Jesus, Egypt and Archaeology
by Rick Dack, Founder and Director of Defending the Bible Int’l.

(All images and text are owned/purchased by Defending the Bible Int'l. and cannot be used without permission)
 Paper presented at the Near East Archaeological Society
Wednesday, November 19, 2003, 9:15-9:55 a.m. session
Hilton Atlanta Hotel - Atlanta, GA
The journey to Egypt by Mary, Joseph and Jesus has been greatly debated by the various branches of Christianity. The Eastern and Western branches of Christianity have clashed in the search for the evidence of this journey. The East has been content with Church tradition as well as dreams and visions by clergy men to establish their claims, while the West is primarily interested in strong scientific data in order to trace the family's movements in the escape from the murderous Herod. How much can we trust Church traditions as opposed to strong archaeological evidence? Like many sites in the Holy Land, the conflict of History vs. Tradition has made some leery about even tackling the subject because so little is known. The popular media (Films and Television) have suggested that Jesus and his family lived in Egypt anywhere from a year to the time when Jesus became a teenager. Eastern and Coptic Church tradition has Jesus performing miracles in Egypt such as resurrecting birds and mountain's bowing to him. Often Mary plays a dominant role in these stories of Jesus' stay in Egypt and his later public ministry. Unfortunately, the latter example was made into a film a few years ago and Jesus was not the confident Son of God but a confused, lethargic and very fearful person who questioned his calling and identity as a child and as a man. In this paper, I will examine most of the historical sources relating to Jesus' journey into Egypt .
The route that Jesus and his family took into Egypt has taken on a life of its own. The supposed towns of visitation in Egypt stretch from Dimyana in the delta to the Southern Dayr al-Muharraq. The sites that will be discussed in this paper have been visited by tourists and those on spiritual pilgrimages providing much needed revenue to the local economies of these villages. Many of these accounts originate from the Coptic Church, medieval manuscripts, and also paintings from Egypt, which place the Holy Family in a boat (on the Nile) or Mother and child on a donkey with Joseph in the lead.
Why Egypt?
The Gospel of Matthew begins with the genealogy of Jesus starting from Abraham to Jesus' connection with David. The murderous Herod hears of the birth of this King, plotted the massacre of the Innocents, and the Holy family was forced to flee from Herod's soldiers into Egypt. But why Egypt? Are there reasons why the Holy family felt secure traveling to the land of the Pharaohs?
After the death of his father Antipater, Herod took Judea from the Hasmonean Antigonus. He then conquered Joppa and Masada and layed siege to Jerusalem, which he succeeded in taking in 37 B.C. At this time, the current leader of Egypt, Cleopatra, desired to resurrect the Ptolemaic Empire to its former glory. Unfortunately, part of the former Empire included Judea. Antony to pacify the ambitious Cleopatra gave her only the area of Jericho, which was known for its rich date-palms and the medicinal balsam plants. Jericho was the only place that grew the rich balsams except Arabia and the coast of East Africa (Perowne 1957:68).When the queen visited Jerusalem in 36 B.C., Herod proposed to her a lease of Jericho for 200-400 talents a year. Herod not only needed the economic income of the location, but he also wanted to avoid an Egyptian Administration ruling from his Jerusalem (Jones 1967: 50). This background information may have been one of many factors that contributed to the holy family's escape to Egypt, but there are more clues that should be uncovered.
It is known that the Queen tried to seduce and poison Herod around 40 B.C. in an attempt to take his land. Herod refused her advances, and she swore revenge. Also, Herod's experiences at the Egyptian port of Pelusium with the shipbuilders, who refused him passage and the shocking news of his brother's death that Herod had received at Egyptian Rhinocolura may have darkened his view of his neighbor to the South (1957:57). It appears that Herod did not like Egypt and the Egyptians did not like him. Interestingly, both Pelusium and Rhinocolura are mentioned as stop off points for Jesus' family in Egypt according to the Coptic Church. In addition it appears that Herod was unpopular in Egypt for killing the young Hasmonean prince Aristobulus and all of his family including his sister Mariamne and her two sons.
The marriage of Herod and Mariamne, the daughter of Alexandra, was a marriage of contradictions. Herod fell in love with Mariamne and she fell in love with power and opportunity. Herod's mother-in-law Alexandra and his wife Mariamne desired that Herod's brother-in-law Aristobulus become High Priest. The young man became a Priest but not for the most honorable of reasons. It was known that both Aristobulus and Mariamne were beautiful in appearance. It has been suggested that Herod feared that if Antony saw Aristobulus, he may have been pleased to elevate him to Herod's position. Soon after Aristobulus became High Priest, Herod had him drowned. Alexandra pleaded with Antony via Cleopatra to investigate this incident, and the request was granted. Herod was cleared by Antony of wrong-doing, but he did not forget this incident (1957:70-72).
After the death of Cleopatra in 30 A.D., Herod was able to reclaim Jericho for his own, and his love/hate relationship with his family continued to be a problem. The end came for Mariamne when Herod could no longer tolerate her lack of affection and the rumors of her indiscretions with others. Herod had her executed after a mock trial. Alexandra was soon executed after it was learned that she planned to assassinate Herod by employing two guards in her plot, one being Herod's cousin, who reported the plan to the king (1957:86). .....The death of Mariamme affected Herod the rest of his days. The king would stagger from room to room calling out his wife's name and asking servants to summon her, but to no avail. The rest of Herod's years were filled with physical and mental torments, and one may imagine that his mind replayed over and over the deceptions of Queen Cleopatra and his family's woes in which she played a part. Though it is a matter of pure conjecture, Herod's mental condition at the time of Christ's birth may have not hindered, but helped the family escape.
Route Theory #1
The journey is supposed to have started in Bethlehem, the family then traveled to Gaza. From Gaza, the coastal road took them through Pelusium (modern al-Farama) to Bubastis. Isaiah prophesies, "Behold the Lord rides on a swift cloud, and will come in Egypt; the idols of Egypt will totter at his presence, And the heart of Egypt will melt in its midst" (19:1). Church tradition tells us that when the Holy family entered the city of Bubastis, the local idols were brought down, and the town was in an uproar. Jesus, seeing the discontented people, produced a healing spring, but the people were not pacified. Soon afterward, the family was robbed by two thieves (an Egyptian and a Jew) both of whom supposedly died along side Jesus at Golgotha.
When the family left Bubastis, they crossed the Damietta (the eastern branch of the Nile) at Sammanud. They rested at Apa Anub where a modern-day Church stands today. At Sakha, Jesus supposedly left his footprint upon a stone before crossing the Rosetta, the western branch of the Nile. Then they came to Alexandria. It's been assumed by many that the family stayed at Alexandria given the large Jewish Diaspora population, but ancient scholars and Church traditions only mention the city as an area where they were near for a short period of time. The family supposedly traveled to Wadi al-Natrun where a monastic center is located today. The journey to the southeast brought the family to Musturud where Jesus brought forth a spring. The commemoration of this miracle is celebrated every year at the festival called the "Mulid of the Virgin" (Gabra 2001:4).
Mulids are pilgrimage festivals that are attended by large groups of people and this Mulid is celebrated every August as a commemoration of the holy family's entrance into Egypt. At times, the Mulids are transformed from a spiritual commemoration into a religious type of marketplace called a Nahda. Items sold at Nahdas' include the following: holy relics, virgin statues, pens, cups, scarves, and pictures. Caves and trees along the route of the Holy family are considered as holy icons to be touched and prayed near for purposes of healing. The buying and selling aspect of this celebration is difficult to control by the Church (2001:32, 33). Leaving Musturud, the family is believed to have gone east to Matariya (near Heliopolis). An ancient sycamore called "The Virgins Tree" supposedly shielded the family on their arrival at this location, and a crypt at Abu Sarga or Old Cairo also provided shelter from the elements.
The Nile to the Quarry
In the southern city of Ma'adi, a Church is located on the spot where it is said the family set sail up the Nile. A mountain called Gabal al-Tayr is said to have bowed down to Jesus as the family passed. Jesus then stretched his hand and the mountain returned to its original location. The "Church of the Mountain" is said to have once had in its possession a stone handprint of Jesus. Unfortunately, the print was stolen by the Crusader King of Jerusalem (Amalric) during his invasion of Egypt in 1168. The family then traveled to Hermopolis Magna (Al-Ashmunayn). This archaeological site contains two ancient massive stone baboon statues that are sacred to the ancient pagan god Thoth (Currid 1997:97). These baboons now stand guard next to the ruins of a fifth century Basilica. Hermopolis, like Bubastis, is also said to be a site where the Isaiah passage was fulfilled. Supposedly, the idols fell and the townspeople were converted. Church tradition tells us that the Holy Family was highly respected by the people of Hermopolis Magna, but they did not stay. Papyri from the first and second centuries has been recovered at Hermopolis Magna that testify's to a strong Jewish presence there (Safrai 1974:123). At Cusae, they were not welcomed as warmly and were at first driven out by the local pagan priests. The travelers were eventually able to find shelter at Cusae and stayed for six months, until an angel of the Lord appeared to them and told them of Herod's death.
Other traditions say that the family went further south to Durunka near Asyut where they stayed in an ancient quarry that is called "The Monastery of the Blessed Virgin." The question has been asked, "Why build Christian sites in former pagan centers? Egyptologist Lufti Sharif says that early Christians built Churches and Monasteries at these sites due to the Old Testament prophesies of Isaiah 19: 13, Jeremiah 43:13, and Ezekial 29, and 30. These passages directly mentioned pagan centers such as Memphis, the destruction of the sacred pillars of On, and the defeat of the Pharaoh called the great monster (Gabra 2001:32). The
Officially Recognized Route of the Coptic Orthodox Church
The Coptic Church holds to a second theory about the family's travels. They believe that the Holy family first traveled from Gaza to Rafah (Raphia). Archaeologists have discovered no remains of early Christianity at this location. The family crossed the Wadi al-Arish (The River of Egypt), this river is actually a small stream that goes between Egypt and Palestine. Tradition says this was crossed on the first of June in 6 or 5 B.C., and at this point, they entered Egypt. They then traveled to the city of Al-Arish, or the ancient Roman location known as Rhinoculura and then to al-Zaraniq where three old Churches and a castle can be found. From al-Zaraniq they traveled to Roman/Byzantine Pelusium or Tell al-Farma. Port Said, near Pelusium, was a port and trading post on the Mediterranean. The ridge overlooking Pelusium contains a number of churches from the fifth and seventh centuries. The location is known as Churches Hill (2001:35).
The Journey Begins at Bubastis
Bubastis or Basta was where the family was robbed by the two thieves who were to die along side Christ at Golgotha. Bubastis, the home of the Egyptian cat goddess Bast, is today a field of stones that contains a large cat cemetery. The city was a powerful political center in the Twenty Second Dynasty (945-720 B.C.) The Coptic Church paints a better picture of the events surrounding the family's visit and even names the two thieves. Titus the Egyptian and Dumachus the Syrian robbed the family of their clothes that were of fine quality. Titus decided to return the garments but later stole Jesus' silver sandals. Mary began to weep, and Jesus comforted her by making a well. The well was blessed by Jesus and was restricted only to those outside of Bubastis, given their bad treatment by the town.
Another story begins with the family outside of Bubastis in which Jesus asks for water, but the town refuses. After many attempts by Mary to get water and food, a farmer approaches and offers them nourishment. Soon after, Jesus heals the farmer's paralytic wife. The next day the farmer (Klum), Jesus, and Mary enter the Bast temple and the temple pillars fall, fulfilling Isaiah 19:1. Jesus then creates a well inside the temple, but the people refuse to give up their god Bast. Egyptian soldiers come to arrest Jesus' family, and the farmer helps them escape. The temple well becomes a place of healing for all who did not reject Jesus. The Klum house site is now occupied by The Mar Girgis Church, on this site where a fourth century Church once stood.
At Musturud, the family is still sought after by Herod's soldiers. At this location, Jesus creates a well for drinking, bathing, and washing like he did at Bubastis. The Coptic Church, throughout many of these stories, has Jesus "creating" wells and doing other miracles. This focus is intentional in showing Jesus doing miracles at even a young age. The cave and well at al-Mahanna (called "the bathing place" at Musturud) is today believed to be a place of healing.
Bilbays, 48 kilometers east Northeast of Cairo, is the family's supposed next stop. When the family arrived in town, a funeral was in process and Jesus raised the dead man to life. The dead man exclaimed, "This is the True God, the saviour of the world, who is born of the blessed virgin, who accomplished a mystery which the human intellect cannot comprehend." All of the people of Bilbay came to believe in Jesus. Egyptian Christians believe that Bilbay once contained a tree that was blessed by Mary. The area also contains a Church that was built in 1932 which is surrounded by a large wall. It is believed that a fourth century Church once stood at this very spot commemorating the events in which Jesus raised a dead man to life.
From Bilbays the family traveled through Zaqaziq, north of Mt. Gitmar, which is north of Cairo. The people of Daqadus welcomed the new arrivals, and Jesus is said to have blessed a well at this location, now known as the Church of the Holy Virgin. The Church, which was built in 1888, is said to have been founded by Constantine's mother Helena. Inside the Church is a wall that is said to have been blessed by Mary (2001:35-43).
From Sammanud to Jesus' Footprint
With Herod's soldiers in hot pursuit, the family fled from Daqadus to Sammunud. The priests at Apa Anud say that the family stayed there for seventeen days and were welcomed by the locals. With a warm welcome, Jesus blessed the well in that city and Mary baked bread. The granite bowl that Mary used and the well both can be viewed in the city's Church courtyard. Sammanud is the place of the terrible massacre by the Roman Emperor Diocletion in which 8,000 local Christians are said to have perished. This mass slaughter was prompted by the people's refusal to bow to pagan idols. One of the many that died was the twelve year old Apa Anud after whom this location is named. The local Church is named after him, and a commemoration of his life is held every year on July 31. The Apa Anud Church is even today associated with miraculous healings. Examples of these healings include a wheel chair-bound boy who can now walk and also healings from epilepsy.
Al-Burullas was the next stop for the Holy family according to Church tradition. This area's salt marshes are said to have hid the family from Herodian soldiers, but no archaeological evidence has been recovered from the time of Jesus' early life. Dimyana, a part of Al-Burullas, was the next stop for the family. This Christian-Muslim village is best known for the martyrdom of Saint Dimyana and forty others with her. The only connection with Jesus' family and this area is oral tradition and no manuscript evidence exists.
The family then traveled west to a place called Sakha. When the family arrived, Jesus touched his foot upon a rock, water came forth and it left an imprint. This location known as Dayr al-Maghtis (Monastery of the Pool) was frequented by those who desired healing. This location was gutted by a fire in the thirteenth century. Little or no archaeological evidence remains where the monastery stood, but the rock footprint of Jesus called Bikha Isous was discovered in April of 1984 during a sewage dig near the Church at Sakha. The print is said to give off a beautiful odor and has reportedly healed a man's eye disease. However Coptic Church historian Otto Meinardus has asserted that the location of Bikha Isous where the miracle of the footprint took place is unknown. He has also questioned whether the stone actually contains Jesus' footprint. Father Matthias, who once served at the Church of the Holy Virgin at Sakha, is undeterred in his belief that it is authentic. The footprint's final resting place is in a small glass container at the Church at Sakha where people place prayers inside the container and the stone is anointed with holy oil (2001:46-51).
Crossing the Nile to Cairo
The Holy family decided to journey west. Crossing the Nile, Jesus is said to have blessed Wadi al-Natrun from a far. Natrun is located halfway between Cairo and Alexandria. As they neared Wadi-al-Natrun, Jesus created a well at the village of Al-Hamra (modern Bir Maria). Natrun contains four large monasteries (Macarius, Bihoi, al-Saryan and Baramous) and also cave ruins. At Nikou, east of Natrun, tradition states that the family stayed there for seven days and that Jesus healed a demon possessed man. The exact location of Nikiou is unknown and is not mentioned on the list of official holy sites given by the Coptic Church. The two potential locations for Nikiou are Nikoiu the Great, near Zwayat Razin about 8 kilometers south of Minuf, and Nikiou the Small, about 18 kilometers from Tanta. The Coptic Encyclopedia states, "we know the Holy Family was at Sakha and went along the Western desert to Cairo." Nikiou the Great seems to be the favored location (2001:51-53).
Cairo sites
The first location that the family supposedly entered was Ayan Shams. It is called On or Beth-Shemesh of Jeremiah 43:13. Little is known about the site's connection with the family, but tradition says they were refused entry. From Ayn Shams, they came to Matariya where a Sycamore tree shaded the family. Jesus created a well here and blessed it. Tradition says that Jesus was bathed in this well and a balsam tree sprung from the well water that Mary poured out. Tourists that visit the site still visit the balsam tree. The tree is said to produce a healing balm. The belief is attributed to the Arabic Infancy Gospel (24) that was written in the fifth century. (Brown 1977:204).
At Klot Bek, southwest of Matariya, the family blessed a farmer who gave them water and melons to consume. A residence for monks called Dayr al-Suryan stands at the location of a fourth century church that one assumes marks the spot where the family was given the food. It seems that all Cairo Churches desire some link to the family's visit whether or not there is any substantial proof from archaeology or strong church tradition (Gabra 2001:59, 60).
Egypt's Babylon to al-Bahnasa
Tradition states that a part of old Cairo, called Babylon, was avoided by the family due to a Roman garrison. According to Coptic Orthodox Seminary librarian Girgis Daoud, the family feared arrest if discovered here. Another tradition says that the family stayed there for two days in a crypt and visited the location after the death of Herod. Ten kilometers south of Cairo is the location called Ma'adi. The family sailed to Upper Egypt from this location using the gold, frankincense and myrrh as payment. Traveling farther south, the family went through an ancient tunnel underneath the Nile. The existence of an ancient Nile tunnel is not supported by scholars, but Father Matta Salib of Aby Sayfayn Monastery says that he visited the area called Tammud and that the story was confirmed to him in a dream. Memphis, the next stop, is where the Holy Family was sheltered, but there is no archaeological evidence at this site to support this belief. Sixth-century Christians did believe this site was a true stop-off for the travelers.
The family continued down the Nile passing Beni Suef and Dayr-al Maymum (25 kilometers north of Beni-Suef) where it is believed that the family blessed the location as they passed by. At Ihnasya, nineteen kilometers west of Beni-Suef, the family rested, and a palm tree bent down to Jesus when he desired to eat of its fruit. The site known as Beni-Suef was destroyed when an earthquake hit the area about 1300 A.D. Upon leaving Beni-Suef, the family traveled south passing Maghagha and arriving at Ishnin al-Nasara. This location is famous for Jesus waving his finger over a dug well and producing water. After the family's thirst was quenched, the well dried up. Ten kilometers west of Ishnin al-Nasara a manuscript was discovered called "St. Joseph the Carpenter" at Dayr al-Garnus. This document states that the family stayed in this area for four days. Virgin Mary sightings supposedly occurred in the area where the Virgin instructed the locals where to find bricks for the building of a new church. At Oxyrynchus (called Al-Bahnasa), eight kilometers southeast of Dayr al-Garnus, tradition says that Jesus planted a piece of wood near a well that grew into a green and fruitful tree (2001:64-83).
The Falling Rock and the Long Stay
The family entered Gabal al-Tayr via the Nile. Gabal al-Tayr is famous for the event in which Jesus saved his family from a falling rock as they crossed the river. When Jesus and his family entered the local temple, the idols from that temple fell. The priests became angry and chased the family out. Jesus then split a mountain near the Nile and escaped the pursuing religious leaders. Jesus' handprint can be seen on the side of the rock that he touched to open the mountain. Next, the family journeyed to Sawada and then visited Beni-Hasan, though some manuscripts deny the latter location. At al-Ashmunayn (Hermopolis Magna), Jesus raised a person from the dead, and it is said a confrontation took place between Jesus and Satan. As Jesus passed by a tree that was used to worship Satan, its branches bowed, and Satan was expelled from it. Idols also fell at this location; the pagan priests and their families were forced to flee for their own safety. The next stop was at Philis or Dayrut al-Sharif. A tree provided shade for the family, and the twigs from the tree, it is said, can heal.
The last two locations cited by the Church before the Holy Family's return home are al-Qusiya and Dayr al-Muharruq. Qusiya, south of Dayrut, is known for their passing by a Hathor Temple where more idols fell and the family was chased from the city. A Pharaonic Temple was also destroyed upon Jesus' arrival. The location is said to be cursed because Jesus placed a curse upon the town, and that is why it is desolate. Dayr al-Muharruq is known as the most important spot on the journey because that the Holy family is believed to have stayed there for six months. Joseph built a house there, and the angel of the Lord appeared to tell him it was safe to return home (2001:84-114). The "Monastery of the Holy Virgin" is the spot where tradition says that the angel informed Joseph of Herod's death according to the Arabic Infancy Gospel (23) (Brown 1977:204).
The Two Theories on returning to Palestine
The manuscript known as the "Vision of Theophilis" states that Dayr-al-Muhurraq was the southern-most location that the family journeyed to before they went back to al-Ashmunayn to the north. A second theory states that the family went even further south to Durunka to the port at Asyut (ancient Lycopolis) and then left by boat to travel north (Gabra 2001:115, 116).
Going Home
After the death of Herod in 4 B.C., the most popular story has the family traveling from al-Ashmunayn to Dayr al-Barsha. At Dayr al-Barsha, the family rested in a cave situated in the mountains. Supposedly, tools that Joseph used are still in the cave, including a wood plane and a Carpenter's bench. The family then journeyed to Memphis and crossed the Nile to the eastern side at Ma 'adi. The family stayed in a cave at Cairo and returned to Palestine overland passing by On, Matariya, Musturud and then on to Leontoplis (2001:122). There are a number of inscriptions discovered at Leontopolis which illustrate the life and culture of the Jews at the time of Augustus (Safrai 1974:123). From Leontoplis, the family went to Bilbays, passed the Wadi-Tumilate, crossed the Sinai to Gaza and then went back to Nazareth (Gabra 2001:122). Clearly, the Coptic traditions are based upon myth and speculation and not on solid historical and archaeological information.
Brown, Raymond. E. 1977 - The Birth of the Messiah. Anchor Bible Reference Library. New York, New York: Doubleday.
Currid, John D. 1997 - Ancient Egypt and the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House Company.
Gabra, Gawdat. 2001 - Be Thou There: The Holy Family's Journey in Egypt. Cairo, Egypt: The American University in Cairo Press.
Jones, A.H.H. 1967 - The Herods of Judaea. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Perowne, Stewart. 1957 - The Life and Time of Herod the Great. London, England: The Camelot Press Ltd.
Safrai, S, and Stern, M. 1974 - The Jewish People of the First Century. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Fortress Press.