LATE ANTIQUE hermopolis MAGNA (modern al-Ashmunayn) was an important administrative center in Middle Egypt, with a long history. In pharaonic times, one of the largest temples in honor of Thot, the ibis-headed god, scribe, and vizier of the gods, was built here. The Arabic al-Ashmunayn derives from the Egyptian name of the city. In the middle of the third century, Christianity established itself and Hermopolis became a bishop’s see. At present, the ancient city is in ruins. Archaeological research has revealed numerous churches in the region. Among these is a great basilica (mid-fifth century) that was one of the most impressive houses of worship in Egypt.89 The remains of the basilica, with columns of the nave still standing, testify to a prosperous past.
A pilgrim’s account from the late fourth century connects Hermopolis with the Holy Family. The unknown author relates that when Christ first entered the city, all idols fell to the ground, fulfilling the prophesy in Isaiah 19:1 “the idols of Egypt shall be moved at his presence” Already at that time extensive ruins of Egyptian temples were visible everywhere and must have seemed convincing proof to visitors.90
Later traditions and sources supported the view that the Holy Family traveled through the area and stories and legends were woven around their sojourn. Hermopolis became an important pilgrimage site and it became the first city that was explicitly related to the Holy Family’s travels in Egypt.
89 For an architectural discussion, see “The Architecture of Coptic Churches” in this volume, pages 24-25.
90 Historia Monachorum VIII-1 (Russell and Ward 1980, 70). Cf. Davis 2001,13&40.