The Holy Family between science, belief and wishful thinking

Sent On: 
Wed, 2020-12-23
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At this special time of year, we wish our Christian readers a blessed Christmas and all of our readers a healthy, happy, blessed new year. As 2020 winds to a close, as the Christmas holiday draws night, we are given to reflection. The Holy Family tradition is closely associated with the Christmas story. Matthew Chapter 2 recounts that King Herod is distressed and unsettled about the news that the Messiah, the king of the Jews, has been born. In response to Herod’s actions, the innocent children of Bethlehem were slaughtered and the Holy Family fled to Egypt.


The Bible mentions nothing about which specific locations the Holy Family visited in Egypt, but the Coptic tradition does. Mention of locations in Egypt begins in the fourth century AD, but most sites, including Tal Basṭa, are first mentioned only in the Middle Ages.


Christianity’s history in Egypt is one of ups and downs. In the 1990s, the Egyptian government agreed to support Church efforts to highlight the Holy Family tradition during the celebration of the start of a new millennium in 2000. The Ministry of Tourism asked Pope Shenouda [Shinūda] to present them with a map attesting the Holy Family’s route, and started working on promoting Christian tourism to Egypt. Ancient churches were restored; roads, improved.


At this time, Dr. Maḥmūd ʿUmar was a young Egyptian archeologist was conducting an excavation in Tal Basṭa, an important archeological site near Zaqāzīq, north-east of Cairo. Local Christians befriended him, and recounted a Coptic traditional belief that the Holy Family had visited Basṭa where Jesus had created a well and idols had fallen before him in the temple. Dr. Maḥmūd ʿUmar was fascinated and milked his Christian friends for as much information about this tradition as possible. In 1997, he excavated a well with artifacts dating from the first century. All this work was good, but Dr. Maḥmūd ʿUmar did not understand or even appreciate the distinction between verifiable historical sources and a medieval tradition pointing back to the first century. Maḥmūd ʿUmar boasted he had found the well Jesus had created. He believed that this news would be welcomed by Christians, Muslims and Egyptian authorities because it dove-tailed with the preparations for the millennium celebrations.

Book cover for "The Well of the Holy Family in Tal Basṭa" by Maḥmūd ʿUmar


Local Christian leaders were drawn to Maḥmūd ʿUmar’s claims, seeing in Maḥmūd ʿUmar a Muslim professor who confirmed their beliefs. He became their hero. At the time, no one foresaw the consequences: Christian faithful started flocking to the well to drink from its water based on the folk belief that each well created by Jesus must have miraculous healing effects. But people who drank from this water became sick and required hospitalization for poisoning. In the face of strong belief that a well created by Jesus and its water had to be beneficent, salutary and even benedictory, some concluded the poisonings were the work of Muslim extremists’ poisoning the well.  In fact, it became known that the water had been poisoned by the widespread use of agricultural pesticides near the excavation. Even so, Christians wanted to turn the well in a Christian pilgrimage site, a bridge too far for Dr. ʿAbd al-Maqṣūd, Maḥmūd ʿUmar’s supervisor, who wanted to protect the archeological integrity of this site. Maḥmūd ʿUmar did not relent and clashed with his supervisor. Maḥmūd ʿUmar was severely attacked in Egyptian media but did not back away from his position.  Rather he wrote and self-published The Well of the Holy Family in Tal Basṭa in response. Divisions in the community ensued.  The late Coptic Orthodox Bishop Yacobus of Zaqāzīq could not understand why Egyptian antiquities authorities could not accept the findings of Maḥmūd ʿUmar, and called Dr. ʿAbd al-Maqṣūd an “extremist.” My direct knowledge of Dr. ʿAbd al-Maqṣūd attests how very far from the truth such a statement is.


It is unfortunate that I was not able to publish about this story as long as these baseless Christian allegations persisted.  After some time passed, Bishop Yacobus [Yaʿqūb] died, and during one of my subsequent visits to Zaqāzīq in 2011, Christian clergy no longer attributed the poisoning of the well to local Muslims. But this blind acceptance of tradition as fact led to the promulgation of misinformation and misinterpretations which almost brought local Muslims and Christians very close to religious strife (fitna ṭāʾifīya).  Only a court case between the Egyptian antiquity authorities and Maḥmūd ʿUmar finally led to a resolution which included Maḥmūd ʿUmar losing his position as excavator in Tal Basṭa.


I have since completed a lengthy review of Dr. Maḥmūd ʿUmar’s book, including translations of large sections demonstrating how he misconstrued or even misused his Christian source material. Had he remained true to his own archeological vocation, his work would have been commendable by archeologists, the government, historians and followers of more than one faith, but he was unable to analyze the medieval traditions he had been introduced to and arrived at conclusions melding science, belief and wishful thinking.[1]


Dr. Maḥmūd ʿUmar is not the only one who speculated. Jupiter and Saturn lined up on December 21, so close together that they appeared to many as one bright shining star. Several authors speculated in the past days that a similar appearance might have been the astronomical origin of the Star of Bethlehem that guided the wise men. Dr. Willem Kuiper, a Dutch scholar of Medieval literature and a long-time friend of Arab-West Report, does not believe this is possible since people in those days knew the difference between stars and planets. The Star of Bethlehem is anti-Judaic, Dr. Kuiper says, since this was an implicit accusation that they had not seen the star and thus they had not seen that the Messiah had been born.


So now, at Christmas, let us focus on the story’s purpose and steer away from speculation. Two thousand years ago, Jews were living under Roman occupation, and the arrival of the Messiah presaged a better future neither they nor the Romans or anyone else could imagine.


In that spirit, may 2021 be blessed for you all, a far better year than 2020.



December 23, 2020


Cornelis Hulsman,


Editor-in-Chief, Arab-West Report


[1] (For the full 49 page paper please click here.)