The Ministry of Tourism launched a new trip on October 21 that follows the path the holy family purportedly took through Egypt, in an effort to encourage different types of tourists to visit the country.
The project is meant to attract around 500,000 tourists from new markets in countries with large Christian populations, such as South Asia, Russia, Eastern Europe and Latin America.
The majority of tourists come to Egypt currently for two major attractions: archeology and the Red Sea resorts, like Sharm el-Sheikh and Dahab.
The market therefore is oriented towards these motivations. Almost any tourist shop in Egypt sells something related to the Pharaohs, either papyrus paper with hieroglyphs on it or small plastic figurines of Egypt’s most famous monuments, the pyramids.
It is hoped that the new plan to promote sacred sites will open Egypt up to religious pilgrims and boost an economy that has been dwindling since the revolution.
Religious tourism can be incredibly profitable. Saudi makes US$16.5 billion, around three percent of its GDP, from pilgrims visiting Mecca. The UN World Tourism Organization estimates that 300 million people go on pilgrimages every year.
Whether there is truly a market for religious tourism in Egypt, however, remains to be seen, and is dependent on both marketing and the spiritual and historical value of Egypt’s religious sites.
The story of the holy family’s flight through Egypt is based on the gospel according to Saint Matthew, in which it is written that an angel of the Lord advised Joseph to take baby Jesus to Egypt to escape King Herod, who had ordered the death of all infants in the kingdom upon hearing from the Magus that a child had been born who would be king.
According to Mariam Ayad, a professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo, there is no archeological evidence of the holy family’s trip through Egypt. But there is evidence of pilgrimage sites in Egypt from the fourth century AD.
There are also Coptic manuscripts from the fifth century AD, in which the patriarch talked about the family’s trip through Egypt.
Although there is no archeological evidence of the family’s presence, there are a number of holy sites where shrines and other monuments have been built to commemorate the holy family’s journey. It is on the basis of these monuments, and scripture, that the government has mapped the holy family’s path.
However, the market also depends on the spiritual importance of sites, not just their validity.
According to Ayad, thousands of pilgrims visit sites connected to the holy family annually, among the most popular of which are Gabal al-Tayr and Matareya in Cairo.
“According to popular tradition, the holy family took shade under a sycamore fig tree in Matareya. Today the site is known as the ‘Tree of Mary.’ A church and a Mosque have been erected nearby to commemorate this visit,” said Ayad.
She added that thousands of pilgrims visit Gabal al-Tayr every year. “The site is very popular in August, when pilgrims come to celebrate the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin.”
Hanny Hanna, an official from the Ministry of Antiquities, asserted that tourists would come if given the right incentives and if sites are marketed properly. “There are a lot of tourists who go to Saint Catherine and not to other sites, but we have a lot of other sites.”
Ayad thinks the government’s plan to capitalize on these sites is good, “especially if it involves transport to some of the more far-flung areas,” he adds. “I think cruises to and from Minya would be fabulous, not just for the sake of sites associated with the holy family but also for accessing the ancient Egyptian sites.”
Father Angelos, the pastor of the Abu Sarga Church in Old Cairo, agrees that the government’s plan is a good one. He says that there have always been foreigners who come to Coptic Cairo to see the churches and the sites where the holy family hid from King Herod, adding that the holy family’s journey is as important as the pyramids and statues.
But in recent years, the numbers of tourists have declined. “We have had some problems, some trouble,” he explained, referencing the general political upheaval in Egypt since the 2011 revolution. “Foreign people are afraid to come.”
Ahmed Yahya, the operator of a tour group in Cairo, says the new trip is a great way for Egypt to tap into religious tourism. “It’s similar to the route in Spain, the Camilla de Santiago, which people see as a spiritual trail. It’s the route of one of the Saints, one of the important Saints. In Egypt we have the route of Christ himself, so I think lots of people will come.”
Yahya believes the biggest challenge for the government when it comes to promoting and selling the holy family’s trip is money. In his opinion, tourists from Europe and Russia would be the most interested in such a trip, as they like to try things off the beaten track.
He proposes that the private sector could fill the gap and cover the costs of organizing trips and setting up transportation and housing.
According to Yahya, the only reason the holy family’s trip is not already a large tourist attraction is because no one has thought to market it yet. But now that the government is making a push to promote the family’s journey, he thinks that at least a thousand pilgrims could come to Egypt each month if the project is handled correctly.
Angelos says the Coptic Church has a “very good relationship with the government,” and is working with them to plan the trip.
Back in old Cairo, in the church of Abu Sergis, Angelos met with a tour guide who had a lot of experience in answering questions about the holy family. During the interview, he took out a large cardboard map of their trip, which he keeps in his office with the express purpose of showing it to foreigners. In the middle of the interview, he regaled two German tourists with the story of the holy family’s journey, which he obviously knew by heart.