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September 7, 2019


Johann Friedrich Perlberg (1848 – 1921) was a German artist who in 1896 visited Egypt , Nubia and Sudan, and painted the Orient using watercolours. Many of his painting were later published in postcards. Although his Orientalist art is profuse, I could not find anything by him on a Coptic theme except one: The Mary Tree from Heliopolis, which was published in a postcard in 1910.

The Mary Tree from Heliopolis (or Der Marienbaum von Matarije, or L’arbre de Marie de Matarije) is an old sycamore tree that is believed to have existed in the first century, and under which the Holy Family rested during its sojourn in Egypt. It still exists as an offspring, as a shoot of the older one, planted in 1672. It is to be found in Mataria, in the district of ancient Heliopolis. Heliopolis is one of the oldest Egyptian cities (in Coptic it is called ‘Wn’), and is now located in Ayn Shams, a north-eastern suburb of Cairo. When the Holy Family was sheltering there, Jesus caused a spring to well up there, and it still exists.

Perlberg’s beautiful painting depicts the leafy sycamore. There are two Coptic women on the left wearing dark blue dress, one standing and carrying her naked child on her right shoulder with a jar laid on the ground beside her, and one veiled,[1] sitting down and displaying pomegranate (or melons) and sugar cane for sale. On the right, a man in dark, blue long tunic and with his head covered, stands beside a donkey on which sits a woman, again in dark, blue dress and with a veil over her face, holding a little baby in her lap. Probably Perlberg wants us to see the Holy Family in them. I actually can just about see little blue halos round the heads of the three figures.

In the background of the painting, and with the sky being cloudy, one can see other tress, with probably more sycamores, a palm tree and a cypress. In between the tress at the back, one can see the four thousand years old and 20.7 m high Obelisk of Heliopolis which was erected by Senusret I (1971 – 1926 BC), the second pharaoh of the Twelfth Dynasty of Egypt. The eyes of the Holy Family must have seen it.


[1] Copts women veiled themselves when going out but at home they were not veiled and mixed with members of the family and those invited by the head of the family.



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