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Apa Bane Monastery near El-Minya


The Monastery of Apa Bane
(Deir Abu Fana, or the Monastery of the Cross)

by Jimmy Dunn


Part of the


In a certain sense, an examination of the Christian Monastery of Apa Bane (Deir Abu Fana) provides us with some interesting insights to Egypt's desert fathers. Much is reported about their piety, and to such an extent that one questions the accuracy of ancient texts.

The ancient sources such as the History of the Egyptian Monks (Historia Monachorum in Aegypto), Sayings of the Fathers (Apophtegnmata Patrum), Palladius' Lausiac History (Historia Lausiaca), Sozomen's Church Hisotory (Historia Ecclesiastica), and others make reference to a man named Benus or Banus (Bes) who lived near Deir Abu Fana and can be identified as none other than Apa Bane. According to the History of the Egyptian Monks:


"We saw another old man who was gentle above all others. His name was Benus and the brothers with him asserted that no oath or lie had ever come from his mouth, that ho one had ever seen him losing his temper with anyone, or indulging in unnecessary, idle conversation. He lived his life in a profound silence, his manner was always peaceful, in all things he was a man who seemed to be angelic. His humility was very deep, counting himself as nothing in every way. We ourselves urgently pressed him to favour us with some encouraging conversation, but his modesty prevented him from giving us more than just a few words."

We further learn that Apa Bane was born to a wealthy family of Memphis (near modern Cairo), but withdrew to the desert near al-Ashmunain to live the life of an anchorite after being inspired by hermits he visited in the Western Desert. During an eighteen year period, he constantly stood in a dark cell without eating any food prepared by human hands. He remained standing even as he slept, resting his chest against a wall built for this purpose. He would pray with his hands lifted in an Eastern attitude associating prayer with water.

We here such claims of piety everywhere in these ancient Christian times, but rarely do we find actual physical proof. However, in 1992, Apa Bane's remains were discovered in a tomb located beneath the nave floor of the funerary church of the monastery, along with other abbots. A study of his body yielded especially interesting results. It has been confirmed that Apa Bane died at about the age of forty from a disease contracted in his youth. His spine was completely calcified, which limited his mobility and which practically made it impossible for him to lie down, even to sleep. Interestingly, this disease also explains his name, Bane, which in Coptic means "date palm". He would have stood straight as a tree at all times. However, we are told that he considered this infirmity to be a trial sent by God, and accepted by him, rather than a disease.

We know that Bane died shortly after Theodosius, who's death he predicted, and so we can date his death to about 395 AD, and so his birth to about 355 AD. It was his reputation of concern for the sick and poor, and the miracles associated with his tomb that bought prosperity to the monastery, located near the modern city of El Minya in Middle Egypt. Hence, it was especially noted for exceptional splendor and prestige in the 5th century. We are told that it was restored by al-Rashid Abu al-Fadl, and al-Maqrizi speaks of the monastery having fine stone architecture. It may have had as many as a thousand monks during its most important era, by the 7th century it was in ruins, deserted by Apa Bane's followers.

We do not know the cause of the monastery's demise. Perhaps it was some sort of medical epidemic, or more likely, the monks simply tired of their desperate struggle against the ever encroaching sand. In fact, archaeological studies have shown that from about the 6th century, the monks did struggle against the progressively invading sand. It is likely that their efforts were in vain, and that gradually they had to abandon the monastery leaving it to the desert.

The Monastery Today

In order to reach this monastery, one usually travels by rail to Itlidim, and then proceeds west to Qasr Hor. The monastery is located about three kilometers across the Bahr Yusuf canal (one kilometer into the desert). The ruins of the monastery extend over a fairly wide area that is covered with potsherds and bricks. In fact, the pieces of gray granite spread about may lead one to believe that this might have once been the location of an ancient temple, though some of this debris has recently been cleaned up.

Previous to recent archaeological excavations, only the high section of the monastery atop a small hill remained, with the small monastery built around it that dates from the Middle Ages. This later monastery is attested to by historical accounts from about the 13th through the 15th centuries (AD). In fact, it would appear that the 13th century patriarch, Theodosius II, was once a monk at this monastery. The original monastery was built on different levels in what was once a hilly region. However, today, the hills have been leveled out by the sand, resulting in most of the original monastery being overcome by the desert.


The Sanctuary Church

Floorplan of the Sanctuary Church at Apa Bane

Only the sanctuary church that was dedicated to Apa Bane, which is surrounded by high brick walls erected not so much for defense in this case, but simply to stop the sand, was saved from the desert encroachment. The original sanctuary church was probably built in the 6th century, but modified in the Middle Ages when the newer monastic community settled there. The church is entered from the north. Inside, the church has a nave, two side aisles and a sanctuary with similarities to a triconch design. To either side of the sanctuary are rooms that have been partitioned to form two small rooms (four total). Two rows of five columns each separate the nave from the aisles. An eleventh column placed in the center of the west side marks the return aisle between the other two. This eleventh column is original, while the others probably replaced earlier columns.

The Cross which became the symbol of the Monastery

The triconch design of the sanctuary section of the church was made easier since the side apses are not semi-circular but rather rectangular, and hence are shallower than the main apse. The main apse is decorated with fine niches and small columns. Within the vault is a large cross richly decorated with finely produced geometrical motifs dating from the 12th or 13th century. This cross became to symbolize the monastery itself, which is sometimes called Deir al-Salib, which in Arabic, means "Monastery of the Cross". In fact, on the interior monastery walls are painted a number of beautiful high Middle Age representations of crosses, each one different in shape and decoration.

Attached to the church was a bakery, and on the south side was located a baptistery.


The Funerary Church

Floorplan of the Funerary Church at the Apa Bane Monastery

Only recently has an Austrian team of archaeologists unearthed further components of the original monastic complex, which lies north of the sanctuary church. Here, we find the funerary church under which the body of Apa Bane, along with other abbots of the monastery, was located. This building dates to about the 6th century, but appears to be an enlargement of a previous chapel erected at the end of the 4th or the beginning of the 5th century. It was probably built specifically to house the relics of Apa Bane. The church was entered from the south side through a narthex placed on the west side, from which a staircase gave access to the upper galleries. Inside, it includes a very large room for a ritual of water, as well as a refectory. The church itself takes the form of a basilica, with a nave, two side aisles and a return aisle on the west side. The sanctuary has an apse, niches and adjacent rooms on three of hits sides.

The ruins of the funerary church at Apa Bane

Originally, this church probably had only one nave and one apse. When it was constructed, the foundation of the chapel walls were used as stylobates (the foundation of a row of columns).

Interestingly, on the south side of this church the excavation team unearthed a large room that was closely connected with the funerary church. It contained the remain of a fountain. This room was probably used in the rituals of prayer and funerals inspired by the Eastern veneration of water. Historical sources have attributed the origin of this practice to none other than Apa Bane. On the east side of this room have been found the remains of a refectory, with a rectangular space about fifteen meters long. Here, the table for the meals can still be seen.

Return to Christian Monasteries of Egypt

References:

Title

Author

Date

Publisher

Reference Number

2000 Years of Coptic Christianity

Meinardus, Otto F. A.

1999

American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 5113

Christian Egypt: Coptic Art and Monuments Through Two Millennia

Capuani, Massimo

1999

Liturgical Press, The

ISBN 0-8146-2406-5

Churches and Monasteries of Egypt and Some Neigbouring Countries, The

Abu Salih, The Armenian, Edited and Translated by Evetts, B.T.A.

2001

Gorgias Press

ISBN 0-9715986-7-3

Last Updated: June 12th, 2011

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