The Church of the Holy Virgin (MINYA)
VARIOUS MUSLIM AUTHORS mentioned Gabal al-Tayr (‘the Mountain of the Birds’), south of Samalut on the east bank of the Nile, as one of the wonders of Egypt: migratory birds, a species called buqir (still not identified), would assemble in great numbers on this mountain that was also known as the Gabal Buqir.
According to tenth-century Coptic fragments of The Homily of the Rock, attributed to Timothy II, a fifth-century patriarch of Alexandria, the Holy Family spent some time on this mountain. The Virgin appeared to Timothy in a dream. She told him the story of their travels and ordered him to build a church on the rock. The origin of this homily might be sought in the sixth century and testifies to an ancient pilgrimage tradition.86
The History of the Churches and Monasteries of Egypt (ca. twelfth century) claims that the mountain is also called Gabal al-Khaff (‘the Mountain of the Palm’), named after an imprint of the hand of Christ “which was made when he touched the mountain, when it worshipped before him, and restored it to its place with his hand; so that the mark of his palm remains impressed upon that mountain to the present day.”87 Where and how this mark appeared in the mountain, and how it disappeared, is surrounded by a number of legends.
Before the building of the Great Dam in Aswan, the Nile used to flow along the foot of the steep mountain plateau and the monastery could be reached by boat and a strenuous climb. Because of this picturesque location, it was from the seventeenth century onward often mentioned in accounts of European travelers sailing up the Nile. These travelers reported another name for the monastery: Dayr al-Bakara, or ‘the Monastery of the Pulley.’ To hoist goods (and sometimes also visitors), a pulley had been installed to the south of the complex. Traces of this lifting equipment are still visible.
In the eighteenth century, villagers had taken over most of the buildings around the Church of the Virgin, built in a late antique rock-cut tomb. The birds don’t come any more, but pilgrims still flock in great numbers, although no longer by boat and prepared for a climb but in cars on comfortable roads. Their intentions to honor the Holy Family are most likely the same.
86 The complete story is known from Arabic and Ethiopian manuscripts (Boud’hors, Boutros, and Colin 2001). This
homily was part of a group of texts promoting pilgrimage sites of the Holy Family.
87 Evetts and Butler 1895, 218.