holy Family to the Present Day, by Gawdat Gabra and Gertrud J. M. van Loon with Darlene L. Brooks Hedstrom, edited by Carolyn Ludwig (who Gina heard), and photographs by Sherif Sonbol. It’s a Ludwig Publishing Edition, of The American University of Cairo Press, 2007. In 328 pages, a vast number of ancient and modern churches in Egypt are described and, most strikingly, beautifully illustrated in full color by Mr Sonbol’s beautiful photography. The volume is actually heavier on the photography than on the text, but believe me, that is no problem at all. There are some stunningly beautiful churches in Egypt, from the ancient mudbrick chapels of an ancient monastery to great Patriarchal cathedrals with towering columns. Amazon is currently offering this book at a substantial discount.

The second book is one that I hunted down after having devoured this first one. Be Thou There: The Holy Family’s Journey in Egypt is edited by Gawdat Gabra, with chapters written by William Lyster, Cornelis Hulsman, and Stephen J. Davis. The photography in this volume, also stunning, is by Norbert Schiller. This is a 164 page description of various sites associated with the journey of the the Holy Family into Egypt. (Also availabe at a discount at Amazon.) For centuries there were was only a general itinerary, mentioning a few places, but as time went on, villages and towns and cities along these routes would claim to have been passed through by the Holy Family, often with miraculous wells or trees associated with the various stops. Many of these appear in the book, without its trying to establish a precise itinerary. A more precise “official” itinerary was established by the Coptic Orthodox Church for the year 2000 celebrations. This book includes descriptions of the route and the traditionally associated pilgrim sites. There’s a very interesting appendix describing the development of the itinerary through the ages, and its development and validation not just through oral tradition, but through visions, whether ancient (like the Vision of Patriarch Theophilus of the fourth century) or more recent (visions of the Holy Virgin Mary at Assiut in 2000).

What I found very interesting about the official itinerary is that it appears to actually follow some ancient roads, and that many of the various towns or cities passed through were certainly around in the very late first century B.C. For this, one may refer to the beautiful maps of The Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World (see also here). I’ll post more on this in the future, particularly in order to provide the ancient names for the various sites in the itinerary, which are not always obvious when they differ greatly from their modern names. It’s a fun project, one I’d like to incorporate much of the traditional material into. We’ll see how that turns out.

Anyhow, I wanted to bring attention to these two beautiful and edifying books. You may justify the expense in that they are less expensive than a tour of Egypt! Give your eyes a rest from reading words, and enjoy the beautiful photography of these books. And meditate on the travels of the Holy Family, and on the faith of the Copts, who have kept alive the tradition of the sanctification of their entire ancient homeland by the visit of our Lord up and down the Nile.

5 Replies to “Books on the Holy Family in Egypt”

  1. Nice to stumble over your comment on the book that I have worked on for several years. Of course there is no precise itinerary of the journey of the Holy Family in our book because it does not exist. The entire tradition is a tradition that developed throughout the ages. The development of that tradition over the centuries would be worth studying. My work on the holy family tradition is part of a much larger project on studying the position of Christians in a predominantly Muslim Egypt, see http://www.arabwestreport.info

  2. Thank you very much for your comment! I came to realize (after posting this) that the situation is just as you say, an extended tradition that has grown over the centuries, but without any real order. It would certainly be a very interesting study to present the individual exemplars of the itinerary as they developed, however, leading up to the Coptic Patriarchate’s jubilee map (and beyond?).

    Regardless, that is a beautiful book that you put together, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

    The articles on your site will be very interesting to read! That’s a very useful resource for all those many of us who are interested in the subject matter but not (yet) capable in Arabic.

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