by Phoebe Farag Mikhail
My two year old daughter's favorite song these days is a catchy Arabic hymn sung by the Heart of David Choir in Egypt that, roughly translated, goes "A long time ago/A refugee came to you oh Egypt/A young boy and his family/He blessed your land/He blessed your people/Till your heart was satisfied with His blessings." On June 1, 2014, the Coptic Orthodox Church will be commemorating the feast of the entry of the Holy Family - Jesus Christ, His Mother Mary, and Joseph the Carpenter - into Egypt, a visit acknowledged and celebrated not just by all Christians, but by all Egyptians.
The fascinating book by James Cowan, Fleeing Herod: A Journey Through Coptic Egypt with the Holy Family revisits the ancient story of the Holy Family's flight into Egypt through Cowan's literal tracing of their legendary path. The Bible gives us a few verses of the angel's instructions to Joseph to take Mary and the infant Jesus to Egypt to flee the edict of Herod to kill all Hebrew children under the age of 3, fearing for his own throne. Tradition, history, and archeology provide us more details on their journey, and Cowan revisits all of these in this colorful travel memoir.
I read Fleeing Herod slowly, not because it was a slow read, but because each chapter offered so much to think about. In addition to Cowan's vibrant descriptions of his journey and of each place he visited, he describes the religious significance of each site to the ancient Egyptians at the time, as well as the tensions and fears the Holy Family must have felt with the daily dangers of thieves and bandits on the road, and Herod's soldiers and spies at their tails.
Most interesting to me were the conversations that Cowan chronicles with all of his hosts along the way - sometimes conversations about the holy site itself, but most often conversations about faith that cause Cowan himself to undergo his own personal transformation. By the time he reaches Mount Qussqam at Al-Muharraq, where the Holy Family lived for at least six months before making their way back down the Nile and on to Nazareth, Cowan writes, "I had spent so many weeks on the road re-creating the world of the Holy Family in Egypt. Their journey was a prototype for the one I was making in my head. Every crisis along the way was a spiritual crisis for me,as it had been for them" (p. 225). The following is an excerpt from a pivotal conversation he later has at Deir al Muharraq with a monk named Father Angelus:
"The Holy Family came to Mount Qussqam because of a prophecy," Father Angelus went on. "God wanted to test his son by placing him in the most arid spot on earth. This was no act of politeness. His son had to be tested, even as a child. We do this with our own children, do we not? The Holy Father is no different: the baby Jesus had to be honed by fire. Otherwise, how could he begin to cut out the evil that was rampant in the world?"
"I have no idea, Father," I admitted.
"Suffering is the only antidote to the poison of the easy life. Mary knew this to be so, as did Joseph. They were like doctors; they administered herbs to their child. He needed to be made resistant to all the slings and arrows of the world. He needed to be made strong in order to prepare himself for the difficulties that lay ahead. The crucifixion was never going to be a--how do you say it? A cake path?"
"A cakewalk, Father," I said.
"Call it what you will, yes. It takes more than a stroll in a garden to find courage enough to be crucified. Egypt made Jesus the man he became, I am certain of that."
"How can you be so sure, Father?" I ventured.
Father Angelus looked at me. I could feel his eyes boring into me.
"Because," he began, "Egypt is the eternal fire of humanity. It is here that every conceivable thought that has ever been has been properly tested" (pp. 230-231).
The Holy Family entered Egypt as refugees - and as Cowan beautifully takes us through their trip historically, mythologically, and spiritually - we learn how Egypt changed them, how they changed Egypt, and how Egypt became filled with their blessings. Although I have visited many of the sites Cowan writes about, it is my dream to visit all of them on a pilgrimage such as this. If I do, I will certainly take this book along with me.