In search of the Holy Family in Cairo, Egypt

(Last Updated On: December 10, 2020)

It is already nearly dusk when we finish a lovely late lunch along the Nile, but Romani has one more stop for us.

We arrive at a small church just as dusk is falling. Inside, the church is warm and dark, with gold icons dully gleaming from the walls. Worship appears to be underway, but in a very non-Lutheran fashion, people mill about. I stay near the back, buy some candles, and then enter a small chapel at the back of the church. It is too busy for the small chapel to feel particularly worshipful, but I light my candles, try to focus myself, and offer a few prayers for friends and family.

Back outside the chapel, Romani is trying to gather everyone together. He has gotten permission to have the gates to the crypt open so we may enter. This is actually the reason we are here – to see the crypt where the holy family stayed. (I’ll find out that there are dozens of these scattered around Cairo, all with big signs just like the “Washington Slept Here” signs we used to laugh about when I was a kid.) However, this is what makes this church notable.

Back outside, night has fallen. We circle the church and descend a poorly lit stairway to a waiting area of sorts that has been decorated with mosaics.

To one side, a brick passageway leads back, beyond another gate, further into the stone on which the church is built. Another gate blocks still another passageway under the church. There seem to be a lot of passageways down here.

metal gate blocking a stairway in a basement

Only a few people are allowed to enter the narrow passageway at one time. Luckily a few people have small penlights as, once inside, there is no light until the end of the (relatively short) tunnel, where a small room has been carved out of the soft rock.

This then, is where the holy family is said to have taken refuge. I try to imagine the young Mary and Joseph (still teenagers probably) with the infant Jesus living in this small space. With a few blankets and a lamp for light and heat, it wouldn’t be the worst spot to wait out danger.

Who knows, maybe they really did hide here. Even if not, certainly others have taken refuge in this place over the many years since this cavern was created.

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