OLD CAIRO, EGYPT -- It is called the Sanctuary of the Holy Family, a dark, pillared crypt built into a cave that has beckoned Egyptian Christians for 1,900 years.
The venerated crypt, in the basement of St. Sergius's Church, was, in Egyptian Christian lore, a haven for a young Jewish family fleeing Palestine to save their infant son, Jesus Christ. Egyptian Christians, who belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church, flock here each Christmas in a pilgrimage to the site.
The crypt itself has been closed to the public for 17 years because of water entering it from beneath the ground. Still, the faithful pilgrims come each year on Coptic Christmas, which falls this year on Jan. 7. They gather in the sunken churches of Old Cairo, once a fortress, and now a cobblestoned nook with alleys that smell of incense and echo with the sound of cymbals and priestly chants.
The New Testament recounts the flight of Joseph, Mary and Jesus to escape the wrath of King Herod, who ordered his soldiers to slay Israel's boys, up to two years of age, because the Wise Men had told him a king had been born in Bethlehem.
Jesus' disciple St. Mark brought Christianity to Egypt in the first century, during the tyrannical reign of the Roman Emperor Nero, and the Flight of the Holy Family was at the new religion's heart. Christian accounts say the family and the nursemaid Salome came with a donkey and trudged from one Jewish household or synagogue to the next, from catacomb to cave, never staying for long. They are said to have lingered in around 40 places, including the Sanctuary of the Holy Family.
Churches and monasteries mark many of their supposed havens, and a few sites are sacred both to Egypt's 6 million Christians and 45 million Moslems. Islam considers Christ a prophet and reveres the Virgin Mary.
Bishop Anba Gregorius of the Coptic Orthodox Church, who is regarded as the leading scholar on the biblical episode, said a detailed account of the journey comes from Archbishop Theophilus, the patriarch from 385-412 A.D., who traveled throughout Egypt consecrating new churches. Gregorius said Theophilus learned of the Holy Family's journey through Egypt when "the Virgin Mary came to him in a vision, telling him everything about" it.
After crossing the craggy Sinai Peninsula, the Holy Family made its way to ancient Lycopolis -- whose Greek name meant, literally, Wolftown -- located at the site of modern-day Asyut, 250 miles south of Cairo.
Copts -- Egyptian Christians -- believe the round trip took 3 1/2 years. Egypt's Moslems say the Holy Family spent nine years in Egypt and that Jesus grew to the age of a schoolboy here.
One of the great celebrations shared by Copts and Moslems is the annual pilgrimage to Gebel Tair, the Mount of Birds, in Middle Egypt. Each year young and old visit the spot, where Jesus is said to have saved the lives of the Holy Family during a boat trip south from Cairo.