Egypt: On the Trail of the Exodus

On the Trail of the Exodus

Adopted from A Travel Egypt Tour

by Jimmy Dunn

Originally Written

by Terry McKendree

Egypt is definitely in the holy land, and many tour operators offer any number of religious tours in and around the country. There are holy family tours which attempt to trace the footsteps of Jesus and his family as they traversed Egypt. There are general religious tours that cover an assortment of ancient religious sites, and even classical pharaonic tours will most often include stops at a number religious monuments. Actually, it is also not uncommon for a religious tour to also touch the most important of the pharaonic monuments, such as the Great Pyramids. Another variation is the Exodus tour, which is offered by many tour companies. Most such tours will not be completely limited to sites specific to the Exodus. One will most likely visit various religious sites that are not directly connected to the Exodus, simply because they are in the general vaccinate of other monuments which are associated with the Exodus. Extensive Exodus tours may also very likely include trips to other nearby countries, including Israel and Jordan.

Exodus tours may take many forms, but as with most visits to Egypt, they usually begin in Cairo, simply because this is where most tourists enter the country. Typically, the tour might begin in Old Cairo where one will see the famous churches and synagogues including.

Hanging Church

These include the Hanging Church (El Muallaqa, Sitt Mariam, St Mary) which derives its name from its location on top of the southern tower gate of the old Babylon fortress with its nave suspended above the passage. The church was first built, in Basilican style, near the end of the 4th century. However, at that time it is unlikely that the church would have been constructed in this location. In fact, we know that it was destroyed in the ninth century and later rebuilt, after which in 1039, it is known that the Coptic patriarchate was moved from Alexandria and seated in this church. The church consists of a courtyard surrounded by two wings with pointed arches and a long aisle lined with marble columns. In the eastern wing, there are three altars (haykals) with beautiful ebony and ivory inlaid wooden screens. The center alter is dedicated to Christ, while the left sanctuary is dedicated to St. George and the right to St John the Baptist. On the right wall of the church as you enter are many ancient icons, including a 10th century icon of the Virgin and Child, Egyptian faces and Byzantine crowns.

Abu Serga

The Church of Abu Serga (St. Sergius) is another 4th Century church dedicated to two early martyrs and supposedly built on the spot where the Holy Family, Joseph, Mary and the infant Christ, rested at the end of their journey into Egypt. They may have lived here while Joseph worked at the fortress. However, the church is dedicated to Sergius and Bacchus, who were soldier-saints that were martyred during the 4th century in Syria by Maximilan. The original building was probably done during the 5th century. It was burned during the fire of Fustat during the reign of Marwan II around 750. It was then restored during the 8th century, and has been rebuilt and restored constantly since medieval times. However, it is still considered to be a model of the early Coptic churches. Again, the most precious and ancient of the icons are on the southern wall. A vast central hall is divided into three naves by two rows of pilasters. In much the same style as the Hanging Church, Abu Serga has 12 unique columns decorated with paintings of the Apostles. This church resembles religious structures in Constantinople and Rome.

The main attraction of this church, situated directly under the choir, is the crypt. This crypt contains the remains of the original church where tradition says the Holy Family lived. Originally this crypt was the sanctuary, but became the crypt after the larger church was built.

Again, it is not unusual for a tour such as this to stop off at the Khan el-khalili market and a few other monuments while in Cairo. However, from Cairo a typical Exodus tour may head northeast toward the Suez Canal for Tanis. Though no longer, Tanis was an important City in the pharaonic period. It is located just outside the town of San al-Hagar which is about 44 miles northeast of Zagazig. Many believe that this was the Biblical city from which the Exodus began, but many will also remember it as the location where Indiana Jones discovered the 'Lost Ark' in the movie.

Tanis was called Djane by the Egyptians and Zoan by the Hebrews. We believe it was founded around the time of the 20th Dynasty and became the capital of the Fourteenth Nome of Lower Egypt. During the 21st and 22nd Dynasties, it became the capital of Egypt. However, due to flooding problems, it declined during the Roman occupations, and by the 14th century, the region was deserted. The current nearby town of San al-Hagar was founded in 1821 as a result of land reclamation.

The site has been under excavation since 1722, first by a French priest, Father Claude Sicard, who discovered the site, and then Flinders Petrie, Pierre Montet, who discovered the royal necropolis of the kings of the third Intermediate period, then Jean Yoyotte, Philippe Brissaud, and the work continues on today.

Leading to the main temple, the Gate of Shoshenq III, which has no foundation, is approached from an avenue bordered by carved stone blocks and fragments of colossi of Ramses II. The gate itself is made from carved blocks removed from other sites. The pink granite triad is of Re, Ramses and Ptah-Tatenen, and beyond that are the remains of the columns of Ramses II.

There are double mudbrick walls around the temple. The inner wall was built by Psusennes I, while the outer was built during the 30th Dynasty. Inside the remains of the walls, little is left of the temple complex of Amun. The necropolis is inside the walls built by Psusennes, and contain 21st and 22nd Dynasty tombs. These include, from south to north, three unknown tombs built of material removed from other sites, the Tomb of Osorkon II, Psusennes I, and Shoshenq III. Osorkon II's tomb contains a large granite sarcophagus of of Osorkon II, and the sepulcher of Prince Hornakht, his son.

One chamber within the tomb is also that of Takelot II. The antechamber to the Tomb of Psusennes I is reached by a vertical shaft, and is decorated with images of protective gods, including one where Psusennes I is shown worshipping Osiris. Artifacts from several kings are found within the tomb.

In the antechamber is a sepulcher of Heqakheperre Shoshenq, apparently a king we know little or nothing about. Rooms leading off the antechamber contain the kings Psusennes and Amenemope, but the room where Amenemope was buried was intended for Queen Mutnedjemet. Other chambers contain the sepulcher of Ankhefenmut and General Wundebawdjed.

The Tomb of Shoshenq III is built from 21st Dynasty carved limestone blocks, mostly removed from other locations. In fact, the King's own sarcophagi was taken from another site. The Tomb is reached though a shaft, and in the burial chamber are scenes from the Book of the Dead and the Book of Night.

Excavations continue in this area, and more discoveries are being made. While little yet is known, there is also a Third Intermediate period necropolis in the area, perhaps several more temples, including one that appears to have been as large as the the the Great Temple of Amun.

However, from here many tours will cross the Suez canal and proceed to visit Moses Springs, the first stop in the Sinai for the Israelites, and will continue on to Feiran. Few places are as steeped in Biblical mystery as the great Wadi Feiran-the Sinai's largest wadi and one of it's most archeologically important stretches of terrain. It was here, according to locals, scholars, and legend, that Moses struck a rock with his staff, bringing forth a spring so his people could drink.

Ancient Church at Wadi Feiran

Feiran is also the site of Rafadim, the fabled oasis where the Hebrews camped and battled the Amelecites. For the pilgrims and believers who have been coming to this wadi for centuries, a journey through Feiran is to pass through an entire chapter of the Old Testament itself, Exodus 17.

Given such prominence in the Old Testament, it is no surprise that Feiran is littered with the ruins of dozens of ancient churches; some dating back to the 4th century AD, when Feiran began to develop into a major religious center for monks and pilgrims, many on their way to Mt. Sinai and St. Catherine Monastery further east.

The Wadi's chief religious sites are the rock from which Moses drew water, which convention places at the western entrance to the oasis, and Mount Tahoun, which Moses supposedly used as an observation point to view the battle with the Amelecites. Atop the mountain is an ancient cross, and the ruins of a small church dating back to the 4th century.

The natural spectacles here are as captivating as the Wadi's biblical lore. Chief among these is the Oasis of Feiran, the largest oasis in all of Sinai. The heart of the oasis is a spectacular and luxuriant sprawl of palms that stretches over four kilometers in length and is the reason Feiran is called the "Pearl of Sinai." Along the edges of the oasis and the wadi are the dramatic, often sheer cliffs of the wadi wall that contribute to the valley's secretive and paradisiacal atmosphere.

From Feiran, an Exodus tour might proceed on to the area of Mount Sinai. After spending a short night in a local hotel, those with enough energy may climb Mount Sinai early the next morning. This usually happens very early in the morning in order to witness the sunrise from atop the mountain which is a very grand experience.

St. Catherine's Monastery

Later the same day, a visit to St. Catherine's Monastery is in order. This is one of the oldest and most active monasteries in all of Egypt. Constructed by order of the Emperor Justinian between 527 and 565, it lies at the foot of Mount Sanai and is built around what is thought to be Moses' Burning Bush, which has a chapel built atop it. It is a spectacular natural setting for priceless works of art, including Arab mosaics, Greek and Russian icons, Western oil paintings, paintings on wax, fine sacerdotal ornaments, marbles, enamels, chalices, reliquaries, including one donated by Czar Alexander II in the 19th century, and another by Empress Catherine of Russia in the 17th century.

This monastery also has one of the largest collections of illuminated manuscripts in the world. The collection consists of some 3,500 volumes in Greek, Coptic, Arabic, Armenian, Hebrew, Slavic, Syriac, Georgian and other languages. Around the year 1850, the fourth century Codex Sinaiticus, which is now in the British Museum in London, was discovered here. The Monastery even has a small 10th or 11th century mosque which was probably built to appease the Islamic authorities of the time.

Traditional Burning Bush

There is also a small chapel (the Chapel of St. Triphone, also known as the Skull House) which houses the skulls of deceased monks. St. Catherine's has a rich history indeed. So rich that it is a sparkling example of an undiscovered Jewel of travel. It has been called the oldest working Christian monastery, though St. Anthony's predates it, and the smallest diocese in the world.

The Monastery was originally ordered built by Empress Helen, the mother of Constantine the Great, but was actually built by Emperor Justinian to house the bones of St. Catherine of Alexandria. St. Catherine, whose body was reportedly carried away by angels, was discovered five hundred years later at the top of the nearby peak that now bears her name. Her relics are stored in a marble reliquary in the Basilica.

St. Catherine's is also a formidable fortification, with granite walls 40 to 200 feet tall, surrounded by gardens and cypresses. Prior to probably the twentieth century, the only entrance to St. Catherine's was a small door 30 feet above ground, where provisions and people where lifted with a system of pulleys, and where food was often lowered to nomads. It has withstood numerous attacks over its 14 hundred year existence thus protecting a rich store of art. Today, while it is one of the oldest monasteries in the world, its original, preserved state is unmatched. Though established and patronized most of its history by the Russian Orthodox Church, it is now under the auspices of the Greek Orthodox Church. Most of its monks are also of Greek origin.

The next stop for many tours will be Jabal Baraka (the Mount of Blessings). This is thought to be one of the sites where Moses blessed his people. From here, there is an outstanding view of the whole of the Southern Sinai, and with the aid of a map, one can examine several alternate routes they took.

After Jabal Baraka, the Oasis of Ein Um Achmad will often be visited. This is possibly the site where God sent manna for the Israelites and is considered by religious scholars to be one of the places where they remained for an extended period.

Next up is a climb to the top of Jabal Baraka North, almost 4000 feet high, and another possible site for Moses receiving of the Ten Commandments. Once at the summit of the mountain, one has a panoramic view including the Gulf of Aquaba on one side and the traditional Mount Sinai on the other side. This is a good place to discuss the location of the real Mount Sinai, according to the Bible and archaeological data.

Descending from the mountain top, a tour might then arrive at the Oasis of Bir Biryea (the Small Well). This may be the site of the Waters of Marah (the Bitter Waters, Exodus 15:22), where God and Moses punished the Children of Israel by providing bitter water. Certainly, today, the water from the well is very bitter so travelers should bring their own!

King's Highway

Moses Spring in Petra

At this point, many tours will actually leave Egypt, crossing by ferry over to Jordan. The first stop on the trail of the Exodus in Jordan will bring one to the Kings highway which winds through the Zered Valley (torrent of Zered). This is where it is thought that the Israelites concluded their desert wanderings and camped on their journey north (Numbers 21:12, Deuteronomy 2:13-14). From here the tour will head on to Petra, the Rose City where just outside the town we find Moses Spring where he struck the rock and water flowed (Numbers 20:10-12). Mount Hor, on the edge of the Biblical land of Edom is Jabal Harun (Mount Aaron) at Petra.

Continuing along the Kings Highway one sees many places that have their roots in various Biblical stories from both the Old Testament and New Testament. Many places in south and central Jordan are associated with Moses Exodus from Egypt.


Though many remain unidentified, Kadesh-barnea and the Wilderness of Zin were somewhere along present day south Jordans borders. We do know the Kings highway, the worlds oldest continuously used communication route, was first mentioned in Genesis 14 and Numbers 20. Moses request to the King of Edom to travel along the Kings highway and not turn to the right or to the left until we have passed through your territory was turned down. But a drive along this road will eventually bring us to Mt. Nebo.

From Mt. Nebos wind swept promontory overlooking the Dead Sea, the Jordan Valley and the hills of Jerusalem, Moses viewed the Promised Land that he would never enter. A small church was built in the 4th century AD to commemorate this sacred spot and it has expanded into the current church which features a stunning collection of Byzantine mosaics.

A View from Mt. Nebo

Immediately north-east of Mt. Nebo, at what is now known as the Springs of Moses, is ancient Beth Peor. Moses and his people camped in the valley near Beth-Peor and soon after he died.

And so we come to the end of the Exodus trail, and a wonderful pilgrimage for anyone interested in biblical travel. Tours such as this will usually take 10 or so days, and in some locations, accommodations may be somewhat rudimentary. While much of the travel is not extremely rugged, fit tourists will probably enjoy the trip most.