The photograph that runs with this column has been declared an official vision by bishops of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt. It consists of a mysterious spray of light coming down from the heavens directly over the church of St. Mark in Assiut, a Nile River town about 250 miles south of Cairo.
Egyptian legend say that it was near this spot that an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him King Herod had died. From here, the Holy Family began the return trip to Israel that would end its five year exile in Egypt, which Egyptian or “Coptic” Christians believe began when the Holy Family crossed the border from Israel to get away from King Herod who wanted to kill the baby Jesus.
There are a few chapters in the book of Matthew about the Holy Family fleeing the wrath of King Herod, but nothing written in the Bible about what the Holy Family did nor what they learned on their flight to Egypt. But Egyptian Christians and Muslims have collected stories over the centuries and assembled a Holy Family Trail in their country, which includes 33 sites venerated by the Coptic Orthodox Church.
The church being bathed in light in this photo is in Assuit, the 33rd site on the trail. Like many of the others, it has been associated with miracles since it was built more than 200 years ago. Lights have been the miracle here. Off and on for two centuries lights have appeared to come down from the sky directly over the church steeple. Tens of thousands of people have seen them, and many Egyptians have captured them on film.
Many still have claimed to be healed of illness or conditions by this magical light. And in fact, a medical study conducted by Christian and Muslim medical doctors did indeed find many people to be cured of afflictions by the lights that quite literally explode over the church from a spot in the sky in the year 2000 (see video of this vision at: https://vimeo.com/243488739or http://glimpsesofeternity.com/films-videos/
The photo on this page is the first one ever taken of these lights by a Westerner. For some bizarre reason, these and other similar visions of light are little known in the West. A short article or two may appear in a Western newspaper, but happenings like this are not usually the stuff of Western news coverage.
I had just completed a voyage of the Holy Family Trail when I took this photo, a voyage that started only a month after the terrorist events of September 11, 2001.
The voyage took two months and stretched from the border with Israel across the Sinai Desert, through the Nile Delta and then down into “Fundy Land,” an area still haunted by ISIS and other radical fundamentalists. My search for evidence of Jesus stretched for weeks but it didn’t take long to realize that there was no material proof of Jesus to be found on the Holy Family Trail. There were only stunning sites and moving and miraculous stories.
Yet, although the sites were awe-inspiring indeed and the stories deeply moving, I couldn’t help but ask the question: How many of the stories of Jesus in Egypt are real?
And then the photo opportunity of the vision presented itself at a point when it could be taken as an answer to my question. But what kind of answer? I wondered. What does all this mean, if anything at all?
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My search for Jesus in Egypt started several years before taking this photo. I was in Egypt working on a documentary film about the stone temples of the Nile when I became obsessed with documenting the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt. It represented a significant period in the life of the world’s most influential man. And although there was nothing written in the bible about the time he spent in Egypt, I knew from my dealings with the people of this region that there were many stories in circulation about historical figures that had never been written down or were written in documents not included in the Bible.
Shortly after 9/11, I went to Egypt to begin research for a book Jesus in Egypt (http://glimpsesofeternity.com/books/) which explores this mystery period in his amazing life. I found a lot and was not disappointed with what I found.
Each of the 33 sites posed questions that seemed unanswerable so many centuries after the child Jesus and his family had passed through. For example, a field of fallen stone idols surrounds a first century well in the Delta town of Tell Basta, serving as the source for ancient stories that claim Jesus had created the well and destroyed the idols. Was that possible? The center of a town called al-Qussia was empty except for a collapsed pharaonic temple, supposedly because Jesus had cursed that part of town for worshipping idols. Was myth so strong that people had been afraid to build there for 2000 years?
I asked these question and more of religious leaders, scholars and the man on the street and received a variety of answers. It was clear that they too had pondered these very questions about the validity of the sites in their midst and were as uncertain about the answers as I was.
Finally I had a chance to ask the highest authority. At the monastery of Deir Muharraq, I was given the rare opportunity to visit the altar stone Copts believe was used as a hard bed by Jesus for six months while the Holy Family lived in a tiny desert house. For Egyptian Christians, this altar stone is the holiest spot in Egypt. They consider this carved stone to be the “altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt” referred to in the Old Testament book of Isaiah.
The monk who accompanied me to the stone said I could touch it only if I prayed for something I truly wanted. “No one is ever refused what they ask for at this altar,” he declared, seriously.
My pragmatic translator said I should pray for a best seller, but I thought of something I wanted even more. I wanted a sign from God that would answer the questions I had about the Holy Family trail. I stood silent for a moment while I formed the prayer into a simple question:Is there truth in the Holy Family trail or is it all just folklore? I thought it and then let it go like a dove.
The next night at the church of St. Mark in Assiut, my camera captured a digital photograph of the vision. And that was how I became the first Westerner to photograph the vision of light. Perplexed by the photo, I showed it to two bishops and asked them what it meant. Both agreed that it was meant to be a personal message to a question I had asked God.
I tried to take the experience apart in the way of Western science, but a Bishop told me I would ruin it if I chose to dissect it. “Receive it in the way that you feel it,” he said. “Thinking too much will tear it apart with thought.”
I turned off my intellect and let my heart be my guide. The historic Jesus had eluded me, but the effects of his brief presence in this country were everywhere. I had seen the light, and that was enough.
Find out more about Paul’s books and films at glimpsesofeternity.com .
Paul Perry is the co-author of several New York Times bestsellers, including Evidence of the Afterlife, Closer to the Light, Transformed by the Light, and Saved by the Light which was made into a popular movie by Fox. His books have been published in more than 30 languages around the world. In 1986, he began collaborating with Raymond Moody. The two have written five books together: Paranormal, Glimpses of Eternity, The Light Beyond, Coming Back and Reunions. Paul is also a documentary filmmaker and owns SAKKARA Productions, a film production company.