In the densely populated district of Cairo of Matareya stands an ancient sycamore tree, the tree of the Virgin Mary, awaiting its official reopening.
For decades, the site has attracted thousands of pilgrims as it is said to have offered shelter to the Holy Family during their stay in Egypt at the start of the Christian era.
According to the fifth-century Coptic Pope Theophilus, Joseph had a wooden walking stick that the infant Jesus shattered into pieces. Joseph then buried the pieces at Matareya, and when he put his hand on the ground, a spring erupted next to a sycamore tree which provided shade and respite for the Holy Family.
The pieces of the buried staff then bloomed and gave off a pleasant scent. Jesus drank from the spring and many balsam fir trees grew there.
Arab historian Al-Maqrizi later described the journey of the Holy Family in the mid-15th century and mentions that they settled in Matareya by a stream. He tells how, when the Virgin Mary washed Jesus’ clothes in the stream, the water flooded the nearby land where the balsam fir trees began to grow.
Al-Maqrizi adds that balsam oil from trees was appreciated for baptism.
It is said that when the Virgin Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus tried to escape from two robbers who were pursuing them, the trunk of the sycamore tree also miraculously opened its bark, allowing them to hide inside, escaping from detection.
The tree is said to have medicinal properties, which is why its branches were exhausted by pilgrims. Nearby, the source where the Virgin Mary would have bathed Jesus is also part of the miracles of the place because of its healing water.
Today, the Virgin Mary Tree Site has archaeological and modern attractions, including the well, the tree, and several stone water basins. A visitors’ center tells the story of the Holy Family’s journey to Egypt, and a small museum displays icons and other artifacts alongside photographs of other places visited by the Holy Family.
This week, the Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, Khaled El-Enany, visited the Tree of the Virgin Mary to follow the development work carried out on the tree and its surroundings.
During the visit, he visited the open tree yard, small museum, visitor center, and rooftop. He requested changes to the lighting design to make it more consistent with the overall design of the site.
He also requested the installation of descriptive labels explaining the icons on display in the open exterior courtyard, in addition to adding interactive displays at the visitor center to engage visitors and introduce them to the journey of the Holy Family’s journey to Egypt. and catering. and development projects on related monuments.
Other items should be on display in the small museum, he said, and there should be a stall to sell replicas.
According to the site’s development plan, a wooden fence now protects the tree and the well has been cleaned and reopened, said Osama Talaat, head of the Islamic, Coptic and Jewish antiquities sector at the Antiquities Ministry.
The roads around the archaeological area have been paved and improved, descriptive road signs have been erected and all tourist services have been improved.
* A version of this article appears in the May 27, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly