Flight to Egypt
Between Bethlehem and Egypt, 4 BC


"An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. 'Get up,' he said, 'take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt." (Matthew 2:13a).

Governed directly by Rome since the death of Cleopatra, Egypt had long been recognized as a place of refuge. Numerous Jewish communities were found there, especially in Alexandria, which had the largest concentration of Jews outside Palestine. Because both Egypt and Palestine were part of the Roman Empire, travel between them was easy and relatively safe.

The flight into Egypt is a true love story in which Joseph does everything he can to keep Mary and the baby Jesus safe. Dreams are play a prominent role in the story, just as they were for the Old Testament Joseph, this Joseph's namesake. On one side the tiny family seems surrounded by the evil Herod family, and by a crowd of angels on the other. The expensive gifts of the Magi provided enough money for the family to travel on and God oversaw their journey to Egypt, then returned them safely to Palestine.

Matthew's Gospel relates no details of the journey of Mary and Joseph to Egypt to save the life of their infant son. Undoubtedly they took the regular caravan route south from Bethlehem to Hebron (modern Road 60), then sharply northwest to Gaza. From Gaza they would have followed the coastal highway down to Pelusium, the gateway to Egypt. Traveling an average of twenty miles a day, they would have reached Egypt in about ten days. (An alternate route, through the Negev and the Sinai Desert, an area of never-ending wilderness and heat, would have been extremely dangerous).

In the footsteps of Jesus...

From the corner of Manger Square, we walk eastward along the narrow Milk Grotto Street, past houses and a Greek monastery, to a Franciscan chapel built around a grotto where, according to a tradition going back at least to the earliest years of Christianity, Mary and Joseph stopped while fleeing Herod's soldiers on their way to Egypt.

Milk Grotto

The irregularly shaped grotto is hollowed out of the soft white rock. It is now converted into a lavishly decorated chapel called by local Christians "Magharet Sitti Mariam" (Grotto of the Lady Mary), but more commonly known as the Milk Grotto (below, exterior and interior). A church was built here at least before the 5th century AD, and mosaic fragments on the terrace of the grotto, with geometric motifs and crosses, are thought to belong to this time. According to legend, while Mary breast-fed the infant Jesus a few drops of milk fell on the stone turning it white. The cave is a place of veneration for both Christians and Muslims who believe scrapings from the stones boost the quality of a mother's breast milk and enhance fertility.

Traveling south from Bethlehem to Egypt today…

The distance from Bethlehem to Hebron is about 20 miles, roughly a 30 minute drive without stopping. But there are many things to see related to Old testament history, especially the time of David, Abraham and the beginnings of the Hebrew conquest of the "Promised Land."

Looming ominously like a volcano to the east of Bethlehem is the Herodion (below left) perhaps the most outstanding of all Herod the Great's building achievements. It served as a desert retreat and was one of a chain of fortresses — Hyrcania, Alexandreion, Cypros and Masada — built by the paranoid king on the various escape routes out of his kingdom, should he have to make a quick retreat.

Originally the Herodion consisted of two hills standing next to each other, "like a woman's breasts" as Josephus puts it. Herod used thousands of slaves to demolish one hill and level off the other. Atop the remaining hill he constructed a giant fortress with a double circular protective wall and four watch towers enclosing a palace (below right) baths, synagogue and banquet hall as big as a football stadium.

The Lower Herodion, at the foot of the artificial mountain, was equally magnificent, with palaces, storerooms, a bathhouse, elaborate landscaped gardens, a hippodrome (chariot racing track) and a huge pool (foreground of above left photo). The cone-shaped palace-fortress rose some 100 feet high; the summit (above right) was surrounded by double concentric walls with four towers erected at the cardinal directions. Besides living quarters, the upper palace had a triclinium (a formal dining room lined on three sides by couches) and a bathhouse featuring a domed ceiling with a round opening.

According to Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, after Herod died in Jericho in 4 BC (while the Holy Family was in Egypt), his body was brought to the Herodion and buried "in a bier of solid gold studded with precious stones." But where precisely was the king entombed? At the summit? At the base? Inside the mountain itself? Josephus didn't say. Despite multiple excavations at the site it remained hidden.

Finally, in 2007, Finally, Ehud Netzer of Hebrew University announced that after 35 years of archaeological work a team of researchers found pieces of an eight-foot sarcophagus, crafted of red-colored limestone with rosettes on its sides (reconstruction, below left; Herod's tomb, below right). Although it contained no bones its location and ornate appearance indicated it was Herod's. It had been smashed into pieces, most likely during the great Jewish revolt of 66-72 AD. The Jewish rebels despised Herod, calling him a puppet appointed by Judea's Roman rulers. The destruction was probably an expression of hatred or revenge. The style of the sarcophagus is extremely rare. Only a handful of others have been uncovered in Israel, all in elaborate tombs apparently belonging to prominent people. There is little doubt that it was Herod's, the discovery of which solves one of Israel's greatest archeological mysteries.

In the shadow of the Herodion is the Jewish village of Takoa (below, seen from Herodion). In Old Testament times Tekoa was home to the prophet Amos, a contemporary of Isaiah and Hosea. Amos earned a living from tending sheep and a sycamore-fig grove. Called to prophesy during reigns of Uzziah of Judah (792-740 BC) and Jeroboam II of Israel (793-753 BC) he addressed self-indulgence, neglect of the poor and religious complacency.

Next along Road 60 is a large archway (below left) spanning the road leading to El-Khader, an elongated town of some 9,700 established in 1600 AD. El-Khader, derived from the Quran, literally means "the Green." Muslims see St. George as one of the human manifestations of a spirit known as el-Khader, "the Green One," an immortal being who wanders the world invisible to humans, but who appears periodically in human form to rescue the righteous from danger or preach to the ungodly. St. George is merely one human manifestation of El-Khader; the Old Testament prophet Elijah is another. The Legend of al-Khader has roots going back to the myth of Syrian and Babylonian fertility gods Adonis and Tammuz. It was adopted very early by Islam, but the reasoning behind the connection of St. George with el-Khader is obscure. The legend may come from famous 12th century myth of St. George killing dragon to save a Libyan princess; possibly derived from myth of Perseus killing a sea monster.

On the outskirts of El-Khader are the remains of a cross-shaped church (below right) built sometime between the fourth and seventh centuries and rebuilt by 12th-century crusaders.

Just east of el-Khader (Khadr) is Dheishah (below right) a Palestinian refugee camp established in 1949. Dheishah, meaning "a splendor of greenery," was once a favorite leisure spot for Bethlehemites. Today it is the largest of the 59 refugee camps built to accommodate thousands of Palestinians made homeless by the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Originally intended as a temporary shelter for about 1,000 refugees, it now houses over 11,000.


A little south of el-Khadr Junction are three huge rectangular water reservoirs known as Solomon's Pools (below left, one of the now empty pools). Why they are called "Solomon's Pools" is not clear; almost certainly they date to a later time (Hasmonean or Herodian). According to the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, the area was one of Solomon's favorite places: "Now there was a certain spot eight miles distant from Jerusalem which is called Etam, delightful for, and abounding in, parks and flowing streams, and to this place he would make excursions, mounted high on his chariot." The pools — each about 525 feet long by 164 feet wide and 65 feet deep — were used to collect spring and rain water from surrounding valleys. They were constructed in steps, one above the other, to enable water to flow by force of gravity. In the 1st century BC Herod the Great constructed an aqueduct to carry water to the Herodion; somewhat later Pontius Pilate built another aqueduct to carry water to Jerusalem.

Not far from Solomon's Pools is Artas (above right) a Christian Arab village, that includes the Convent and church of Sisters of Notre Dame du Jardin, and the Monastery of Hortus Conclusus ("locked garden"), set at the edge of a huge garden. The Latin name "horus conclusis, was inspired by Song of Songs 4:12: "You are a garden locked up, my sister, my bride; you are a spring enclosed, a sealed fountain." The greenery of the village and valley contrasts sharply with surrounding barren hills.

South of Artas, about halfway between Bethlehem and Hebron, is the Jewish settlement area of Gush Etzion or Etzion Bloc, about a 10 minute drive from Jerusalem utilizing new roads constructed solely for the benefit of Jewish settlers living (according to the Palestinian Authority) on illegally confiscated Palestinian land. Gush Etzion, according to the official website, is made up of a group of Jewish settlements: Alon Shvut, Bat Ayin, Beitar Illit, Efrat, Elazar, Gva'ot, Kfar Etzion, Migdal Oz, Neve Daniel and Rosh Tzurim.

High on hill dominating east side of Road 60 is yet another Jewish settlement, Efrat (below left) Established in 1980 it had 8,000 residents at the end of 2007. Although it is geographically within Gush Etzion (the Etzion Bloc of Jewish settlements), it is independent from the regional council. Efrat means "place of fruitfulness" and its clean white concrete buildings are in stark contrast to the Dheisheh refugee camp seen earlier.

A little north of Hebron is the place identified as the Valley of Eschol (above right), mentioned in Numbers 13:23-24 and Deuteronomy 1:24, where twelve scouts, charged with exploring the "Promised Land," gathered samples of produce, most notably a huge cluster of grapes which required two men to carry it on a pole between them. Forty days later the men, one for each of the twelve tribes, returned to Moses and the congregation camped in the Desert of Paran (a wilderness between Mount Sinai and the Desert of Zin in the Sinai peninsula) and reported that the land flowed "with milk and honey." But, ten of the twelve spies discourage the Israelites from attempting to take the land, for they reported that the Canaanite men were taller and stronger than the Israelites, and moreover the sons of Anak dwell in the land, and that they felt like grasshoppers in their presence.

Jesus' Life Home n Flight to Egypt - Part 2

Some things you may not have known about Herod...