Egypt reopens ancient Virgin Mary tree site following months-long renovation

It is one of the holiest sites for Egypt's Christians

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The Tree of the Virgin Mary, one of the most prominent Christian sites in Egypt, was reopened on Sunday following a months-long renovation by the antiquities ministry.

The site is believed to have been one of the stops on Jesus's family’s journey through Egypt after they fled Judea (modern-day Palestine) to escape persecution.

Located in the northern Cairo district of Matariya, one of the Egyptian capital’s poorer neighbourhoods, the walled garden which houses the tree has been renovated.

It now includes a visitor centre and information banners, an attempt by the tourism ministry to highlight Egypt's Christian heritage sites.

The original tree, a sycamore in whose shade Mary and the infant Jesus sought refuge, according to the Gospel of Matthew, died in 1656. At that time a group of Franciscan monks removed some of its healthier branches and planted them.

The Virgin Mary tree in Matarya. Mahmoud Nasr / The National

The second tree has since also withered and its dried-up remnants are today on display inside a fenced area in the garden.

A third generation of the tree was then planted in the courtyard of the nearby Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary, according to Mai Fouad, an antiquities ministry official.

Then about 50 years ago, a branch was cut from the third generation tree and replanted at the site of the first tree. It grew into a towering 10-metre sycamore that stands today and continues to bear fruit.

Ms Fouad told The National that a group of French soldiers who had fought in a battle against the Ottoman army in 1800 sought refuge at the tree’s chapel after contracting a painful skin disease.

According to legend, a priest from the chapel took sap from the tree and rubbed it on the soldiers’ sores, after which they were completely healed.

“They carved their names into the tree to commemorate the miracle and you can still see traces of them there,” Ms Fouad said. She pointed to faint letters visible on the dead trunk of the second-generation tree.

Biblical sculptures placed near the well at the Virgin Mary tree. EPA

Additionally, a well inside the garden, which dates back to the Roman rule of Egypt and is believed to have provided water for the family, was updated with a concrete and sandstone exterior and decorated with colourful statues of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

According to Ms Fouad, it is believed that the Virgin Mary washed Jesus’s clothes in the well and when she squeezed the water out of them onto the soil, a myrrh plant grew.

The fragrant oil of the myrrh plant is particularly significant in the Christian faith and is often used to anoint worshippers.

The story of the well was also recounted in texts by two prominent Egyptian historians, Al Maqrizi (1364-1442), who lived during Mamluk rule of Egypt, and Al Suyuti (1445-1505).

The garden has undergone minor renovations over the past 20 years. However, the most extensive update happened in 2000 when an Egyptian charity added two other structures to the garden: a small gallery and the visitors’ centre, which was this year expanded.

Inside the gallery are three paintings, with a large oil rendition of the district of Matariya the centrepiece. The painting was done by a Korean artist aged 18, according to Ms Fouad.

It depicts Jesus and his family standing beneath the tree and in the background, the obelisk of ancient Egyptian pharaoh Senusret I, another of Matariya’s important relics.

The painting also depicts the cave believed to have provided shelter for the family, which the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary is believed to be built on.

The family are depicted as having Korean features in the oil painting, particularly Joseph's East Asian-style facial hair.

A biblical painting near at the Virgin Mary tree. EPA

“Every artist who contributed to decorating the garden imagines the holy family as they see fit,” Ms Fouad said.

“However, there is one thing about this painting that isn’t necessarily historically accurate. We are told through various religious traditions that Joseph was an old man when he made the journey into Egypt, and the Korean artist painted him as a young man.”

Inside the gallery is also a smaller painting of the family by the pyramids of Giza and another of the Virgin Mary.

Inside the visitors’ centre, a map in the middle of the room shows a number of other places in Egypt believed to have been visited by the family during their journey.

For Egyptians, tickets to enter the garden are 10 Egyptian pounds ($0.52), with a 50 per cent discount for students.

Foreign tourists pay 60 Egyptian pounds with the same discount for students.

Updated: September 19, 2022, 11:24 AM
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