PILGRIMS AND TRAVELERS IN CHRISTIAN EGYPT
Beginning in very early times, the holy places of the East attracted many pilgrims from abroad at the cost of a lengthy journey. They sought out those places where the history of salvation unfolded. The Egypt of Joseph and Moses, the land that later welcomed the Holy Family, appears rather as a complement to Palestine, visited only by those who had the desire or the leisure to see everything. Beyond that, Christian piety also venerated those other founders of the church and first witnesses of the faith, the martyrs and their successors, the holy monks.
Egypt, land of the martyrs and birthplace of monasticism, possesses some shrines of international reputation, and still more, the deserts that border the valley have attracted a stream of foreign visitors. These pilgrimages, interrupted by the Persian occupation (618) and more or less restored at the beginnings of the ARAB CONQUEST OF EGYPT, were to become gradually more rare with the progress of Islam in the East. In the time of the Crusades, the proximity of the Frankish kingdom and the resumption of the practice of travel in the East brought a certain revival of pilgrimage to Egypt, but under an entirely new form of piety.
This was soon replaced by another motivation, one introduced by the European Renaissance, the curiosity of the traveler who was a party to the discovery of ancient Egypt, who wished to know and identify its monuments but only occasionally encountered Christian Egypt.
Biblical Egypt included first of all the itinerary of the Exodus to Sinai, generally reached from Jerusalem as a starting point, and then in the Nile Valley some localities from the life of Joseph and of Moses. In Sinai itself the memory and the presence of holy monks, themselves pilgrims who had settled on the sites, at RAITHOU, at PHARAN, and especially at Jabal Musa, are a further motive for pilgrimage. It was the monks who constructed, or for whom were constructed, churches or chapels and then monasteries, for apart from the sites named, no monument elsewhere recalls the events of the Exodus except for two small chapels at CLYSMA marking the entrance and the exit of the crossing of the Red Sea.
In the Nile Valley, the houses of Potiphar and of Aseneth, wife of Joseph, were shown at Heliopolis, the granaries of Joseph at the Pyramids, his prison at Memphis, the plain where the Hebrews manufactured bricks, and finally the “thrones of Moses and Aaron.” These were simply sites visited, without the presence of any places of worship.
In the sixth century a village near Memphis claimed to have given shelter to the Holy Family on its FLIGHT INTO EGYPT, and a temple transformed into a church contains a linen cloth on which is imprinted the face of Jesus. At Hermopolis (al-Ashmunayn), from the end of the fourth century, an overthrown temple has been said to bear witness to the passing of the child Jesus, and a sycamore that sheltered him is reputed to possess healing properties. All the other places consecrated in tradition by the passing of the Holy Family are much later and scarcely appear in local piety before the twelfth century.
The most frequented martyrs’ shrines are in Alexandria and its surroundings, such as those of Saint Mark and of John the Baptist, attested from the end of the fourth century, at Menouthis (Abuqir); that of the saints Cyrus and John, whose cult in the fifth century drove out that of Isis; and, above all, the sanctuaries of Saint Menas (Abu Mina), with the famous waters, ampullae of which are found even in the north of Europe. Other regional capitals also have their shrines, such as those of Saint Ptolemy at Hermopolis; Colluthus at (Antinoopolis); Psote at Ptolemais; and, in the region of Lycopolis (Asyut), the mounted saints and Syrian martyrs whose cult took root in Egypt at the time of the sojourn of SEVERUS OF ANTIOCH. These shrines are normally served by monks.
The great monastic sites of the desert attracted eminent personages, and some settled there as monks, including ARSENIUS and EVAGRIUS PONTICUS. These travelers were less eager for the marvelous, for miracles or healings, than for counsel and spiritual training, in which the destiny of a father of the church might find its source, as with JEROME, RUFINUS, and CASSIAN. From the end of the fourth century, people resorted to the ENATON, which was soon to shelter the venerated relics of Severus of Antioch; then they buried themselves deep in the desert on the track that linked Nitria to Scetis by way of Kellia.
More rarely they went up the valley, and it was then monks above all who devoted themselves to a veritable quest, eager to see and hear everything about their great ancestors and to preserve it and hand it on. A halt was made at Saqqara, where the tomb of Jeremiah was venerated, and another in the community of Antony at Pispir on the bank of the Nile before reaching his inner mountain near the cave of Saint Paul. People also visited the laura of APOLLO at Bawit, the laura of JOHN OF LYCOPOLIS in the mountain of Asyut, and finally the Pachomians of TABENNESE. From the HISTORIA MONACHORUM IN AEGYPTO at end of the fourth century down to the Pratum Spirituale of John Moschus at the beginning of the seventh century, a whole literature with the flavor not only of a geographical guide but also of a spiritual quest preserves the sayings and the exploits of the fathers of the desert of Egypt.
In the ninth and tenth centuries, the cult of Saint Catherine of Alexandria was born and developed in Normandy, Flanders, and the Rhineland, where monks from Sinai came to beg for their monastery, soon bringing relics of the saint. From the thirteenth century, the extraordinary popularity of Catherine added to the traditional visit to the places of the Exodus a pilgrimage to the MOUNT SINAI MONASTERY OF SAINT CATHERINE, the more so when an order of chivalry was established there in the fifteenth century, complementary to that of the Holy Sepulcher.
Since a dependency of the monastery had been established from the fifteenth century in Cairo, it was from there rather than from Jerusalem that the pilgrims set out. These pilgrims included knights, diplomats on missions, the faithful, and even merchants. Here are cited only the names of those who, having passed through Cairo, Alexandria, or the monasteries of Saint Antony (DAYR ANBA ANTUNIYUS) and Saint Paul (DAYR ANBA BULA), brought back useful information: Thomas de Swinburne (1392), Baron d’Anglure (1395, at Saint Antony and Saint Paul as well as at DAYR AL-MAYMUN), Ghillebert de Lanoy (1421), Breydenbach and Fabri (1485), Langherand (1486), Jean Thenaud (1512), and Greffin Affagart (1534).
A change in the times and in outlook is evidenced by the visit of Belon du Mans (1548), who devoted himself primarily to a botanical collection, and by the sojourn of Carlier du Pinon (1579), who came equipped with Strabo’s Geography and with maps for his itinerary.
Evidently people reached the point of seeking in Alexandria itself Saint Catherine’s palace, her prison, and the column on which she was beheaded. (This column was transported to the Greek monastery of Saint Sabas.) Such seekers included Simon Simeionis (1323), Poggibonsi (1345), and Frescobaldi (1384).
In Cairo, since it was then out of the question to go further up the Nile, Western piety, henceforth marked by Franciscan devotion to the humanity of Jesus, led the pilgrim to the crypt of the Church of Abu Sarjah in Old Cairo, where, according to a local tradition begun only in the thirteenth century, the Holy Family lodged. From the thirteenth century to the fifteenth, no fewer than twenty-eight travelers from the West left descriptions of the sites. In the same period, people reached at Matariyyah the garden of the balsam and the spring at which the Holy Family stopped, to which were added in the fifteenth century the sycamore that had sheltered them, a counterpart to that of Hermopolis.
It is notable that from all these pilgrims one gleans only a few secondhand reports (“it is said . . .”) about the monasteries of the desert. In 1657 the famous Thévenot spoke of Wadi al-Natrun (Scetis) only by hearsay. It was not so much the monastic life that later provoked a revival of interest in the monasteries as the richness of their libraries. In 1633 the Capuchin Gilles de Loche told the French orientalist PEIRESC about these libraries, and in 1685 Robert Huntington, almoner of the Company of the Levant, noted the titles of several manuscripts.
The scientific rediscovery of Christian Egypt begins with the Dominican J. M. Vansleb in 1672, although Coppin preceded him at Saint Antony and Saint Paul (1638).—He was followed by the Jesuit Sicard, who explored the whole country as far south as Aswan from 1712 to 1726. Among travelers in Egypt, it was the religious men, such as the theologian and future Anglican bishop R. Pococke (1736), who truly contributed to the knowledge of the Coptic community in its past and present forms. The laymen, like Paul Lucas (1715) or Granger (1731), are of little interest on this point when they are not purely and simply copying their predecessors. In contrast, the Description de l’Egypte by the scholars who accompanied Napoleon is replete with information about the monuments of Christian Egypt and the life of the Coptic village communities.
- Coquin, C. Les Edifices chrétiens du Vieux Caire, Vol. 1. Cairo, 1976.
- Delehaye, H. “Les Martyres d’Egypte.” Analecta Bollandiana 40 (1922):1-154, 299-364.
- Evelyn-White, H. G. The Monasteries of the Wadi ‘n Natrun, Pt. 2. New York, 1932.
- Fedden, H. R. “A Study of the Monastery of Saint Antony in the Eastern Desert.” Bulletin of the Faculty of Arts of the University of Egypt 5 (1937):1-60.
- Jomard, E. F., ed. Description de l’Egypte, ou, Recueil des observations et des recherches qui ont été faites en Egypte pendant l’expédition de l’armée française publié par les ordres de Sa Majesté l’empéreur Napoléon le Grand, 19 vols. in 23. Paris, 1809-1828.
- Jullien, M. L’Egypte, souvenirs bibliques et chrétiens. Lille, 1889.
- Labib, M. Pèlerins et voyageurs au Mont Sinai. Cairo, 1961. Maraval, P. Lieux Saints et pèlerinages d’Orient: Histoire et géographie des origines à la conquête arabe. Paris, 1985.
- Martin, M. “Note sur la communauté copte entre 1650 et 1850.” Annales islamologiques 18 (1982):193-215.
- Pococke, R. A Description of the East and Some Other Countries, 2 vols. London, 1743-1745.
MAURICE MARTIN, S.J