The Virgin’s Tree in Egypt: A Story of Survival

I recently found, on the travel website Trip Advisor, a photo of the Virgin’s Tree (aka Mary’s Tree) which is located in Matariya near Cairo. The image showed a dead tree wrapped in cellophane, looking almost like a corpse. The tourist, Sally Mahmoud, who took the photo in November 2015 wrote the following review about her experience, under the headline “disgraceful.”

“(I) Walked through the filth to reach the tree…only to be so extremely disappointed in how it was let go. Now I realize how old this tree is, but the attempts to preserve this tree were so miserably disappointing. Large pieces that had broken off, were arranged to try and look like they were still attached, and most of the tree was wrapped in a clear cellophane. I stood and stared in disbelief.”

The Virgin's Tree in Matariya shortly after the millennium (L) along side the same tree as it looked in November 2015 covered with cellophane. Phot (left) Roland Unger, Phot. Sally Mahmoud

The Virgin’s Tree in Matariya shortly after the millennium (L) along side the same tree as it looked in November 2015 covered with cellophane. Phot (left) Roland Unger, Phot. Sally Mahmoud

The first time I visited the Virgin’s Tree was in the late 1990s, while working on a book about the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt titled Be Though There, The Holy Family’s Journey in Egypt. According to Coptic tradition, the Holy Family took shelter beneath the Virgin’s Tree after fleeing from Bethlehem and Herod’s soldiers.

At the time, the Ministry of Tourism was busy beautifying the area, expecting a surge in religious tourism around the millennium. Flagstone was being laid down for visitors to walk on and the entire area was undergoing a much-needed facelift. The Virgin’s Tree itself was very much alive and healthy, flaunting a full canopy that offered protective shade to visitors. So how did this legendary tree go from being so vigorous to deadwood wrapped in cellophane?

 
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