When the Magi announced to Herod “the Great” the birth of the newborn King of the Jews, he ordered the execution of all young male children around the city of Bethlehem in what is known as the Massacre of the Innocents, in order to protect his throne. An angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, and told him to flee to Egypt lest the Holy Child fall victim. Where did the Holy Family go when they fled into Egypt, and where did they stop along the way?
When they had departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you. Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him.” – Matthew 2:13
Unfortunately, the Bible lends little information as to the whereabouts of the Holy Family in the time they fled from Herod. In fact, out of the three Synoptic Gospels, only one passage in the Gospel of Matthew even mentions that they fled to Egypt.
While we have little scriptural knowledge of the Flight into Egypt, Coptic traditions lend some insight into where exactly the Holy Family went.
One Coptic tradition says a significant place of refuge was Wadi El Natrun, an oasis in northeastern Egypt, part of the modern-day Beheira Governorate.
It is said that when the Holy Family visited the village of Al-Homra within Wadi El Natrun, the infant Jesus caused a well to be opened. The well was miraculous for it had fresh water in a region surrounding by lakes saturated with salt. It is named Bir Mariam, or Mary’s Well. When the Holy Family left the region, it is said they blessed the desert.
Around 300 year laters, the deserts of Wadi El Natrun became the foundation for the many monastic sites that gave rise to the Desert Fathers. Monks today still inhabit the desert oasis that the Holy Family visited and blessed.
On their journey to refuge at Wadi El Natrun, the Holy Family made many stops for rest before continuing on. One of the most significant stops, according to tradition, was made at the Tree of the Virgin, a sycamore tree in a suburb of Cairo. Tradition says when the Holy Family stopped in Cairo, Mary rested against the tree and a spring of water sprang up to wash Jesus. For years, the faithful have taken bits of tree’s bark as it was believed to have healing properties.
While Coptic Christians have long made pilgrimages to the sites the Holy Family visited during their Flight into Egypt, Egypt is not an official pilgrimage site within the Church. However, in October Pope Francis approved Egypt to be added as an official place of pilgrimage. In 2018, the path the Holy Family took throughout Egypt will be part of the Vatican pilgrimage program.
“I am truly happy to come as a friend, as a messenger of peace and as a pilgrim to the country that gave more than 2,000 years ago refuge and hospitality to the Holy Family as they fled the threats of King Herod.” – Pope Francis