An Introduction to the Flight of the Holy Family in Egypt

An Introduction to the

Flight of the Holy Family in Egypt

by Jimmy Dunn

A modern Icon of the Flight of the Holy Family

The Holy Family's Flight into Egypt is really only mentioned briefly in the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. There, we learn that when Jesus was born, Herod the Great was king of the Jews as well as a client of the Roman emperor. It was Herod who rebuilt the Temple in Jerusalem and founded the fortress of Masada, but he is chiefly remembered as propagator of the Massacre of the Innocents. When the three wise men from the east informed Herod of the birth of a king in Bethlehem, he "sent forth and put to death all the male children in that town and in all its districts, from two years old and under" (Matt. 2:16). The Holy Family was able to avoid this massacre by fleeing to Egypt, where they remained until an angel told Joseph that Herod had died.

Matthew is the only one who mentions this story in our modern Christian Bible. He tells it as the fulfillment of the words spoken by God to the prophet Hosea, "Out of Egypt have I called my son" (Hos. 11:1). Though Hosea was evoking Israel's special relationship with God through the memory of the Exodus, Matthew understood his words, some eight hundred years later, as foretelling the coming of the Messiah. The use of quotations from the Old Testament to prove that Jesus was the fulfillment of the scriptures is characteristic of Matthew's gospel, and seems to have been common among the early Christians, as it indeed seems to be today.

A Modern Egptian Icon fo the Flight of the Holy Family

The Christian Bible does not go into much detail about the Holy Family's Flight into Egypt. Beyond it, we must look to the Copts. The Copts are Egypt's traditional Christians and remain by far the most numerous in Egypt.

We are not told by Matthew how long the Holy Family remained in Egypt, nor are we given any geographic information about their journey. Even the Nile River is not mentioned. Although the expanded tradition is largely based on written accounts, physical sites that have been popularly associated with the Holy Family also play an important role in supplying further details. Sites made sacred because they are believed to have been touched by the Holy Family often feature unusual physical features. Some of these include miraculous hand or foot prints of the Christ child, unusually shaped trees thought to have sheltered the Virgin, or healing springs where the family quenched their thirst.

A Nineteenth Century Photograph of Pilgrims sitting beside the Tree of the Holy Virgin at Matariya

These sacred sites are scattered across the Delta, and are found along the Nile as far south as Asyut. These sacred sites in turn find further material expression in architecture. Churches or monastic settlements mark most sites associated with the Holy Family in Egypt. The rich heritage of Coptic paintings, in particular the production of icons and murals, is also an integral part of the network of belief and ritual practice shaped by the Coptic tradition of the Holy Family's journey in Egypt. The Coptic pictorial tradition is very conservative in nature. The iconographic image of the Flight has remained largely unchanged for the last fifteen hundred years. It shows the Virgin holding the infant Christ, riding a donkey, and Joseph on foot.

Twentieth Century Mosaic of the Virgin and Christ by Isaac Fanous in the Cathedral of St. Mark in Alexandria

In addition to the few depictions of the Flight that have survived from this long period, a much wider range of sacred images that do not at first appear to be closely tied to the journey of the Holy Family should actually be understood to be making a reference to their stay in Egypt. Just about any depiction of the Virgin and the Christ Child, an ubiquitous subject in Coptic art, can be seen as having points of connection with the Holy Family's trip, and with the transformation of Egypt into a second holy land.

The Holy Family, according to Coptic traditions, seems to have spent most of their time traveling. Sometimes they are depicted in a boat on the Nile, but more often the Virgin and Jesus ride a donkey. It is possible to chart the Holy Family's journey through Egypt by combining written sources with sacred geographical sites. A number of modern accounts have suggested such itineraries, while weaving the different legends into continuous narratives. The Coptic Church has also recognized an official list of Holy Family sites for the bi-millennial celebration of the Flight into Egypt. The stages of the Holy Family's journey can be divided into four geographic groups, consisting of the coastal road linking Palestine to Egypt, the Nile Delta, the vicinity of greater Cairo and the Nile Valley.

A Nineteenth Century Icon of the Flight of the Holy Family

During their travels, written accounts indicate that they received charity from pious strangers, but often they were without shelter, food or water. Most of the sites associated with the Flight of the Holy Family reflect some tribulation overcome by the Holy Family. For example, walking in the heat of the day, they find shade under a tree, which is blessed. When they are hungry, a palm tree bows down, offering its dates. Their thirst is quenched by local wells, or in more dire circumstances, by springs brought forth by the infant Jesus. When chased by thieves, a tree opens up to hide them. If there is no room in an inn, they sleep in a cave that miraculously appears.

After each encounter, the tree, well or cave was thereafter endowed with miraculous healing power. In time, each became a place of pilgrimage that was marked by a church, monastery or convent, typically dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Hence, the Copts have a long tradition of venerating the Virgin (al-'Adhra). Indeed, such churches are found throughout Egypt. Though most are not actually associated with the Flight, their sheer number indicates the central position held by Mary in the devotion of the Copts. Six of the fifteen largest Christian mulids (pilgrimage festivals) in Egypt are dedicated to the Virgin, and all but one are held at Holy Family sites.

Indeed, with or without the Coptic Traditions, Egypt is a part of the Holy Land. Today, we find many of the world's oldest Christian Churches, not to mention the very foundations of monastic orders. Its traditions related to the Christian religion are deep and fundamental, expanding forward from the Flight to the early days of persecution, the legalization of Christianity, and it is central to the internal strife that eventually broke the religion into various segments.






Reference Number

2000 Years of Coptic Christianity

Meinardus, Otto F. A.


American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 5113

Be Thou There: The Holy Family's Journey in Egypt

Gawdat, Gabra (editor)


American University of Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 606 3

Christian Egypt: Coptic Art and Monuments Through Two Millennia

Capuani, Massimo


Liturgical Press, The

ISBN 0-8146-2406-5

Christianizing the Roman Empire A.D. 100-400

MacMullen, Ramsay


Yale University Press

ISBN 0-300-03642-6

Coptic Saints and Pilgrimages

Meinardus, Otto F. A.


American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 692 6

Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity, The

McManners, John


Oxford University Press

ISBN 0-19-285259-0

Last Updated: June 14th, 2011