Egypt encourages Christian tourism

Officials might try to deny it, but the recent terrorist attacks in Sinai were a heavy blow to Egyptian tourism.

Egypt relies on tourists and would like to attract as many as possible. Major attractions have always included the pharaoh’s tombs and the Red Sea’s rich aquatic environment. Now, Christian pilgrimage sites rank among those tourist destinations.

Pious pilgrims following in Jesus’s footsteps generally find themselves drawn to Bethlehem, Nazareth and Jerusalem.
Until recently, few Christian pilgrims spent much time among the pyramids and tombs of Egypt, even though Christianity’s founder spent a length of time there.

“The Christian history of our country has been badly neglected up until now,” said Mounir Ghabbour, who recently produced a film entitled The Holy Family in Egypt.

The New Testament only makes a quick reference to Jesus’s stay in Egypt. According to the Gospel of Matthew, the Holy Family fled there shortly after his birth to escape King Herod’s decree for the death of all male infants.

From an historical perspective, the story is unlikely. Most likely, the episode was inserted at a later date to create a literary connection to the Old Testament’s stories about the flight of the Israeli people from Egypt.

Despite these doubts, the belief that Jesus spent his childhood in Egypt led to a host of wondrous anecdotes about his sojourn there. These stories are enshrined in the “Childhood Gospels”. Not included in the Bible, they are part of the oral tradition of Egypt’s Coptic Christians. Throughout Egypt, many locations offer sometimes questionable clues to support the stories.

Accordingly, a field of archeological debris north of Cairo near Tel Basta is the remains of a town, the destruction of which is attributed to Jesus. The Christian legends say that when the Holy Family fled through the town, the local statues of Egyptian gods recognised Jesus as the Son of God and fell over on their own accord. Thus, Jesus’s role as a miracle worker starts as a youth, according to these stories.

Other spots around Egypt feature a stone with Jesus’s footprint or a palm tree that bent to the ground when he wanted to eat dates, and even a garden where the Holy Family was woven into a spider’s web to protect them from pursuers.

“We want to encourage tourists to visit the Christian sites in Egypt, as well as the tombs and mosques,” says Ghabbour, a Coptic himself.

Coptics make up about 10% of the Egyptian population.

Their churches, cloisters, libraries and icons highlight a rich culture that stretches back to the beginning of Christianity.

“The Christian sites in Egypt are as important to us as those of the pharaohs and the Moslems,” says Zahi Hawass, chief of the antiquities department in Cairo. Ghabbour, the filmmaker, finds that the stories of the Holy Family’s flight are a good tool to interest more people in the lesser-known side of Egypt.

“Next, I plan to make a theatrical film that shows Jesus in Egypt,” he said. However, he has yet to consider who he will select to play the Holy Family.—Sapa-DPA

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