Father Silvanus Lutfi, pastor of the Monastery of the Virgin Mary, announced, “We did not hold Sunday Mass for the first time of the life of the monastery 1600 years ago.”
The Monastery of the Holy Virgin Mary, also known as the Muharraq Monastery, or simply the Burnt Monastery, lies on the path of the flight of the Holy Family in Egypt. It is located about 60 km from Assiut (327 km south of Cairo). The Monastery is referred to as “Al Muharraq” because “muharraq” is an Arabic word which means “burn or wound inflicted by fire” and the Monastery was partially burned by foreign invaders in the middle centuries.
Traditionally, the account has the Holy Family traveled from Maadi to Upper Egypt by boat until they reached the village of Qusquam (al Qusia). According to the official Egyptian version of the story, the Holy Family stayed six months at Qusquam, where they lived in a cave. The Muharraq Monastery is said to be built on the very site where the Holy Family settled. It was here that the Angle of the Lord is believed to have appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel; for they are dead which sought the young child’s life”. (Matthew 2:20 & 21).
The site is considered very holy to Egyptian Copts who have nicknamed the location the “Second Bethlehem”. A 13th century historian wrote that multitudes of pilgrims from every district have made the journey to the monastery’s churches during ancient times, and that the location was well known for signs and wonders and the healing of many diseases.
The walls of the compound enclose an area of 30 feddans, containing five churches and about 100 monks, as well as a large library. This is a fine example of a fortified monastery, like many that were located in the desert.
Between June 18th and the 28th each year, thousands of pilgrims continue to attend feasts to celebrate the consecration of the Church of al-Adra (Church of the Virgin) which is said to have been built over the cave where the Holy Family stayed. Many Coptic Christians believe this to be one of the oldest churches in Egypt originally built in the first century AD. The alterstone, dated 747 AD, is said to be located on the very spot where the baby Jesus rested and is claimed to be the oldest in the world. The ten day celebration, called a Moulid, while considered very serious, is nevertheless a joyful occasion with considerable celebration. There is considerable dancing and music all about.