A rare spiritual experience at Egypt’s oldest monastery
ASYUT, Egypt - On the western foothill of Mount Qosqam, in the Egyptian governorate of Asyut, the Monastery of Al Muharraq stands as one of the oldest operational monastic complexes in the world. Albeit unknown to many outside the Coptic Church, it is arguably the most important Christian location in the country.
The Holy Family tradition states that the complex was built on the spot where Jesus, Mary and Joseph, along with their helper Salome, settled for six Coptic months and a few days during their flight into Egypt some 2,000 years ago. The story, briefly narrated in the Gospel of Matthew, recounts the escape of the Holy Family from the persecution of the soldiers of Judea’s Herod, and the tradition regards Al Muharraq as the place in Egypt where they unquestionably stayed the longest.
Arriving from the nearby village of Mir, the Holy Family settled in an area that is said to have been an arid, bleak desert where only an abandoned house and an adjacent water well stood. It was also there that an angel would appear to Joseph and tell him to “go [back] to the land of Israel.”
The church that was built in the house where the Holy Family purportedly stayed and which is named after Mary is believed to be the first one in Upper Egypt. Due to its prominence, Copts regard it as the second Jerusalem and even consider the pilgrimage to the site equal to the one to the holy city.
“This is the second place, after Jerusalem, where Jesus stayed the most,” said Wahed Samir, 36, from the nearby village of Sarakena, who has visited the place since he was a child. “It is one of the most important churches in the world.”
Ethiopian Christians, in particular, have historically forged close links with the monastery of Al Muharraq, and there are references that date back to the fourth century about the presence of Ethiopian monks in the place.
Although their numbers decreased starting from the first half of the 20th century, thousands of Ethiopian Christians still flock to the monastery, especially during the time that marks the arrival of the Holy Family in Egypt.
For this reason, Egypt regards the monastery as an important resource in relations with Ethiopia at a moment when they are fraught due to the latter’s building of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.
“We are using [Al Muharraq] as a soft power in order to establish good relations with the Ethiopian people following the water crisis,” said Adel Gendy, general manager for international relations and strategic planning at the Tourism Development Authority. “We are trying to approach their people by this spiritual field, and we invite and welcome them to come.” He added that this would help “dilute the tense political climate.”
The Ministry of Tourism has also revived efforts to develop spots believed to have been travelled to by the Holy Family, with a long-distance trail crossing a large part of the country. The Monastery of Al Muharraq, 400km south of Cairo, is the most prominent site on the trail.
The holiest and oldest place in the monastery is the Church of the Holy Virgin Mary. The sanctuary contains an altar believed to have been consecrated during the first century. Coptic tradition says it is located in the centre of Egypt as fulfilment of a prophecy of the Book of Isaiah that reads: “in that day there will be an altar to the lord in the midst of the land of Egypt.”
Next to the church stands a small and ancient fortified tower said to be built in the sixth century through the eighth century to grant the monks protection in case of a raid or a siege. Its single entry, placed at the end of a wooden bridge, leads to a building that accommodates a water tank, multiple cells, burial rooms, a place of worship and emergency caches, although whether the place was used is unknown.
Besides the Church of the Holy Virgin Mary and the tower, the Jerusalem-styled walls of the monastery enclose another two churches built in the late-19th and mid-20th centuries, the Abbot residence in an Italian style, a theological seminary and an institute for cantors.
“To come and visit Al Muharraq is a very good experience, [because] you get to know the monastic life and the history of the place,” said Magdy Shehata, an English teacher from Sarakena. “It is [also] a good opportunity to learn about the Coptic church, since there is a school where they teach both Coptic language and life.”