Places sacred to both Christians and Moslems where the faithful tend to join together and pray. Moslem devotion to Our Lady.
Christians who visit the holy tombs of Moslems to beg their intercession, Moslems making votive offerings in the place where Mary gave birth to Jesus: these practices were widespread in Mediterranean countries during the Middle Ages. The existence of mixed shrines and tombs, holy places where groups of Christian, Moslem and Jewish faithful go to pray and carry out their devotional practices is a phenomenon with an ancient tradition. Egypt is the holy land par excellence, a refuge from ancient times for those called by God.
The country has received prophets, Fathers, martyrs and, since the Moslem conquest in the VII century, companions and relatives of the Prophet of Islam. Abraham, Joseph and Moses found refuge in the land of the Nile. The tradition that sees Egypt as a place of asylum for the persecuted is also to be found in the episode of the Flight into Egypt of the Holy family and is confirmed in Moslem memory by tales of the many descendants of the Prophet who, oppressed and tormented in their countries, were benevolently received by the people of Egypt, according to tradition.
Thus the land of the Nile became a ‘protected country’, an expression used for centuries by Egyptians to describe their own fatherland. It is protected by God because it is mentioned several times both in the Bible and the Koran and blessed by holy Christian and Moslem tombs, the objects of popular devotion.
Many scholars have spoken of the spiritual continuity that has characterised the religious history of Egypt, showing how Islam, the latest religion to spread throughout the land, interacted with a very complex social, religious and cultural substratum from which it drew some elements. The clearest evidence of this is to be seen in the cult (influenced by the Christian cult of the saints) of some of the relatives of the Prophet and some of the Sufis. One of the fundamental aspects of this continuity consists in the existence of shared holy places, proof that Egypt is, both for Copts and Moslems, a country chosen by God. A panorama of these places situated in various regions of Egypt enables us to discover the protagonists of the shared cult and the figures who, in our times, are an attraction for the faithful.
Starting with the Nile delta, the first Coptic holy place dear to Moslems is the monastery where the tomb of St. Damiana is to be found. She lived during the IV century and was the daughter of a Christian governor who converted to paganism at the order of Diocletian. Having lived an ascetic life as abbess of a convent of forty nuns, St. Damiana and her companions were tortured and executed by the emperor as they refused to worship the idols. As a symbol of purity, profound faith and martyrdom, there are great celebrations on the anniversary of her birth, festivities in which the Moslems of the place often participate, visiting her tomb to obtain the blessing of this holy woman.
The church of St. Theresa of the Child Jesus is one of the most famous places of Christian cult in Cairo and opens its doors to Moslems as well as Christians. Built in the early twentieth century, it is located in the Shobra quarter, noted as a historical place of peaceful coexistence between Moslems and Christians. Moslems are often seen in this Catholic holy place, lighting votive candles, touching the statue of the saint and leaving petitions in a glass urn wherein the faithful leave their requests for help. It is situated in a hall, the walls of which are covered with the names of people miraculously helped by the saint, many of whom have Moslem names.
In the heart of the more ancient part of Cairo, there is a quarter called Mugamma’ al-adyan, the ‘complex of the religions’, since it houses places of cult of the three monotheistic religions, among which are the first Mosque built in Egypt, a Hebrew temple and a tenth century church of Mar Gergis, St. George for the Egyptians, a saint with inter-confessional characteristics for whom Moslems from Egypt and beyond have great esteem.
St. George, a soldier of valour in the army of Diocletian, was condemned by the Emperor to be tortured as he would not renounce his Christian faith. According to a legend known in many regions of the Moslem world, St. George, accomplishing a super-human deed, defeated a dragon that threatened the inhabitants of a Libyan town. Some Moslems identify St. George with Khidr, a wise servant of God and a mysterious personality presented in the Koran as the one who assisted Moses when he was crossing the red Sea while escaping from Egypt. This identification is said to be due to the fact that Khidr is represented as killing a dragon and results in St. George becoming the object of inter-confessional devotion.
In another very ancient quarter of Cairo with a Moslem majority, we find the mausoleum of al-Sayyida Zaynab, a nephew of the Prophet Mohammed buried in the traditional Egyptian way. The tomb is one of the main destinations of religious tourism in Egypt. One of the most venerated Egyptian Moslem women, al-Sayyida Zaynab is referred to by her devotees with some titles that resemble those of Our Lady, such as ‘Mother of Orphans’ and ‘President of the Assembly of the Saints’. The fact that there are Christian faithful who seek blessings in the Mosque-mausoleum is known and recognised: as a matter of fact, al-Sayyida Zaynab is seen as a mother who protects her children and hears their requests.
The monastery of St. Catherine in Sinai is one of the oldest monasteries in the world dedicated to the Christian martyr who was killed in Alexandria in Egypt. Her remains were taken by angels to Mount Sinai where they were found by monks who had a monastery built in her memory in the VI century. Moslems visit the place in such numbers that the monks had a mosque built for them to pray in.
According to tradition, in the VII century the Prophet Mohammed sent a document to the monks of the monastery assuring them protection and freedom of worship. This Charter of Privileges is still preserved in the monastery. There are many cases of places of Christian cult being later attributed to Moslems such as the cave of Gotna in the governorate of Sohag in Upper Egypt, associated with a certain Sheik Husayn, a personage venerated by the Moslems of the place but which, according to the Copts, was originally a monk who lived in a hermitage in the area.
Mary in Common
The Virgin Mary is a figure shared by Christians and Moslems, a figure that unites. For the Moslems, she is the mother of Jesus but not of God, the first woman who will enter paradise together with three other chosen women mentioned in the Koran. Mary gives her name to numerous places of inter-confessional cult throughout Egypt. The cult of the places that were visited by the Holy family during their flight into Egypt developed from the XII century onwards, in competition with the Moslem cult of the Prophet and his relatives.
In the Cairo quarter of aI-Matareya, whose name derives from the Latin word ‘mater’, there is the tree of Mary, a centuries-old sycamore; according to tradition, while Mary, Joseph and the child Jesus were resting in its shade, a spring of water opened up in which Mary washed Jesus and whose waters have, according to devotees, curative properties.
Marian apparitions are a widely spread historical phenomenon in Cairo. The Hanging Church, situated in the Complex of the Religions, is so called as it is built on the highest point of an ancient passage, is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and has been the theatre of many apparitions. In 1968, on the cupola of the church of Our Lady of Zaytun in Cairo there were apparitions witnessed by Christians and Moslems, one of whom was President Nasser, and was interpreted as an appeal for national unity after the Egyptian defeat in the Six-Day War (1967). In the city of Mustorod, north of Cairo, there is a well where Jesus was washed by his mother, the goal of pilgrims of both faiths who go there to get the holy water. In the town of Bahnasa, 200 km south of Cairo, there is a well-known tree of Mary, so called because Our Lady and the Child rested in its shade.