Inauguration of the site of the Virgin Mary
In Cairo’s densely populated Matariya district stands an ancient sycamore tree, named the Virgin Mary Tree, which now welcomes pilgrims and visitors after years of closure for restoration and development.
For decades, the site attracted thousands of pilgrims as it is said to have offered shelter to the Holy Family during their stay in Egypt in the early Christian era.
According to the fifth-century Coptic pope Theophilus, Joseph had a wooden cane that the infant Jesus broke into pieces. Joseph then buried the pieces at the site of what is now Matariya, and when he put his hand on the ground, a spring sprang up next to a sycamore that had provided shade and respite to the Holy Family. .
The pieces of the buried stick bloomed and gave off a pleasant smell. Jesus drank from the source and many balsam trees grew there.
The Arab historian Al-Maqrizi later described the Holy Family’s journey to Egypt in the mid-15th century, mentioning that they had settled in Matariya by a stream. He relates that when the Virgin Mary washed Jesus’ clothes in the stream, the water flooded the nearby land where the balsam trees began to grow.
Al-Maqrizi adds that tree balsam oil was prized for use in baptism.
It is said that when the Virgin Mary, Joseph and the child Jesus tried to escape from two brigands who were pursuing them, the trunk of the sycamore also miraculously opened its bark, allowing them to hide inside and escape. to detection.
The tree is said to have medicinal properties, which is why its branches have been exhausted by pilgrims over the years. Nearby, the spring where the Virgin Mary is said to have bathed Jesus is also one of the miracles of the place because of its healing water.
Today, the site of the Virgin Mary’s Tree has various archaeological and modern attractions, including the well, the tree, and several stone water basins. As part of the development of the site, a visitor center has been created with interactive screens to engage visitors and introduce them to the itinerary of the Holy Family’s journey to Egypt and related monument restoration and development projects .
It also features a film telling the story of the journey of the Holy Family. A small museum displaying icons and other artifacts as well as a photogrammetric map of other places visited by the Holy Family in Egypt is also available on site.
As part of the site development project, a wooden fence now protects the tree, and the well has been cleaned and reopened. Roads around the archaeological area have been paved and improved, the empty area in front of the site has been turned into a garden, eco-friendly recycling bins, umbrellas and wooden seats have been provided, descriptive signage has been erected , new lighting and security systems installed and tourist services improved.
Brochures in English and Arabic on the site are also provided as well as one for the visually impaired.
At the end of last week, the Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Ahmed Issa, the Minister of Local Development Hisham Amena and the Governor of Cairo Khaled Abdel-Aal inaugurated the tree of the Virgin Mary after the completion of the restoration works and development carried out on the tree and its surroundings.
The inauguration was part of a project to relaunch the Holy Family Trail in Egypt, improving the quality of services offered to visitors. This is another milestone in the development of the Holy Family Trail, which has seen the inauguration of stops at Sakha in Kafr Al-Sheikh, Tel Basta in Sharqiya, Samanoud in Gharbiya, Wadi Al Monasteries -Natrun in Beheira and Gabal Al-Teir in Minya.
The facilities are being modernized and infrastructure is being installed to help visitors follow the itinerary of the Holy Family’s stay in Egypt. The aim of the project is also to develop the poorest areas and communities of the delta and Upper Egypt, restore archaeological sites and create visitor-friendly services at sites along the trail.
This is all part of the development of spiritual tourism that can appeal throughout the year and not just during special seasons.
*A version of this article appeared in the September 22, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.