Fleeing Herod: A Journey through Coptic Egypt with the Holy Family

By Chandler, Paul-Gordon | The Christian Century, July 24, 2013 | Go to article overview

Fleeing Herod: A Journey through Coptic Egypt with the Holy Family


Chandler, Paul-Gordon, The Christian Century


Fleeing Herod: A Journey Through Coptic Egypt with the Holy Family

By James Cowan

Paraclete, 260 pp., $19.99 paperback

Australian writer James Cowan has written a captivating account of a journey through modern Egypt following an ancient itinerary--the footsteps of the Holy Family. The Coptic Orthodox Church is deeply attached to Egypt's role in sheltering Joseph, Mary and the Christ child, and monasteries across Egypt stand as witnesses to the legendary travels of the Holy Family, as well as to the origins of desert monasticism and to waves of persecution of Christians.

Cowan, author of the novel A Mapmaker's Dream and a study of the Persian poet Rumi, writes in a genre similar to Bruce Feiler's Walking the Bible and William Dalrymple's From the Holy Mountain. He follows a fourth-century text written by a Coptic pope, Theophilus of Alexandria, titled The Vision of Theophilus, and masterfully weaves ancient texts into his narrative. A map would have been helpful, but his notes, bibliography and glossary of terms provide an ample supplement.

The power of Cowan's work is anchored in his numerous conversations with monks, nuns, guides and fellow pilgrims, often rendered verbatim. At times the exchanges are hilarious, at other times deadly serious.

In the city of Sakha, north of Cairo, Cowan meets Mother Adrosis and is shown a revered "footprint of Christ." A conversation about miracles develops:

"Miracles are God's way of healing the wound," replied Mother Adrosis. Her glasses seemed to mist over as she spoke.

"Miracles are therefore an expression of the world struggling to come to terms with forces bent on trying to undermine it," I reasoned.

"That is so, Mr. James. They are the wings of a butterfly the instant it breaks free from its chrysalis. We see these as real, but are they not in fact a wonder? How one creature is born anew from another is one of the great mysteries, surely. Such is the nature of the miracle: it is also one reality born anew from another."

At one point Cowan encounters a Muslim guide in a Christian sanctuary. He quickly realizes that the church's image of St. Mary's Tree, under which the Holy Family is supposed to have taken shelter, is as important to Muslims as it is to Christians. …

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