December 28, 2021

How the Icon of the Panagia of the Nile Got Its Name

By Ioannis Fourtounas
Among the many miraculous icons of the Panagia, there is an unknown icon of her, located in Egypt and named the Panagia of the Nile.

The icon is kept in the Sacred Patriarchal and God-trodden Monastery of Saint George in Old Cairo and has been stored in the Cave that hosted our Panagia and the Divine Infant.

When Herod persecuted the Most Holy Theotokos, Joseph the Betrothed and the Divine Infant, together with James the son of Joseph, they fled to Egypt at the angel's command.

This cave, in which there is a well - holy water to this day - is located in the area of the Greek cemetery under the sanctuary of the Church of the Panagia.

The Panagia, going up to the Nile River at that point, found the hospitable cave, where she stayed with the Divine Infant for two years, until the persecution of King Herod stopped.

This cave receives many thousands of visitors-pilgrims every year, and is a sacred place very important for Christians, while its visit is a unique spiritual experience.

The flight to Egypt is a popular theme in local iconography because the story touches every soul with the arrival of the Divine Infant and how difficult it was for them to travel and live.

In the old days, the Nile passed through there, in fact in the basements of the imposing rotunda of Saint George, the pier to which the ships moored that sailed the Nile can still be seen.

The Nile surrounded the wall as a moat and protected the city of Babylon that existed at that time, with its high towers and inaccessible walls.

The importance of the Panagia of the Nile was preserved by the older archimandrites of the Monastery of Saint George, who conveyed to us the uniqueness, but also the blessing and grace that derive from it.

But where does her name come from as the Panagia of the Nile and why is she not called the Panagia of Cairo or the Panagia of Babylon? What is the reason for this special and impressive name?

The names of the icons of our Panagia are always associated with a miracle that happened once and since then they are named reminding and emphasizing with their name this miracle, such as the Panagia of Axion Estin, the Portaitissa, etc.

In the old days there was the icon called the Nile which was lost or destroyed during the difficult years of persecution, it was placed in the cave of hospitality and as its name reveals, protected the villagers from the floods of the Nile.

After all, this cave was on the banks of the Nile, long before they changed the course of the Nile River. The river now flows between Giza of the Pyramids and the Monastery of Saint George.

In the past, however, it made a zigzag passing first through the Monastery and then went to Giza, where to this day there is the ancient pier in front of the huge Sphinx.

There in the Monastery of Saint George, visitors still see the Nile Meter, a system with which they measured the rise of the Nile waters and warned the villagers to be protected from the flood.

Our Panagia of the Nile was the protector of the people from the great floods before the creation of the Nile Dam, she protected the villagers themselves, but also their crops.

The renovator of the Monastery, Fr. Agathangelos Zarifis, hearing from the ancients about the icon of the Nile, gave the order during the interwar period to re-paint this icon of the Panagia of the Nile.

He put her back in the cave of hospitality because there the old icon was located, since the Panagia had come in those years with her Divine Infant and she is the one who blessed the waters with her presence.

The icon of the Panagia of the Nile is an oil painting on canvas, post-Byzantine style, depicting the Panagia as a mother watching over her sleeping child.

The originality of the iconography lies in the fact that for the first time our Panagia is depicted holding in her hand the distaff, which was used by women in the past together with the spindle, watching over their babies.

In fact, we notice the thread of the spindle that surrounds the sleeping Divine Infant and his little hands, while his mother seems to touch him slightly with an invisible smile on her face.

The whole composition includes the established symbols: the star of the Virgin Mary, the name ΜΗΡ ΘΟΥ [MOTHER of GOD], as well as the inscription on the halo of the Divine Infant (O) ΩΝ.

Nevertheless, the tenderness exuded by the maternal attitude of the Panagia, together with all the decoration of the room and the towels in a vessel on the right, capture in the most exquisite way the sacred mystery of motherhood.

May the Panagia of the Nile, as in the past and now, continue her protection both for its city and for the pilgrims who will reverently come to the Monastery.

Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.