Early Local Traditions of the Flight of the Holy Family in Egypt: Hermopolis

Early Local Traditions of the Flight of the Holy Family in Egypt: Hermopolis

by Andrew Makkin

The Christian basilica at Hermopolis

During late antiquity, the city of Hermopolis (modern al-Ashmunayn) was a substantial metropolis located on the western bank of the Nile. It was a regional capital during Pharaonic and Greek times, and it hosted the main temple of the Egyptian god Thoth. Therefore, not surprisingly as a religious center, during the second half of the third century AD, the city became an episcopal see. At first the Christian element co-existed alongside the pagan religion, but soon the Temple of Thoth fell into decline, and eventually early churches were built within the temple enclosure, as they were at a number of other ancient temples. There was also a monastery dedicated to Saint Severus located in the city, and at least seven other churches, including a large, three-aisled basilica from the first half of the fifth century. Its granite columns and ornate Corinthian columns, which can still be seen today, evidence the wealth of this church in ancient Hermopolis.

However, Hermopolis has another distinction, being the first Egyptian city to be associated with the Flight of the Holy Family. One Coptic scholar has even called it the "place of origin" for local traditions about the family's route of travel while in Egypt.

Sign for the Christian Basilica at Hermopolis

Around the year 400 AD, an anonymous author wrote "A History of the Monks in Egypt", one of our most valuable resources for the study of early Egyptian monasticism and pilgrimage. The book describes the journey of seven pilgrims who visited Egypt from Palestine in order to meet holy persons and tour monastic sites between 394 and 395.

When the group made a stop in Hermopolis, the author records that "We beheld also another holy man named Apollos in the Thebaid, within the limits of Hermopolis, to which the Savior along with Mary and Joseph came fulfilling the Prophecy of Isaiah: 'Behold the Lord is sitting on a light cloud and is coming to Egypt. The idols of Egypt will be shaken by his presence and will fall on the ground.' For there we see the temple where, after the Savior had entered the city, all the idols fell on the ground upon their faces."

Clearly even at this early point in time, Hermopolis already had a tradition connecting the city with the Flight of the Holy Family. We also see that the prophecy of Isaiah 19:1 plays a key role in this tradition, but note that in the "History of the Monks", Isaiah's prediction about the idols of Egypt is embellished. Not only will the idols "be shaken", but will also "fall on the ground." This little extra detail was closely tied to oral traditions about the local archaeology. For residents and pilgrims during late antiquity, the ruins of an ancient temple in Hermopolis were visible proof that the Holy Family had visited and that Isaiah's prophecy had been fulfilled.

Another source for the Holy Family tradition in Hermopolis was a work composed by the Christian historian Sozomen during the middle of the fifth century AD. He was originally from Palestine, and wrote a "History of the Church" while in Constantinople, which was dedicated to Emperor Theodosius II. It provides more information about local sites associated with the Holy Family in Hermopolis. In part, he records:

"At Hermopolis, in the Thebaid, is a tree called Persis of which the branches, the leaves, and the least portion of the bark are said to heal diseases, when touched by the sick; for it is related by the Egyptians that when Joseph fled with Christ and Mary, the holy mother of God, from the wrath of Herod, they went to Hermopolis; when entering at the gate, this largest tree, as if not enduring the advent of Christ, inclined to the ground and worshiped him. I relate precisely what I have heard from many sources concerning this tree.

I think that this phenomenon was a sign of the presence of God in the city; or perhaps, as seems most probable, the tree, which had been worshiped by the inhabitants, after the pagan custom, was shaken, because the demon, who had been an object of worship, started up at sight of (Christ).... It was moved of its own accord; for at the presence of Christ the idols of Egypt were shaken, even as Isaiah the prophet had foretold. On the expulsion of the demon, the tree was permitted to remain as a monument of what had occurred, and was endued with the property of healing those who believed. The inhabitants of Egypt...testify to the truth of these events, which took place among themselves."

There are two observations that can be made about Sozonen's recording of this tradition. First, his knowledge about the tree in Hermopolis is very clearly based on oral accounts. At the end of the first paragraph he claims to write down "precisely what I have heard concerning this tree". Second, Sozomen adds his own interpretation to what he has heard, connecting the tree again with Isaiah's prophecy concerning the "idols of Egypt". It is his interpretation that the tree perhaps had once been the object of pagan worship, but that at the arrival of the Holy Family it had been freed of its demons.

Sozomen's report about the tree in Hermopolis is very important because it tells us about pilgrimage practices related to the Holy Family during early times. In the fifth century, pilgrims visiting Hermopolis could witness not only ruined pagan temples as evidence of the Holy Family's visit, but also an ancient tree whose limbs still bent down to the ground in honor of their passing. He mentions that the leaves, branches and lower bark of this tree were thought to be especially vested with healing properties. This description is consistent with known practices at other early (and indeed modern) Christian healing shrines, where the act of healing was often effected by the touch of a sacred object. In late antiquity, pilgrims often brought such objects home with them, such as clay flasks of holy oil, icons of the healing saint, amulets inscribed with a blessing and worn on a chain around the neck, and even handfuls of earth or sand collected from a sacred site. If that all sounds familiar to those interested in the more ancient Egyptian pagan religion, it should. Many of the same practices existed at that time.

The accounts in Sozomen and the History of the Monks in Egypt also reveal how the Holy Family traditions helped the church "Christianize" Egypt. In the tradition about the fallen pagan temple in the "History of the Monks", one observes how ancient pharaonic sites could be connected with biblical stories and reclaimed as Christian sites. Indeed, many of the ancient temples of the Pharaonic era were converted into churches, and they were done so not simply as a matter of convenience. They acted not just as ready made churches but as proof and landmarks of the Holy Family's passage.






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Last Updated: June 14th, 2011