Next day they continued through waste and sandy deserts, and I saw them sitting on a sand–hill quite exhausted, for they had no water with them.
– Bl. Anne Catherine Emmerich
I. ECHOES. Things have been rather fast and severe in the last number of posts, so it's time to slow down. The atmosphere is set with a piece called Icefire by Pat Metheny (from his album Watercolors, Manfred Eicher producer, released in 1977 on the ECM label). It has a kind of isolational, wandering quality about it with just a hint of the East. There is also in this secular instrumental (at least to me) a faint, distant echo of the Holy Family travelling in the desert during their Flight into Egypt, the Second Sorrow of Our Lady:
Another Old Testament prophecy was fulfilled. St. Matthew provides no information on the Holy Family's stay in Egypt. Both Palestine and Egypt were under the Roman Empire when Jesus, Mary and Joseph became refugees, taking flight from a child murderer. However, Egypt lay outside Herod's control and it was therefore reasonable that the Holy Family flee to a territory beyond this king's jurisdiction.
And after they had departed, behold an angel of the Lord appeared in sleep to Joseph, saying: Arise, and take the child and his mother, and fly into Egypt: and be there until I shall tell you. For it will come to pass that Herod will seek the child to destroy him. Who arose, and took the child and his mother by night, and retired into Egypt: and he was there until the death of Herod: That it might be fulfilled which the Lord spoke by the prophet, saying: Out of Egypt have I called my son.
II. According to Coptic tradition, based mainly on the "Mimar manuscript" attributed to Theophilus (Patriarch of Alexandria, AD 384–412), the Holy Family transited through many towns along the Nile, from northern to southern Egypt. See the embedded map below. Reportedly, they resided in Egypt for approximately three and a half years. Tradition also says that the manuscript is a record of words spoken to Theophilus by the Blessed Virgin in a vision. The ancient town of Heliopolis (called Matariya in the modern era) is supposed to have been their first way–station upon arrival, where they rested under a sycamore tree, today known as the "Virgin's Tree". Many churches and monasteries were constructed at places along the route reportedly taken by the Holy Family, including Zeitoun (near Cairo) and Assiut, to the south. Zeitoun is in the modern day famous for the spectacular appearances of Our Lady, witnessed by thousands, from April 1968 to May 1971 at Saint Mary Church, starting (interestingly) soonafter the Six Day War (June 5 to 10, 1967) and concurrent with the War of Attrition between Israel and Egypt, ending in 1970 (these battles, including the Yom Kippur War in October 1973, were fought in the Sinai Peninsula, a region to which we will return in a moment). As late as 2000, the Blessed Virgin's alleged appearance at the Church of St. Mark in Assiut made international news.
III. Coptic tradition speaks about the Holy Family at various stations in Egypt. Yet I have often wondered – without regard to the fantastical accounts in Apocrypha – what was it they endured during the journey before they entered the Nile Delta? What did they think about? What did Mary and Joseph speak to one another about? During the long silences, when for days on end alone in the middle of nowhere, without the protection of being in a group, under the threat of robbers and wild animals, did Our Lady reflect upon what Simeon had said to her at the temple? That her Son would be a sign of contradiction, that a thorn would pierce her heart, her First Sorrow? The Holy Infant held securely in her arms, innocent and gentle, true and faithful, was to experience tremendous affliction, the worst form of agony. Already, the Immaculate Heart of this young woman was being ripped open. The ecstatic Bl. Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774–1824) gave a heart sinking snapshot of the suffering involved:
Reading that impels me to rush out to and offer them solace and relief, however inadequate it would have been... and poor St. Joseph, always in the background. He was assigned the responsibility – and what a responsibility! – to be protector of the Lord of History and guardian of God's Holy Mother. Identify the man, past or present, who was or is foolish enough to claim to be as able as humble St. Joseph? Then he is suddenly woken up in the middle of the night and instructed to make haste. Why? Some state despot, whom one historian tells us had a "voluptuous and exceptionally violent private life", wants the Child dead. He abhors competitors for his protectorate kingdom and is willing to slaughter countless little babies, so long as the principal target is annihilated. What could have St. Joseph been thinking? How is it possible to fathom his shock, his worry, his apprehension? Already, that Stench, that "murderer from the beginning", was on the hunt for Our Saviour even as an infant.
I saw the Holy Family wandering through a sandy desert, weary and careworn. The waterskin and the jugs of balsam were empty; the Blessed Virgin was greatly distressed, and both she and the Infant Jesus were thirsty. They went a little way aside from the path, where the ground sank and there were bushes and some withered turf. The Blessed Virgin dismounted, and sat for a little with the Child on her knees, praying in her distress.
IV. In addition to the tremendous spiritual stresses, what physical stresses did the Holy Family undergo? Tradition also says that they entered Egypt on the twenty–fourth day of the Coptic month Bashans, corresponding to June 1st on the Gregorian calendar – and if the cartography is correct, then we have them traversing from east to west through the northern sector of the Sinai Peninsula, that desert barrier extending from the eastern edge of the Nile Delta (from where the Suez Canal is today) approximately 200 kilometres eastward and beyond (including parts of the Western Desert). Reportedly, there were at the time three main routes through the Sinai that the Holy Family might have taken. There is also the strong likelihood that, because Herod was hunting them down, they had to venture into off–beaten routes through uncharted areas. To be sure, the environment in which they trekked – even if proximately along the Mediterranean coast – was brutal, in three distinct ways: geographically, geomorphologically and climatologically.
V. PALEOGEOGRAPHY. What was the Sinai region like in terms of human habitation and activity? A contemporary of the Holy Family was the Greek geographer Strabo (ca. 64 BC – 24 AD), reportedly journeying through Egypt in 25 BC (he was about 40 years old at the time), just two decades or so prior to the birth of Our Lord. In his famous work Geographica, a description is given on how the ebb and flow of the north–south aligned Nile River produced a stark land–surface contrast, viz. the luxuriant delta region as juxtaposed (on either side) with the Eastern and Western Deserts:
Later he writes on the arduousness of travelling into Egypt from the east, the region almost certainly taken by the Holy Family:
...for the Nile effects certain common results in this country and in that which is continuous with it and lies above it, I mean the country of the Aethiopians, in that it waters them at the time of its rise and also leaves only those parts habitable which have been covered during the overflows, and in that it merely passes through all the higher parts that are at a greater altitude than its current, leaving them uninhabited and desert on both sides because of the same lack of water.
The northern sector of the Sinai Peninsula was relatively unimportant in the context of commercial trade routes. The Scottish desert explorer G.W. Murray (1885–1966) of the Desert Survey Office at Egypt explained:
Here... Aegypt is difficult to enter, I mean from the eastern regions about Phoenicia and Judaea, and from the Arabia of the Nabataeans, which is next to Aegypt... The country between the Nile and the Arabian Gulf is Arabia, and at its extremity is situated Pelusium; but the whole of it is desert, and impassable for an army.
Even trade routes running along the western shoreline of the Red Sea (still quite distant from the northern Sinai Peninsula) more or less disappeared after decline of the Roman Empire, especially with the later European discovery of a sea route around the Horn of Africa in the late 1400s. Commercial activity only restarted in modern times with the construction of the Suez Canal (opening in 1869). Accordingly, the Holy Family were journeying through a dead zone. But that was only the geographical circumstance to which they had to endure.
The immensely important trade–route from East to West, which, coming from India and China, passed through Egypt to Europe, was greatly hampered down to quite recent times by the difficulty of sailing vessels of beating up the long and relatively narrow Red Sea against the prevailing north wind. In those periods when the canals from the sea to the Bitter Lakes and thence to the Nile were not available, a desert journey was in any case necessary before the goods reached the Mediterranean. It was therefore usual to land the westward–bound cargoes at some point on the African coast of the Red Sea to escape the long and dangerous passage through the Gulf of Suez. Consequently, Suez (Clysma) and other ports at the head of the Gulf were in ancient times places of minor importance.
VI. PALEOGEOMORPHOLOGY. What was the landscape like? First let us jump in a time machine and go way back in geological time. During the Carboniferous Period (360–300 Ma) the supercontinent Gondwanaland collided with continents to the north. This generated uplifting in the northeast section of the African Plate, consequently creating east–west running fault lines. Erosion of sediments in Egypt during the Paleozoic Era (542–251 Ma, encompassing the Carboniferous Period) eventually reversed this east–west fault configuration, producing a drainage direction with a north–south alignment. Some 50 million years later, when during the Jurassic Period (200–145 Ma) the Pangean supercontinent as a whole began to break up, the northeastern sector of the African Plate tilted northward. Hence the south–to–north flow of the Nile River today. Resistance by other land masses to the northward drift of the African Plate resulted in the creation of the Arabian Plate (i.e. Sinai Peninsula). This segregation itself, part of the Great Rift Valley of eastern Africa, led to the formation of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Suez water systems.
VII. The aridity and hence desert landscape of the Sinai Peninsula and the Eastern/Western deserts of Egypt in the time of the Holy Family (and today) are due principally to its climatic regime (discussed below). The northern part of Eastern Desert, opposite the Sinai Peninsula on the other side of the northern extent of the Gulf of Suez, is a relatively hilly area with a number of drainage basins (the Red Sea Hills running further south are more so mountainous). Only occasionally runoff occurs in these basins (that is if surface accumulated rainfall is not almost immediately lost to evaporation), draining eastward to the Red Sea or west toward the Nile Valley, with flooding as a potential hazard. The Sinai itself, as a distinct land mass unit, is triangularized peninsula encompassing an area of approximately 61000 square kilometres. Like the Eastern Desert, it contains more mountainous terrain at its southerly stretches, with the same geology of the Red Sea Hills in the south. It is in the southern Sinai where the world renown St. Catherine's monastery is located, constructed, by order of the Emperor Justinian in the mid–sixth century, at Egypt's highest elevation (2642 metres above sea level). The central region of the Sinai Peninsula is generally constituted of a limestone plateau (with sandstone), whereas granite and volcanic rock predominate at its southerly end. However, it was in the more northerly zone of the Sinai peninsula to which the Holy Family likely travelled. Heading northward, the more or less continuous limestone plateau gradually diminishes in elevation, leading to a relatively flat desert plain, with sand dunes, fossil beaches, sporadically situated rocky islets (hamada), large limestone/sandstone hills, including dried riverbeds and gullies (wadis), ephemerally filled and flowing only with rainfall received during the winter months. Simply stated, the surface is comprised mainly of sand, pebbles and rocks.
VIII. Vegetation does occur in the Sinai Peninsula, over 40 endemic species in fact. Some of these include palms, caper bushes, junipers and acacia. However, vegetation is scanty for inland areas, existent mainly near ephemeral streams. Flora may be sparse in this hot and dry the climate, though fauna is somewhat plentiful: insects (e.g. beetles), birds (lark, owl, quail, raven, finch), ibex (i.e. wild goats), hares, hedgehogs, gazelles, foxes, lizards, bats, poisonous snakes like the viper and cobra, even mice. Some data suggest that leopards once roamed parts of the Sinai. Emmerich recounted in another vision:
On their way to Egypt, not only did the Holy Family have to negotiate difficult terrain in a region with negligible human habitation, severe atmospheric stresses were being imposed upon them as well.
On a starry night I saw the Holy Family going through a sandy wilderness covered with low thickets. The scene was as vivid before me, as if I were really crossing the desert with them. Here and there under the copsewood, venomous snakes lay coiled. With loud hissing, they approached the path and darted their heads angrily toward the Holy Family. But they, shielded by the light that environed them, stepped securely along. I saw other animals with immense fins like wings on their blackish body, with short feet, and a head like that of a fish. They darted along, flying over the ground [bats?]. At last, the Holy Family came behind the bushes to a deep fissure in the ground, like the walls of a narrow defile, and here they rested.
IX. PALEOCLIMATOLOGY. What was the climate like? First, let us go back many thousands of years and briefly note hydroclimatological conditions of the region. What determines these conditions is the interplay between the "wetter" equatorial rains of east–central Africa/Ethiopian moonsoon and a "drier" westerly wind flow (deflected due to the Earth's rotation, i.e. Coriolis force). The sedimentology of Nile River itself acts a long term climate record, indicating when the region's climatic regime was "wet" or more so arid. Such research shows that the Nile, as a transcontinental river system (that is, the "Prenile", running north from the Ethiopian highlands into the Mediterranean Sea, a 3000 km distance) started from around 700000 to 200000 years ago during the mid–Pleistocene (this entire epoch runs from approximately 2.6 million to 10000 years BC). Deserts dominated northern Africa in this time window. The next precursor to the modern Nile River was the "Neonile", developing about 120000 years ago. Northern Africa was significantly wetter during this time, having many lakes. The last Ice Age was at its maximum approximately 18000 years ago, when a spatially extensive ice covered a large proportion of North America and Eurasia, though not extending as far south to the Middle East/northern Africa. This ice was in full retreat by the commencement of the Holocene Epoch (ca. 10000 BC). Both sea level and the global average air temperature were rising, however with time conditions again became increasingly arid in the Arabian/northern African region. Around 4000 BC the monsoon, a significant source of rainfall, shifted southward and, resultantly, vegetation cover became sparse. Conditions became even drier between 2500 and 2100 BC. Westerly winds in the region grew stronger, transporting sand eastward from the Western Desert, reactivating sand dunes. Large sand/dust storms are associated with this wind system, called "Shamal". Sedimentology data also evidence the migration of dunes into central Egypt after 2800 BC. It is also important to note that the earliest human–derived climate records, in the form of stone inscriptions, are of measured flood levels at the Nile River. They start circa 3100 BC, found in the Pharaoh's annals during the First Dynasty. Interestingly, famines are reported to have occurred between 2180 and 2130 BC and between 2000 and 1990 BC, further evidencing a more arid climate regime. This is also correspondent with other data indicating widespread drought conditions throughout Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley, which at the time triggered declines in population and commercial activity. The geoclimatic situation in Egypt/Sinai has largely remained unchanged since 2000 BC.
X. ATMOSPHERIC CIRCULATION. The desert climate of the Sinai Peninsula/Egypt exists due to this region's location relative to global atmospheric circulation patterns. In both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres there are two main zones of ascending air – at the tropics and at the higher mid–latitudes, with significant amounts of precipitation, and two zones of sinking air – at the poles and the lower mid–latitudes, with minimal precipitation (see embedded image for atmospheric circulation patterns). Two systems are briefly described: The first is the Trade Winds (aka Tropical Easterlies), very wide belts of wind situated between the Doldrums and the Horse Latitudes in both hemispheres. They derive from the periphery of subtropical high pressure systems and, having been previously dehydrated and cooled while on their passage to the poles, descend and return back to the equatorial zone. The return path southwards, however, does not follow a straight line as the Coriolis force imposes itself, producing the Northeast Trades in the Northern Hemisphere and the Southeast Trades in the Southern Hemisphere. Although not with total lineal continuity encircling the globe, the two trade wind systems tend to congregate in the region of the Doldrums (aka Equatorial Trough), a region of prevalent low pressure in close proximity to the Equator. Over the oceans, this area of confluence is called the Inter–Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ).
XI. Note the latitudinal range for the region in which the Holy Family likely travelled on their way to/through Egypt runs from approximately 30° to 31° North, which corresponds to the "Horse Latitudes" (the second system), one of the aforementioned zones of quiescent air subsidence. This strange name is derived from the experiences of Spanish sailors (if not a mariner's tale) as they sailed to the New World. The light winds that predominate in this latitudinal zone (at 30° to 35° N/S) made for slow ship passage across the sea. Consequently, water/food was often in short supply and horses on ship had to thrown overboard for the want of provisions. Only seemingly cruel because in reality, of course, man overrides. Atmospheric moisture here is nominal and is quickly lost to evaporation due to intense solar heating. This condition is reflected by the meager cloud cover and minimal precipitation in this zone. Not just in the Sinai/Egypt, but deserts around the globe are to be found within and/or in close proximity to the Horse Latitudes, in the belt of subtropical high pressure.
XII. ATMOSPHERIC STRESSES. Knowing (as above) that the climate of the Egypt has remained relatively unchanged in the last 4000 years, climate data from instrumentation and human observations in recent times can be employed to reconstruct particular atmospheric parameters during month of June, designated by Coptic tradition as the time in which the Holy Family commenced their journey to Egypt. For this analysis, data are examined (principally) from six stations located within or in close proximity to the northern sector of the Sinai Peninsula: El Arish, Fayid, Gebel Libni, Bir Gifgafa, Kabrit and El Nakl (see embedded location map). Parameters examined here include: precipitation, air temperature, sky/cloud conditions, relative humidity, solar conditions (elevation /azimuth angles of sun), winds (including associated phenomena) and visibility conditions.
XIII. ZERO RAINFALL / ARIDITY. Deserts are defined by diminutive rainfall. The Sinai receives extremely low amounts of precipitation. When rain does occur, it is highly variable in space. Some regions will not receive rainfall for years and then, suddenly, a storm will occur, producing a flash flood. On average, however, a general pattern emerges. Figure 1 shows that almost all rainfall throughout the course of the year occurs from October through April, approximately 25 to 110 millimetres in total (or 1 to 4+ inches), most of it falling from November to February. Larger amounts occur closer to the Mediterranean coast, as evidenced by the data from the El Arish station. We do have some biblical evidence to confirm that, at the time and centuries prior, most rainfall in the region happens from November to March. Although pertaining to the Israel region (whose climate is similar to Egypt's), the Book of Ezra states that "in the ninth month, the twentieth day of the month: and all the people sat in the street of the house of God, trembling because of the sin, and the rain". In the Jewish calendar the ninth month is Kislew, spanning from November 4 to December 3 in the Gregorian calendar. Additionally, the Book of Joel states: "And you, O children of Sion, rejoice, and be joyful in the Lord your God: because he has given you a teacher of justice, and he will make the early and the latter rain to come down to you as in the beginning". The "latter rain" can perhaps be connected with the January–to–March period.
XIV. Figure 1 also shows that there is effectively no rainfall from May to September. The lack of rainfall is attributable to shifting Mediterranean depression tracks southward beyond Egypt and/or along the African coast. Statistically speaking, then, since historical weather records indicate no rainfall during June, it was unlikely that the Holy Family experienced any rainfall whatsoever during their journey across the Sinai desert toward the Nile Delta. Yet they needed water for survival. For an averaged sized adult person, approximately 2.8 to 3.8 litres (or 3 to 4 quarts) per day of water are required in desert environments. Because Mary and Joseph were perhaps shorter in stature than today's average sized adult female/male, maybe a little less than this range was needed, even lesser for the Child. Studies also indicate that a perambulating person in a desert can survive for 2 to 3 days without water, but only if walking during the night, otherwise solar exposure induces high rates of bodily water loss (see below). Available water sources to the Holy Family likely would have been sporadically situated oases or wells maintained by whatever tribe of Beduines. In a scientific/historical context, exactly where and how the Holy Family obtained water is an unknown. Whatever the case, the steady physical strain of thirst is not outside of the realm of possibility.
XV. EXTREME TEMPERATURES. Days are very hot and nights are cool in the northern part of the Sinai. Figure 2 shows the annual progression of air temperatures through the course of a year, as derived from the aforementioned weather stations. Assuming they started through the Sinai on June 1, then the Holy Family entered the desert at the commencement of summertime, when the highest daytime air temperatures were eventuating. For June, the average daily maximum air temperature (daytime) is about 31°C (88°F). Highest recorded temperatures have reached 42°C (108°F) and beyond. Note that the critical threshold air temperature to which death rates increase dramatically is 34°C (93°F). Data from inland stations indicate that 27 out of 30 days in June (that is, nearly every day) reach temperatures greater than 32°C (90°F). At an average relative humidity of about 45% (i.e. measure of water vapour in air), the corresponding humidex value would make the air "feel like" 38°C (100°F). If travelling by day, the Holy Family would have suffered great discomfort under this immense heat. Thermoregulatory mechanisms to offset heat and inhibit hyperthermia would have been constantly working: cutaneous vascodilation, increased pulmonary ventilation and sweating. Perspiration rates for a clothed person walking under the direct desert sun can be as high 1000 grams per hour. At this rate (and recalling the 2.8 to 3.8 litre per day water requirement), bodily water deficits would have been a constant problem. Coupled with relative humidity values as low as 20% at more inland areas, the Holy Family's exposure to very hot temperatures would have subjected them to headaches, sleepiness/physical inertia, sunken eyes, appetite loss and swallowing inability. More extremely: stiffened eyelids, dim vision, heat cramps (of arms, abdomen, calves), numb/cracked skin and heat stroke. These conditions would have been compounded for the Child, due to low body mass.
XVI. To avoid the effects of extreme daytime temperatures, the Holy Family might have travelled at night. The average daily minimum temperature for June, achieved at night due to the lack of solar heating, is a moderate 18°C (64°F). However air temperatures of 7°C (45°F) or colder are common in the historical record and ground frost is not unknown, especially at higher elevations. Shivering, an involuntary thermoregulatory mechanism of disorganized muscular activity that produces heat, was probably a nightly occurrence if the Holy Family ventured further inland from the Mediterranean coast. Heat production/retention otherwise would have been voluntary. Firstly, by fairly constant movement, where heat comes from muscular action/friction, yet this would have upset regular rest time and sleep. Secondly, finding postures to reduce surface body area exposed to heat loss. Thirdly, by insulation, dependent on the Holy Family's clothing type. Fourthly, by finding shelter from free air flow amongst rock islets, ground depressions or clusters of bushes. However much of the topography is relatively "flat", so this would have been difficult. Recall: no wood exists in the desert. You cannot make a fire without wood.
XVII. A large diurnal temperature variability exists in the Sinai, which is characteristic for deserts. That is, a sizeable range exists between the daytime high and nighttime low temperature, up to 30°C. This means that the desert surface rapidly gains and loses heat, or that it quickly gets hot after sunrise and quickly cold after sunset. A principal reason for this is nominal cloud coverage in the Sinai. Clouds act like insulating blankets at night, retaining "warmth" in the atmosphere by mitigating heat loss to space. A cloudless or nearly clear sky allows for significantly surface heat escape into space. Data analyzed here show that, on average, there are 24 to 26 days out of a total of 30 days in June when clouds cover only 30% of the sky dome. Basically, skies are clear most of the time in June, for the day and night. Thus Emmerich's report of a "starry night" is not inconsistent with the climate record.
XVIII. INTENSE SOLAR EXPOSURE. Clear skies for most of the time means very sunny conditions during the day. It should be stated the sun heats objects directly by radiation (distinct from heating by air as gauged by temperature). Undoubtedly, solar stress would been experienced by the Holy Family. Three parameters are of interest so as to gauge this stress: daylength (duration from sunrise to sunset), solar elevation angle and solar azimuth angle. The solar elevation is the angle between the direct beam of the sun and the horizontal. So, for example, an elevation angle of 3° means the sun is situated just above the apparent horizon whereas a 90° angle means the sun is positioned directly overhead (i.e. at zenith). Figure 3 shows the variation in solar elevation angle over the course of a day in June in the Sinai (solid black line) and, for comparison purposes, the Gobi Desert in Mongolia (dotted red line). This graph indicates a daylength of about 12+ hours (i.e. sunrise/sunset running from approximately 4:30 am to 7:00 am local time). Notice that the elevation angle is greater than or equal to 45° from around 8:30 am to 3:00 pm, meaning the solar disc existed high in the sky for a good proportion of the day. The highest angle reached was 82° at around noontime, just 8° shy of zenith. The lower the sun is in the sky, the greater is the effective depth of atmosphere to which the sun's energy penetrates before becoming incident with the surface. Oppositely, the atmosphere is effectively "thinner" at higher solar elevations due to low angles of incidence relative to the top of the atmosphere, meaning that the intensity of radiating solar energy per unit surface area was quite high. Simply stated, the sun was beating down very hard on the Holy Family between approximately 8:30 am to 3:00 pm, a duration of 6.5 hours. It is well to remember that there is no shade in the desert as the sun is effectively omnipresent.
XIX. Figure 4 shows the averaged azimuth angle of the sun over the course of a day in June. The azimuth is the angle of the sun measured clockwise from north. There are 360° in a circle so 90°, 180°, 270° and 360° (or 0°) respectively correspond to east, south west and north. During the early morning the sun's apparent transit was from the east–northeastern to eastern sectors of the sky. Note that Holy Family were reportedly travelling westward across the Sinai toward the Nile so, during this time, the sun would have been at their backs. Latterly, from about 8:30 am to 3:00 pm, the sun's apparent location (in terms of azimuth) was in the southern and then the western sectors of the sky (however, it was high overhead, as stated above). The sun was located in the west–northwest sector of the sky in the hours leading up to sunset. Since the Holy Family were likely travelling toward the west, the solar disc (at lower elevation angles) would have been directly within their field of view in the horizontal plane as sunset approached. Walking directly toward the sun, coupled with the high reflectivity of sunlight from bright sandy surfaces (due to lower solar elevation), possibly caused some visual impairment, making Mary and Joseph squint or otherwise shield their eyes by whatever means.
XX. HOT WIND / SANDSTORMS. The climate data analyzed here indicate that, on average, there are only 3 days out of 30 days in June when, during the morning, wind speeds exceed 30 km/hr (18 mph). In the afternoon, the average value is zero days. This evidences that wind speed speeds are of light intensity during the day for most of month. As discussed above, quiescent winds are characteristic of the region. Nights, irrespective of location on the globe, generally have light or calm wind conditions, due to the lack of atmospheric instability which otherwise, during the day, is produced by solar heating of the ground, resulting in the rise of warm air. This implication here is any cooling by winds, so as to relieve the Holy Family of hot temperatures and a beating sun, would have been an infrequent occurrence. If they did experience high wind speeds, it would more likely than not have been attributable to a nasty wind phenomena known in the region as khamsin: a fast, hot, dry, dust-laden wind that manifests across northern Africa and the Arabian Peninsula between March and June. Passage of the khamsin is usually preceded by a 3–day heat wave. It is formed when colder air from low pressure systems, tracking eastward along the Mediterranean Sea, draw highly heated air from the south. Large differences in air pressure between the two air masses translates into storm force winds, reaching up to 140 km/hr (87 mph). According to the Beaufort Scale, such wind velocities have the power to overturn/blow cars off roads, uproot large trees, flatten forests and demolish buildings. The duration of the khamsin is about three hours, yet it can blow intermittently for days. The air is very hot (air temperatures can increase 20°C in only two hours), the wind is very fast and capable of transporting large quantities of dust and sand. Thus sandstorms are concurrent with the khamsin. Napoleon and his army encountered such a storm in the Sinai during his Egyptian Campaign. If the Holy Family experienced the khamsin, which is not an unreasonable speculation, visibility would have dropped to zero, the eyes, nose and mouth would have become irritated, and respiratory problems may have arisen due to the inhalation of mineral dust. Let alone finding shelter in such a sandstorm. As indicated above, the effectively flat land-surface makes finding shelter difficult and the khamsin itself is unimpeded by topography. Given that the khamsin can move at speeds up to 140 km/hr, it likely would have been too late to find adequate shelter if Mary and Joseph saw the sandstorm approaching on the horizon. A velocity of 140 km/hr is equivalent to 0.39 kilometres (or 390 metres) per second. With a maximum visibility of, say, 25 kilometres (considered "excellent"), it would leave the Holy Family just over 1 minute (62 seconds) to seek shelter upon visual identification of the encroaching storm. Even if speeds were lower and visibility higher, these still would have given them just minutes before being enveloped by a superheated billowing cloud of blowing sand.
XXI. VISIBILITY LIMITATIONS. Generally defined, the term "visibility" refers to the maximum distance that a person "can see" and recognize a particular target against a contrasting background, given a particular set atmospheric, illumination and land–surface conditions. During daylight, visibility is determined with pre–designated targets at known distances. Such objects are non-luminous, namely they reflect incoming light, not generating their own light (e.g. buildings, radio towers). At night, self-luminous objects are used as targets, that is, artificial lights. But, of course, there was no electricity at that time. Also recall that the Holy Family journeyed through a region of negligible human settlement. If they travelled in darkness, their sources of illumination would have been purely natural: airglow, starlight (including planet emission), zodiacal light, galactic light and moonlight. Airglow is a faint luminescence caused by photochemical reactions of atoms and molecules in the ionosphere. Dust particles in the solar system that scatter sunlight toward the Earth is zodiacal light. Galactic light originates from galaxies other than the Milky Way. In the context of providing sufficient field brightness for "seeing" down range in the horizontal plane, airglow, starlight, and zodiacal light and galactic light produce very poor surface illumination. The brightest source of nocturnal light for the Holy Family, then, would have been the moon. The degree of surface illumination would have been dependent on moon phase, if existent above the horizon at night. Assuming cloudless skies (as is common) and a maximum illumination for a full moon at zenith, calculations here show nocturnal visibility to be roughly 571 metres (646 yards). Visibility would have been significant lesser at lower lunar elevation angles and/or when the lunar disc was partially illuminated (i.e. during waxing/waning gibbous phases). Even lower if the moon was not observable in the celestial dome. Calculations for a cloudless night sky illuminated only by airglow and starlight yield a visibility roughly 26 metres (28 yards) or, in other words, it was extremely dark. Consequently, night travel would have been quite arduous for the Holy Family, especially if they were walking off main routes over rugged, untrodden ground. The moon goes through nine phases as it proceeds through its synodic cycle of 29.53 days. Yet moonrise and moonset do occur during day as well. So whole night durations were not always illuminated by the moon even if it was in phase.
XXII. SOME REFLECTIONS. When deserts are brought into conversation oftentimes the over–the–top cinematography from the film Lawrence of Arabia is conjured up. The romanticization of the desertscape: appealingly smooth, undulating surfaces, perfectly sculpted sand dunes, cerulean skies, glamorous darknesses (which are artificial in actuality, produced by dimming lens filters), mysterious delights of the Arabian nights, and all the rest of it. Yet the landscape through which the Holy Family evidently traversed was not the dreamscape of Lawrence of Arabia. The Sinai desert, in reality, is (and was) a brutal, unforgiving, unpleasant environment. Twice I had the opportunity to spend lengthy periods of time in the Canadian High Arctic. Polar regions are, too, designated as "deserts" by climatologists because of their analogously barren and expansive "icescapes", extreme temperatures, atmospheric dryness and low precipitation. In moderns times, however, extreme environmental conditions are overcome with technology: we had snowmobiles and 4–wheeler ATVs for transportation, radio communications to which a helicopter could be dispatched almost immediately in the case of an emergency, tailored clothing and footwear for protection against the elements, guns for possible polar pear encounters, a food supply lasting for months. In fact, we had leisure time, getting so bored that one time we blew away gallon–sized cans of Heinz beans with shotguns. Pathetic, I know, and maybe the perpetual daylight was affecting us. The point here is that, with all the efficiencies and safety redundancies associated modern technology, the difficulties underwent by those in times past is often underappreciated. The Holy Family had none of this when they fled into Egypt.
XXIII. This essay explored probable environmental conditions experienced by the Holy Family as they reportedly journeyed through the Sinai into Egypt. Yes, speculation was involved regarding phenomena discussed herein and I am aware of the many unknowns. Science has reached its limit, it is the "eclipse of reason", and I throw up my hands and say "I do not know". It is a mystery. This is where faith and trust in the Magisterium enter the arena, otherwise comes the existential tailspin. Nevertheless, available scientific data and information used in the reconstructions at least evidence that the environmental conditions undergone by the Holy Family in the Sinai were – I repeat – brutal. And the Flight into Egypt was only one of many sufferings of Jesus, Mary and Joseph to come in the ensuing years. Given awareness of even this single phase of their lives on Earth, I find it hard to fathom how any Catholic cannot be devoted to the Holy Family, the model for all families. Personally, I take the absolutist view and state that anyone who works in whatever way to diminish or mock devotion to the Holy Family is an enemy of the Holy Church.
Prayer in Honor of the Holy Family
O God, Heavenly Father, it was part of Thine eternal decree that Thine only–begotten Son, Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, should form a holy family with Mary, His blessed mother, and His foster father, Saint Joseph. In Nazareth, home life was sanctified, and a perfect example was given to every Christian family. Grant, we beseech Thee, that we may fully comprehend and faithfully imitate the virtues of the Holy Family so that we may be united with them one day in their heavenly glory. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.
[I originally planned to embed an artsy video montage covering the topics addressed herein. However, the project is currently not turning out to my liking. After further work, I may post it at a later date.]
NOTES / REFERENCES
1. Matthew 2:13–15.
2. The prophecy is from Hosea 11:1, "Because Israel was a child, and I loved him: and I called my son out of Egypt". There is also Isaiah 19: 19–21: "In that day there shall be an altar of the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a monument of the Lord at the borders thereof: It shall be for a sign, and for a testimony to the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt. For they shall cry to the Lord because of the oppressor, and he shall send them a Saviour and a defender to deliver them. And the Lord shall be known by Egypt, and the Egyptians shall know the Lord in that day, and shall worship him with sacrifices and offerings: and they shall make vows to the Lord, and perform them".
3. More accounts of the Holy Family are held in Coptic monasteries throughout Egypt. Other sources include Jewish and Greek writers of the second and third centuries.
4. C. Hawley, "Virgin Mary 'appears' in Egypt", BBC News, September 6, 2000. LINK There are many worldwide newspapers that reported on the ongoing sightings of the Blessed Virgin at Zeitoun from 1968 to 1971. For example: "200 in Cairo claim seeing Virgin Mary", Toronto Star, April 15, 1968, p. 26. An booklet summarizing the reported appearances of Our Lady during this three–year period is given in F. Johnson, When Millions Saw Mary (Devon, UK: Augustine Publishing Company, 1980). LINK
5. Luke 2:34–35.
6. C. Bretano, The Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary from the Visions of Venerable Anne Catherine Emmerich, trans. M. Palairet (Rockford, IL: TAN Books and Publishers Incorporated, 1970), p. 306. First English translation in 1954 by Burns and Oates Limited, London. Clemens Bretano (1778–1842) died while preparing this work, however it was completed by his brother and his brother's wife after his death. With respect to such private revelations it is very important to keep the following in mind: "accuracy in secondary details is not necessary; the main point is that the fact, event, or communication revealed be strictly true", A. Poulain, "Private Revelations", The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912), vol. 13. LINK
7. P. Johnson, A History of Christianity (New York: Atheneum, 1976), p. 11.
8. John 8:44.
9. Geographica, bk. XVII, ch. 1, sec. 3. In: The Geography of Strabo, trans. H.L. Jones (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967), vol. 8, p. 7.
10. Geographica, bk. XVII, ch. 1 sec. 21. In: ibid. vol. 8, p. 71.
11. G.W. Murray, "The Roman Roads and Stations in the Eastern Desert of Egypt", The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, vol. 11, no. 3/4, October 1925, pp. 138–150. Subnote that Murray was a colleague of the English army officer/engineer Ralph Bagnold (1896–1990), both of whom participated in a series of desert expeditions during the 1930s. Bagnold was a pioneer in the science of aeolian sand transport. See R.A. Bagnold, The Physics of Blown Sand and Desert Dunes (London: Methuen & Company Limited, 1941). Still a standard reference today, this book is considered a classic in sand dynamics. Knowledge of desert environments gleaned by Bagnold, commander of the Long Range Desert Group (LRDG) during World War II, was used by the Allies in North Africa. Refer also to R.J. Chorley, S.A. Schumm and D.E. Sugden, Geomorphology (London: Methuen & Company Limited, 1984), pp. 410–411.
12. See S.E. Sidebotham and R.E. Zitterkopf, "Routes through the Eastern Desert of Egypt", Expedition, 1995, vol. 37, no. 2, pp. 39–52. LINK
13. E. Klitzsch, "Plate tectonics and cratonal geology in Northeast Africa (Egypt, Sudan)", Geologische Rundschau, 1986, vol. 75, no. 3, pp. 755–768.
14. A. A. Abdel Moneim, "Overview of the geomorphological and hydrogeological characteristics of the Eastern Desert of Egypt", Hydrogeology Journal, 2005, vol. 13, no. 2, pp. 416–425.
15. See M.P. Petrov, Deserts of the World (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House Limited, 1976), Israel Program for Scientific Translations, p. 76. First published in Russian in 1973; D.A. Holm, "Desert geomorphology in the Arabian Peninsula", Science, 1960, vol. 132, no. 3437, pp. 1369–1379; R.U. Cooke, A.S. Goudie, A. and Warren, Desert Geomorphology (London: UCL Press, 1993), passim.
16. M.A. Zahran and A.J. Willis, The Vegetation of Egypt (New York: Springer, 2009), pp. 221–249 (second edition).
17. A. Haim and E. Tchernov, "The distribution of myomorph rodents in the Sinai Peninsula", Mammalia, 1974, vol. 38, no. 2, pp. 201–223.
18. C. Bretano, The Life of Jesus Christ and Biblical Revelations from the Visions of the Venerable Anne Catherine Emmerich, arr./ed. C.E. Schmöger (Rockford, IL: TAN Books and Publishers Incorporated, 2004), vol. 1, p. 295. First English translation in 1914 by Desclée De Brouwer & Company, Paris. Cf. also a similar passage seemingly describing the same event in C. Bretano, The Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary, p. 308: "I saw the Holy Family journeying in a bright starlit night through a sandy desert covered with low bushes. I felt as though I were travelling through it with them. It was dangerous because of the number of snakes which lay coiled up among the bushes in little hollows under the leaves. They crawled towards the path, hissing loudly and stretching out their necks towards the Holy Family, who, however, passed by in safety surrounded by light. I saw other evil beasts there with long black bodies, short legs, and wings like big fins. They shot over the ground as if they were flying, and their heads were fish–like in shape. I saw the Holy Family come to a fall in the ground like the edge of a sunken road; they meant to rest there behind some bushes".
19. See, for example, D.E. Sugden, "Reconstruction of the Morphology, Dynamics, and Thermal Characteristics of the Laurentide Ice Sheet at its Maximum", Arctic and Alpine Research, 1977, vol. 9, no. 1, pp. 21–47.
20. A.G. Parker and A.S. Goudie, "Geomorphological and palaeoenvironmental investigations in the southeastern Arabian Gulf region and the implication for the archaeology of the region", Geomorphology, 2008, vol. 101, no. 3, pp. 458–470.
21. H.H. Lamb, Climate: Present, Past and Future (London: Methuen & Company Limited, 1977), vol. 2, Climatic History and the Future, p. 141.
22. B. Bell, "The oldest records of the Nile floods", Geographical Journal, 1970, vol. 136, pp. 569–573. See also R.S. Bradley, Quaternary Paleoclimatology: Methods of Paleoclimatic Reconstruction (Boston: Unwin Hyman Incorporated, 1985), p. 381.
23. A good overview on atmospheric circulation patterns for the general reader is found in R.S. Inch and W.G. Stone, The Physical Environment (Toronto: McGraw–Hill Ryerson Limited, 1982), pp. 291–299 (second edition).
24. Historical climate data and associated information used in the reconstructions were obtained from the following sources: F.L. Wernstedt, World Climatic Data (Lemont, PE: Climatic Data Press, 1972), pp. 21–23; U.S. Department of Commerce, Climates of the World, Historical Climatology Series 6–4, 1991 (minor revisions, originally published in 1969), 40 pp.; U.S. Air Force, Situation Climatic Briefs (Scott Air Force Base, Illinois, 1982), USAFETAC / DS–82 / 050, September 1982, pp. A17–A19; U.S. Naval Weather Service, World-Wide Airfield Summaries (Springfield, VA: December 1968), vol. IX, pt. 1, Africa (Northern Half), Egypt / Desert: Climatic Area 1, pp. 124–209; U.S. Department of Commerce, World Weather Records, 1941–1950 (Washington, DC: The Smithsonian Institution, 1959), pp. 142–147.
25. Ezra 10:9. Scholars attribute the writing of Ezra sometime between 458 and 397 BC. A dated but still relevant discussion of climate in the Holy Land can be found in G.A. Smith, The Historical Geography of the Holy Land, Especially In Relation to the History of Israel and the History of the Early Church (New York: A.C. Armstrong and Son, 1897), pp. 63–76. LINK
26. Joel 2:23. St. Jerome said that Joel was written sometime during the 8th century BC, though its time of composition has been designated by others to most centuries during the prophetic era.
27. See K.H. Soliman "Rainfall over Egypt", Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, 1953, vol. 79, no. 341, pp. 389–397.
28. See A.H. Brown, "Water requirements of man in the desert", In: ed. E.F. Adolph, Physiology of Man in the Desert (New York: Hafner Publishing Company, 1969), pp. 115–135.
29. See A.H. Brown, "Survival without drinking water in the desert", In: ed. E.F. Adolph, Physiology of Man in the Desert (New York: Hafner Publishing Company, 1969), pp. 271–279.
30. Artist renderings of the Flight into Egypt commonly show the Holy Virgin carrying the Child Jesus while riding on a donkey. It is unknown whether this was actually the case. Donkey's are known to tolerate harsh conditions. From a scientific perspective, however, whether or not a donkey (or a mule) could endure the extreme environmental conditions over a long journey in the Sinai is, I argue, open to question. See the Wikipedia page on donkeys here.
31. T.T. Warner, Desert Meteorology (Cambridge University Press, 2005), Figure 19.16, p. 515.
32. See R.E. Gosselin, "Rates of sweating in the desert", In: ed. E.F. Adolph, Physiology of Man in the Desert (New York: Hafner Publishing Company, 1969), pp. 44–76.
33. For a detailed discussion of the effects (and interactions) of the atmosphere/climate on the human body see D.M. Driscoll, "Human Health", In: Handbook of Applied Meteorology (New York: John Wiley & Sons Incorporated, 1985), ch. 29, pp. 778–814. Refer also to the classic work by T.R. Oke, Boundary Layer Climates (London: Routledge, 2003), pp. 218–226 (second edition, originally published in 1978).
34. Solar elevation and azimuth angles were calculated by a computer program at the U.S. Naval Observatory website. LINK
35. For a meteorological discussion of the khamsin see M.G. Elfandy, "The formation of depressions of the khamsin type", Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, 1940, vol. 66, no. 286, pp. 323–336.
36. See E. Linacre, Climate Data and Resources: A Reference and Guide (London: Routledge, 1992), Table 6.2, pp. 214–215.
37. See P. Johnson, Napoleon: A Life (London: Penguin Books), p. 39.
38. See table on page 2 in H.W. Jensen, F. Durand, M.M. Stark, S. Primože, J. Dorsey and P. Shirley, "A Physically–Based Night Sky Model", Proceedings of the 28th Annual Conference on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques (SIGGRAPH '01), August 12–17, 2001, Los Angeles, CA. LINK
39. The standard equation for estimating the visibility of non-luminous objects is: V = 1/ß ln (C/ε), where V is visibility (km), ß is the scattering coefficient (measure of how much light is scattered in the visual path before it reaches observer), C is the object–background contrast (parameter distinguishing an object from its background because of differences in luminance; if the object is darker than its background, C has a negative value, with a –1 minimum for an "ideally black object", otherwise C is positive if the object is lighter than its background), and ε is the visual threshold of perception (parameter delimiting the point at which the object of attention becomes "just perceptible"). This equation is applicable for day as well as night so long as the background is at a distance twice as large as the distance range of the target object. The parameter ß is 0.391 km–1 for clear skies. Assuming objects only slightly darker than the background, let C=–0.1. Minimum illumination for a moonless night illuminated only by airglow and starlight is around 0.002 lux. Illuminance (lighting prior to incidence with surface) must be multiplied by surface reflectivity (or albedo) to obtain field luminance (after reflection). The average albedo for deserts in the visible spectrum is approximately 25%. After appropriate unit conversions and nomogram reference, the minimum field luminance then becomes 0.0002 cd m–2 (candelas per square metre), which corresponds roughly to ε[min]= 0.099 for fairly large objects with a 90% detection probability. Maximum illumination under bright moonlight is around 0.01 cd m–2, which corresponds roughly to ε[max]= 0.08 at the same probability of detection. After computation, the maximum and minimum visibilities are 0.571 and 0.026 kilometres, respectively. These are, of course, only rough estimates. The following sources were used for the visibility calculations: J.D. Turton and G.D. Stone, "Forecasting night-time illumination", The Meteorological Magazine, December 1989, vol. 118, no. 1409, pp. 249–253 (see Table II, p. 250); W.D. Sellers, Physical Climatology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965), Table 4, p. 21; R.J. List, Smithsonian Meteorological Tables (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institute, 1964), Publication No. 4014, Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collection, vol. 114, pp. 453–478; R.A.R. Tricker, Introduction to Meteorological Optics (New York: American Elsevier Publishing Company Incorporated, 1970), pp. 246–259; E.J. McCartney, Optics of the Atmosphere: Scattering by Molecules and Particles (New York: John Wiley & Sons Incorporated, 1976), pp. 34–45; and W.E.K. Middleton, Visibility in Meteorology: The Theory and Practice of the Measurement of the Visual Range (Toronto: The University of Toronto Press, 1941), passim (though an old book, it is still today considered a standard reference).
40. Predominantly clear and sunny skies would have made for excellent horizontal visibility during a good part of the journey. Yet it is also possible that optical effects of the atmosphere became an imposition at times. One example would be mirages, not infrequently experienced over flat desert terrain. By mirage is not meant by what Hollywood films frequently portray, that is, luxuriant palm trees beside aquamarine coloured ponds that materialize out of nowhere. The word mirage comes from the French term se mirer, meaning "to look in a mirror", originating from imagery seen at sea by mariners. Scientifically defined, a mirage is a displaced or distorted image that forms, usually toward the horizon, when the atmosphere emulates an optical lens, refracting light passing through a layer of atmosphere. The apparent displacement or distortion of objects toward the horizon like, say, rock islets, might have caused Mary and Joseph difficulty in gauging bearings and distances travelled.