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The Place of Qusqam in the Textual Data on the Flight into Egypt - Coptic Wiki

The Place of Qusqam in the Textual Data on the Flight into Egypt

Dayr al-Muharraq is for Christian Egyptians a very blessed place— maybe the most blessed place in Egypt. Tens of thousands of people come here every year on special feasts and occasions: not only for the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary on 22 August, but throughout the year on many occasions.

I visited Dayr al-Muharraq once with a group on Sham al-Nessim; it was so crowded that our bus could hardly enter the yard, and it took ages to reach the place where it was supposed to park. The Europe­ans who were with me had never experienced such a crowd. They could not believe it, and it remains one of their strongest memories.

The fame of Dayr al-Muharraq is linked to its history, and this history is very much dependent on the traditions of the Holy Family’s sojourn on the spot, Qusqam, where the monastery now stands. On what grounds did such traditions develop? We shall focus, in this chapter, on the textual data; our scope is to give a comparative view of the available documents and of the place occupied by Qusqam in this documentation.

Our study is recapitulated in the “Table of the Sources and Events Con­cerning Qusqam,” at the end of this chapter, which comes as a complement to the tables we established and published in the first part of our Trilogy on the Flight into Egypt: Le Monde Copte no. 34, Unfleuve d’eau five, Vol. 1, Les sources (Sadek and Sadek 2011). In this study, we listed fifty texts that may, in our view, be considered as the textual ‘sources’ of the traditions on the coming of the Holy Family to Egypt.

These texts have only two points in common: they mention at least one aspect of the legend of the Flight into Egypt, and they all have their origin before the eighth century. Apart from that, they are extremely different and belong to four main categories: the apocryphal infancy gospels; reports of pilgrims and travelers during antiq­uity and the early Middle Ages; Church Fathers in early anti-Christian literature; and Coptic textual evidence. Among these fifty texts listed, ten mention Qusqam; the first point to mention is that all of these belong to the group of Coptic textual evidence.

The first part of this chapter will be dedicated to the presentation of these texts; the second part will deal with the events or facts they mention.

Presentation of the Coptic Textual Evidence Mentioning Qusqam

Coptic textual evidence is the most developed category of documents in the corpus of texts on the Flight into Egypt. It comprises four types of documents: homilies; liturgical texts; hagiographical stories; and a pro­phetical text.


The homilies are the most important group of documents. They are writ­ten either in Coptic or Arabic and include:

  • The History of Joseph the Carpenter, fourth—sixth centuries (in Coptic), in which Jesus tells his disciples the life of his stepfather, Joseph, including the Flight into Egypt. Some of the stories told in this Coptic Apocryphon also appear in the infancy gospels.
  • The Vision of Theophilus was composed in the fourth century by Anba Theophilus, twenty-third Pope of Alexandria, and written down in Coptic by his successor, St. Cyril the Great. It is probably the earliest text that reports an of the Holy Family in Egypt. This text was transmitted orally and in several written throughout the ages down to today. It played a very important part in the history of the Copts by showing the link between Christian Egyptians and the land of Egypt. It is still a constant reference in Egypt. It stresses the importance of Qusqam (Dayr al-Muharraq). Although the antiq­uity of this text was for a long time refused by western scholars, a recent academic study on the Vision of Theophilus has enabled schol­ars to understand the historical grounds of this story, concerning both its dating and the traditions to which it refers. The author of this research, Dr. Fatin Guirguis, after a close study of the manu­scripts, reached two important conclusions. First, she showed how all manuscripts, in spite of their differences, converge in transmitting the same basic story; then she proved that this variety itself is in fact a testimony to the fact that these traditions had been transmitted orally since the fourth century. “Although oral tradition, like lan­guage, is dynamic and in constant dialogue with cultural conditions, The Vision’s core message and values remain stable” ( 2010: 271). She goes on to say, “From the above, one has to conclude that the Coptic original version of The Vision was in wide circulation before the sixth century, which brings it very close to the time of its recording by Pope Cyril, patriarch of Alexandria, from a fourth ­century oral narration by Pope Theophilus, patriarch of Alexandria (ad 385—412), who is said to have visited Al-Muharraq Monastery sometime between ad 393—5” ( 2010: 287).
  • The Homily of Zacharia of Sakha dates back to the seventh century. It develops the Vision of Theophilus and adds many comments on the Incarnation and on the various sites visited by the Holy Family.
  • Two Homilies by Cyriacus of al-Bahnasa, which were probably writ­ten in the early eighth century. They develop the veneration of the sites of Dayr al-Garnous and Qusqam.
  • The Homily of Anba Aelure, or Homily on the Church of the Rock, was first written in Coptic, in the fifth century. It praises the site of Gebel al-Teir, east of Samalut. It is a very important text, full of interesting theological elements that help in understanding the meaning of the Flight into Egypt.

All these homilies mention the sojourn of the Holy Family in Qusqam, except for the first, the History of Joseph the Carpenter. The Vision of The­ophilus is the most developed on the subject, as we shall see later.

Liturgical Texts

It is difficult to date these, but they were certainly in use during the Middle Ages. They include:

  • The Synaxarion, on 24 and 25 Bashans (1 June, entry of the Lord into Egypt), 8 Ba’una (Mahamma), 6 Hatur (consecration of the church of Qusqam). As we can see in the table, the texts of 6 Hatur and 8 Ba’una mention the passage of the Holy Family to Qusqam.
  • Doxology and Psalmody of 24 Bashans: the Psalmody mentions Qusqam.
  • Difnar of 24 Bashans, 8 Ba’una (arrival of the Holy Family in Qusqam), 6 Hatur (consecration of the church of Qusqam): the last two texts mention Qusqam.

The other two texts—an anaphora of Cyriacus of Bahnasa, still in use in Ethiopic liturgy, and the Fraction prayer for 24 Bashans—deal with the Holy Family in Egypt without mentioning Qusqam.

Lives of Martyrs and Saints

Several Lives of saints mention the Flight into Egypt: Paese and Theda (mar­tyrs, fourth century); and Irai (martyrs, fourth century); the General (son of Romanos, Roman martyr, fourth century); Olympios (from Nicomedia, martyr, fourth century); St. Shenoute’, Wadamon of Armant; and, lastly, St. Dilagui (a martyr of Esna, fourth century). St. Dilagui’s passion is the only one that mentions Qusqam; we are told in this text that St. Dilagui was a mother of four boys, all of them killed during the Diocletian perse­cution. The author of the text (Paul, Bishop of Asyut) compares her sons to the sons of Joseph, one of whom ran from Israel to Qusqam in Egypt in order to tell the Holy Family that Herod had sent his soldiers to capture them in Upper Egypt.

The Prophetical Text of the Fayoum

To this list ofCoptic documents should be added “The Prophetical Text of the Fayoum,” often called the Fayoum .This famous Coptic manu­script, kept in Cologne in Germany, is from the fourth century. It was translated into German and published in 1997 by the papyrologist Gesa Schenke. We published a French translation of this text in our book Un fleuve d’eau vive. It hints at the coming of to Egypt in several ways: it mentions a stay of three years and eleven months, and His coming during the month of Bashans; it hints at the fact that Egypt, which was the symbol of‘nations,’ (pagan countries) will become a ‘Holy Land.’

Qusqam is not mentioned explicitly in this text, so we have not listed it among the ten texts chosen for their information about this site; however, this ‘proph­ecy mentions that Jesus blesses Egypt by saying “My twelve sons will visit you. This may be a hint at the event of the consecration of the church on Mount Qusqam after ’s ascension, one of the events reported by several texts, as we shall see in the next section.

Facts and Events in Connection with Qusqam Related in the Textual Data

We shall now sum up the various elements contained in these texts con­cerning the site of Qusqam and what happened there. In this respect, the elements developed by these sources deal with five main themes:

  1. The arrival and the stay of the Holy Family in Qusqam
  2. Herod’s attempt to reach Jesus in Qusqam, and how the Holy Family was protected
  3. The departure from Qusqam
  4. The consecration of the church of Qusqam by Jesus after his Ascension
  5. The special blessings linked to the site of Qusqam

For each of these themes, we shall see which texts mention the event (summarized in the Table of the Sources and Events Concerning Qusqam) and what is said by each document.

The Arrival and Sojourn of the Holy Family in Qusqam

The vision ofTheophilus takes place “on the mountain of Qusqam” itself; according to this text, the Holy Virgin herself told Theophilus that they stayed there for six months: “We arrived in this holy place on the seventh of the month of Baramouda and left on the sixth of Baba, on the day when the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph and said, ‘Come take the boy and his mother and return to the land of Israel.’”

Zacharia from Sakha, in his Homily, says only that the Holy Family, after leaving Ashmunayn, “walked to the mountain of the West. They arrived at the mountain of Qusqam, known in our days as the Dayr al-Muharraq. There, they built a small shelter, where they lived for six months.” Accor­ding to the scholar Gabriele Giamberardini, the reason why Zacharia does not further emphasize the sojourn of the Holy Family in Qusqam is that “he knew that this place was already famous enough” (Giamberardini 1975: 53).

In his Homily on Qusiya, Cyriac of describes Qusqam, on the arrival of the Holy Family, as “a desert of ruins and misery,” which, according to Cyriac, Jesus “turned into a place which can be compared to the heavenly Jerusalem” (Giamberardini 1975: 67).Then Cyriac finds a box containing a text written by Joseph the Carpenter, which says, “I, Joseph the Carpenter from Nazareth, called the Father of the Lord Jesus according to the flesh, and servant of this great mystery, I declare that myself, my wife the Virgin, Salome and the Lord of Glory, we lived for some time on this pure mountain.”

Timotheos, in the Homily on the Church of the Rock, mentions a six-month sojourn in Qusqam with few details, his focus being mainly on Gebel al-Teir.

The of 8 Ba’una mentions Muharraq without any com­ment, while the Psalmody of 24 Bashans says that, after leaving Ashmunayn, “they walked in joy to the mountain of Qusqam, where they stayed for several months” and “God manifested himself among us on the Mountain of Qusqam.” The Difnar, on 8 Ba’una, mentions, “They went south and reached Qusqam, where they stayed until the death of Herod.”

Herod’s Attempt to Reach Jesus in Qusqam, and How the Holy Family Was Protected

Three texts, the Vision of Theophilus, the Homily on the Church of the Rock, and the Life of St. Dilagui, Martyr of Esna, mention that Herod was told of the place where the Holy Family had found a shelter, in Qusqam, and con­sequently sent his soldiers to kill them.

According to the Vision, it was the devil himself who informed Herod, who sent ten soldiers to Egypt. However, “a prophet named Youssa, a rela­tive of Joseph the Carpenter,” having heard of the plan, hurried to Qusqam, where he arrived before the soldiers, in spite of the devil who tried to discourage him. Having informed Joseph and Mary, he died there and Jesus consoled his parents, while the soldiers died before reaching Qusqam.

In some versions of the Homily on the Church of the Rock, the messenger is called Moussa. More interesting is the version given by the Life of St. Dilagui, which develops the story through a comparison, saying that the messenger is one of the four sons whom Joseph had from a previous marriage.

All three documents mention that the body of the messenger was buried by Joseph on the mountain of Qusqam.

The Departure from Qusqam

Most texts situate the angel’s second message to Joseph in Qusqam. As in Matthew’s gospel, the angel tells Joseph that Herod is dead, and that he must take the child and his mother and go back to the land of Israel. In the Vision of Theophilus, the angel adds that all the soldiers Herod had sent died on their way to Qusqam; the news that the Holy Family can return to “the house of holiness” (Jerusalem) makes them rejoice; and after Jesus says a long benediction for the place where they have spent the longest time during their flight, the Holy Family leaves and goes to Ashmunayn. In the Homily on the Church of the Rock, it is said that the angel was Gabriel, after whose coming “they returned to their country till the Crucifixion.”

The Consecration of the Church of Qusqam after the Resurrection According to the Vision of Theophilus, on 6 Hatur, some time after ’s Resurrection and Ascension, Mary, Salome, Mary Magdalene, and all the disciples (dead as well as alive) were brought on a cloud to the house of Qusqam, which Jesus consecrated and where he celebrated the first liturgy with his own hands: “The hands that created Adam and his offspring and that were nailed to the cross sanctify and bless this great house.”

The Homily of Cyriac places the mass on 7 Barmuda. It provides the nicety that, as the first mass was celebrated here, so also would be the last mass.The on 6 Hatur and the Difnar on the same date also men­tion the consecration of this church by Jesus.

This is a very important tradition for the place of Qusqam: the altar of the old church of Dayr al-Muharraq is thus considered as having been consecrated by Jesus himself in the place where the Holy Family lived for six months.

It should be noted that the same kind of event is described in the Homily on the Church of the Rock as happening in Gebel al-Teir instead of Qusqam, which shows that the two sites were rivals.

The Blessings Attached to This Holy Place, Qusqam

Again, it is the Vision of Theophilus that develops this theme:

When it was time to leave this mountain, the Lord (to him be the glory), said: “The blessings of my good father and the Holy Spirit be upon this house where a good altar will be consecrated and pure offerings will be made. The angel of peace will come and bless all those who come to it and kneel down in faith, and I will forgive all their sins. Should they repent and refrain from sinning again, they will be counted among the saints. All those who are sick or in tribu­lation or in pain or in grief or in fear and come to this place and ask faithfully, their prayers will be answered in honor of your name, my dear mother. It will become a refuge for strangers and a house for monks and all those who come with gifts, vows, tithes, and first offerings. My blessing and peace will be upon those who reside in it as long as no one there is against me. And as long as it stays as it is and doesn’t change from what it is today and doesn’t miss any of its parts, it will last till the end of times.” (Sarkis 1936: 90)

The Vision ends with another blessing:

What can we say about the honor of this holy house? It is a house of forgiveness, a house of healing, and a house of angels, saints and struggling anchorites. Blessed is he who comes here and makes an offering or fulfills a vow.The Virgin Mary will intercede on his behalf and offer it as an acceptable offering to her only son, whom we ask to forgive your sins, your errors and weaknesses, repose your deceased on good faith, raise your children, strengthen your aged, elevate your homes and grant you the flooding of the Nile, a fruitful harvest, a fair sovereign, deliver you from the trials of the devil and make you win­ners of good deeds before the end of time. (Sarkis 1936: 95)

Cyriac also prophesies that this church will never be destroyed, and emphasizes the forgiveness of sins for all the pilgrims, through the interces­sion of the Holy Virgin. He foretells the development of monasticism in this place.


All the traditions concerning Qusqam/Muharraq tend to point to this place as the center of Christian Egypt, because of the very special blessing bestowed on it by the long presence of the Holy Family. The situation of this place in Upper Egypt, in the middle of the Nile Valley, is also a factor of unity and strength for the Christian community. Both the written texts and the oral transmission contribute to the importance of Dayr al-Muharraq.

The main feasts celebrating the Holy Family in Dayr al-Muharraq are as follows:

  • 6 Baba (16—17 October): departure from Qusqam for Israel
  • 6 Hatur (15—16 November): consecration of the old church to the Virgin Mary
  • 8 Ba’una (15 April): arrival of the Holy family in Qusqam
  • 24 Bashans (1 June): entry of the Holy Family into Egypt.

Appendix: A Description of the Icon of the Holy Family of al-Muharraq

This large icon is a unique representation of the return of the Holy Family from Egypt to the land of Israel. Jesus is a three- or four-year-old child, pulling his mother s hand and showing her, with his right hand, the way back to their homeland. His left-hand holds an apple, which symbolizes the fruit of obedience to the Father—as opposed to the disobedience of Adam. The Virgin Mary follows her son with obvious willingness, and raises her left hand in submission. Joseph is now at the back, leaving the leadership to his son, and holding the old and faithful donkey, a symbol of the whole creation. While Jesus and Mary have a nimbus, Joseph does not, which shows his status as the last prophet of the Old Testament, while Jesus and Mary are heralds of the New Testament.

The composition of the icon is remarkably balanced: in the back stand three trees while the upper left corner is occupied by a kneeling angel, full of solicitude and awe in front of the Holy Family. The style, especially the trees, is characteristic of the paintings of Ibrahim al-Nasikh, who worked from 1745 to 1783 with Yuhanna the Armenian. They painted thousands of icons, in a Byzantine-Coptic style of their own that heavily influenced eighteenth-century Egyptian iconography.

The message of the icon is clear: the observer is called to imitate the Virgin Mary in taking Jesus’ hand and following him with confidence and obedience toward the heavenly Jerusalem, the Kingdom where the Father will welcome him or her.The ‘Return from Egypt’ is indeed the sign of the redemption of humanity realized by the of the Son, which opened again for man the Paradise of Joy.

Fig. 11.1. Table of the sources and events concerning Qusqam




Arrival and sojourn in Qusqam

Herod’s attempt to reach Jesus in Qusqam

Departure from Qusqam

Consecration of the church

Blessings attached to the place


Vision of Theophilus 4th century?

Six-month sojourn from 7

Barmuda to 6


Long narration

Angel’s message, ben­ediction of the place and departure for Ashmunayn

Detailed description

Many bless­ings and forgiveness of sins for pilgrims


Homily of Zacharia of Sakha 7th century?

Arrival after Ashmunayn, building of a shelter, sojourn of six months


Angel’s mes­sage; departure




Homily of Cyriac of on Qusiya 6-7th century?

Arrival “in a desert place” on 7 Barmuda Text by Joseph saying that they lived there “for some time”



7 Barmuda The first liturgy was celebrated there, and so the last one will be

Many bless­ings and forgiveness of sins for pilgrims


Homily of on the Church of the Rock 6th century?

Six months

Long narration

The angel Gabriel comes and they “return to their country”

In this text, it is Gebel al-Teir which is consecrated by Jesus, instead of Qusqam



Egyptian Synaxarion 8 Ba’una

Mention of the passage






Egyptian Synaxarion 6 Hatur




Developed comment




24 Bashans

Mentions a few months’ sojourn in Qusqam







8 Ba’una

Mentions a sojourn “until the death of Herod”


Angel’s mes­sage on Herod’s death





6 Hatur

Mentions a stay of three and a half years



Mentions the celebration with details



Life of St. Dilagui 4th century?


Gives an original version





Ashraf Alexandre Sadek