Holy Land pilgrimage

From Israel to Egypt, visiting
places where Jesus, Mary,
Joseph, and Moses walked

BY

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Mokattam Cathedral

By BARBIE ATIENZA

We left Bethlehem in a rush because of the early dawn assault of missiles and drones on Jerusalem on that morning of April 14. Our emotions were wildly mixed. There was surely tension and anxiety as no one had any idea what would happen next. It was eerily quiet and calm as we boarded our bus that would bring us to safety through the border to Egypt.
 

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Mokattam Cathedral

Even the prayers in the bus, among us pilgrims were likewise ambivalent as we rolled on. Surely, we were filled with joy and gratitude that we had a spirit-filled week of visiting sacred sites in Jordan and in Israel. We knew that despite the lurking dangers, we were so fortunate to have gone through the visits with much less hassle, traffic, long lines as there were much less visitors.

Thank God, we had visited major sites in the Holy Land before this rude interruption. Just the day before, we were able to take the trek along the narrow path of the Via Dolorosa (the Way of the Cross) all the way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We touched the spot where the Cross of Christ was placed, prayed in front of the table rock where His dead body was cleaned and prepared, and knelt at the tomb where He was laid to rest.

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Mokattam Cathedral

The upper room and the house of Caiaphas left us in awe about the last days of Jesus on earth.

We walked the Sanctus Scala from Gethsemane, the Mountain of Olives. The days before that brought us to places where Moses walked and Elijah talked. We visited places in Bethlehem and Nazareth where it all started. We sailed across the Sea of Galilee and went to Capernaum and walked the path taken by Christ. We even went up the mountain where the Sermon on the Beatitudes was delivered and the multiplication of bread and fish happened, in Tagbah.

 

The bus brought us through endless open deserts of sand and rock. But it was not difficult to accept that this was a better option than the potential of bigger problems. Still the pilgrimage moved on, as we went through and saw the Mountain of Temptation, the portion of the Jordan River, the Valley of the Scribes, Jericho and the Dead Sea, even if they were just pointed out to us by our guides. We stopped by the vicinity where Sodom and Gomorrah might have been, marked by a rock monolith on top - believed to be the pillar of salt that Lot’s wife had become.

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Holy Family Well (where Mary Joseph fetched water while in Old Cairo. Jesus lived there until he was 4)

We finally reached the border to Egypt and went through the immigration process without problems.

Entering the City of Taba, a Red Sea resort community, we looked at the “Welcome to Egypt” sign and I couldn’t help asking in my mind, what we would be doing here now. As a pilgrim, I imagined that this was the end of our spiritual search for that bond we would have with the life of our Lord. Surely as tourists I thought this was still going to be a treat.

Two days of relaxation and recreation at a posh seaside resort hotel in the midst of nothingness was definitely a refreshing and welcome break for all of us. The tension was gone. We all enjoyed the pool, the beach and the food.

And then, we moved on. First stop towards the capital city of Cairo was Mount Sinai, where Moses first encountered God, hearing His voice through a burning bush which would not be consumed. Mount Sinai is also where Moses climbed and received the Ten Commandments in two rock tablets.

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Hanging Church

Mount Sinai is in Egypt, I thought almost aloud. I later learned that the Sinai Peninsula where the holy mountain stood was the Asian side of Egypt. We motored there through a seemingly endless sandy roads seeing caves among rocks, minor sandstorms blowing until we finally come to a stop. And then behold – Mount Sinai. At its foot is a monastery called St. Catherine, which is also the name of the place where it is located. Upon entry, immediately we sensed a feeling of holiness and serenity which seemed to have been preserved through time.

At the end there it was, the tree that was the Burning Bush, our guides declared. I had the impulse to remove my shoes as I believed I was standing on holy ground. I noticed nobody else did, so I stopped.

Several photos and a short prayer after, we moved on and stopped at Moses Well. Outside, Bedouins were selling all sorts of souvenirs. A particular item stood out – small rocks at a dollar each. The stones had the image of bushes. And even more amazing was that even if you cracked the stone, the same image would be found on its surface. Stories have it that God provided the stones to guide Moses back to Mt. Sinai when he had led the Israelites.

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Abu Serva, home of Jesus Mary & Joseph in Old Cairo


Visitors also had the option to climb Mt. Sinai, preferably at night to reach the peak at the break of dawn. They swore it was such a sight to behold. And I just had to take their word for it.

Cairo was another unique experience after several hours drive across desert nothingness. We slept, woke up, slept again and woke up again and still the same scenario. Then suddenly, we saw a body of water which turned out to be the Red Sea portion that led up to the Suez Canal. We drove through the tunnel to cross. And upon reaching the other side, our guide then welcomed us to the African side of Egypt.

The next morning started with a trip to the Great Pyramids of Egypt. It was not too far from the city proper. I earlier imagined it to be in the midst of another desert which meant another long and hot ride. But no, it was just there, almost at the heart of it all. There were many tourist buses and throngs of people about, in contrast to what we had in Israel.

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Burning Bush


After getting off the bus, already there it was – the Great Pyramid of Giza. Amazing! It was much bigger than I thought. The blocks, especially at its base were taller than all of the people there. We quickly took photos left and right, as if the pyramids were going to run away.

Then leaving the pyramid area, we were shown a glimpse of the Sphynx which stood proudly in front of an open theater as if ready to strut and perform before an admiring audience. This was all surreal. Then we were brought to a perfume and ointment store and shopping at a mall (we needed clothes and bags as we lost our luggages when we left Manila).

A great day for tourism it was. Remarkable and memorable but I already missed the pilgrimage experience of the week past, which after all was what we came here for.

The next day was our last day, our final few hours in this erstwhile strange place.
 

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Wife of Lot Pillar of Salt

We walked into Old Cairo and found a church named Abu Serga. At once, my longing to continue my pilgrimage was granted. This was the church built upon a cave where Joseph, Mary and Jesus, lived when they fled from Herod’s command to kill all infants in Jerusalem. The family travelled from Bethlehem in a huff (just like we did) by the angel’s prompting and crossed through to Egypt via the northern Sinai peninsula. They only went back to Israel when l Jesus was almost four years old.

Next to Abu Serga were three more churches – St. Barbara, St. George and the Hanging Church, so called as it was constructed on top of two towers without any foundation of its own. In it one can see a very rare painting of the Blessed Mother with two boys beside her, supposedly our Lord Jesus and his cousin John the Baptist. Struck as I was, I then realized that the pilgrimage has not ended at all.

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Mount Sinai

This chapter completes the whole journey with Jesus. His birth in Bethlehem was to be followed by this – His infant years in Egypt. We got to see where he spent his private life in Nazareth, as well as his adulthood in Capernaum and Galilee area. His Teachings and miracles as well as His passion, death and resurrection in Jerusalen. Our Egyptian sojourn did complete the whole puzzle.

It was time for one more stop before heading for the airport and catch our flight back to Manila.
 

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We went through very narrow roads and finally came to a massive mountain wall where there were various carvings of gigantic proportions. Inside is the St. Simon Monastery, also known as the Cave Church carved into Mount Al-Mokattam. All around were carvings of different events in Scripture including the mysteries, the suffering, and the resurrection and many others rendered in huge renditions on the rocks and walls of the mountain itself.

It was a showcase of the whole pilgrimage!

It was just fitting that we concluded our Holy Land pilgrimage in Egypt. We completed the journey as we were blessed to walk where Jesus walked. Our trip to Egypt was not a side trip but by God’s design, it was an integral part of the Holy Land pilgrimage experience.