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The Monastery of Apollo at Bawit


The Monastery of Apollo at Bawit

by Jimmy Dunn

Part of the ruins at Bawit
Part of the ruins at Bawit

Anyone who visits the Coptic (Christian) Museum in Cairo will soon become familiar with a location known as Bawit, because there is considerable art from this ancient Monastery within the Museum. The Monastery itself is located in the desert, facing the fertile plain, about fifteen kilometers from Dairut, north of Aysut (Assiut). Bawit is actually an ancient, deserted monastery known as the Monastery of St. Apollo (Deir Abu Abullu). Its name probably comes from the Coptic term, Auht, which means "assembly", "congregation", or "Monastery".


The apostles Bartholomew, Philip, Andrew and Peter from a wall painting at Bawit

The first monastery built at this location in Middle Egypt was the work of a monk known as Apollo, and probably dated to the second half of the fourth century (probably between 385 and 390 AD). We are not sure who compiled the "History of the Egyptian Monks", an ancient Christian reference, but apparently he knew Apollo personally, and says of him:

"We visited another holy man, named Apollo, in the territory of Hermopolis... Now we saw this man, who had hermitages under him in the desert at the foot of the mountain, and was the father of five hundred monks. He was renowned in the Thebiad and great works were ascribed to him, and the Lord performed many wonders through him, and a multitude of signs were accomplished at his hands. Since from childhood he had given proof of great ascesis, at the end of his life he received the following grace: when he was eighty years old he established on his own a great monastery of five hundred perfect men, almost all of them with the power to work miracles. When he was fifteen years old, he withdrew from the world and spent forty years in the desert, scrupulously practicing every virtue. Then he seemed to hear the voice of God saying to him, 'Apollo, Apollo, through you I will destroy the wisdom of the wise men of Egypt, and I will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent pagans' (cf. Is. 29:14). And together with these you will also destroy the wise men of Babylon for me, and you will banish all worship of demons. And now make your way to the inhabited region, for you will bear me 'a peculiar people, zealous of good works.' (Tit. 2.14) ... He set off for the inhabited region... and for a while he lived in the neighboring desert. he occupied a small cave and dwelt there at the foot of the mountain. His work consisted in offering prayers ot God throughout the day, and in bending his knees a hundred times in the night and as many times again in the day. He... [was] living in the power of the Spirit and performing signs and wonderful miracles of healing. These were so amazing that they defy description.... Many monks flocked to him from every quarter because of his renown; and inspired by his teaching and manner of life, a vast number of people renounced the world. A community of brothers formed itself around him on the mountain, as many as five hundred of them, all sharing a common life and eating at the same table"

Desert Fathers, 70-73

Depiction of Christ enthroned from the Monastery of Apollo

Little of the original monastery remains. However, during the sixth century, a community of women associated with St. Rachel also settled within the structures and a new period of building began. The monastery appears to have actually reached its zenith during the seventh century, when there were as many as five thousand monks. After the Arab conquest of Egypt during the seventh century AD, the population of the monastery slowly declined until from the tenth (or eleventh) century on, there were apparently no monks left to hold back the sands of the desert, which now cover most of the deserted buildings.

Decorative elements from the wall paintings of the monastery
Decorative elements from the wall paintings of the monastery

A bearded Chist on the right with his name written as

The Bawit complex, though mostly gone now, is known the world over because of the abundance of architectural and painted decorations that were recovered there. Many of these items now reside in either the Louvre Museum in Paris, or in the Coptic Museum in Cairo. Excavations of this monastery were carried out by French archaeologists during the early part of the twentieth century. This work revealed at least two churches and other groups of buildings, along with parts of walls. Judging from the enclosure walls, the monastery was enormous, as they stretched on for some three kilometers in length. The two churches discovered at the center of the complex were simply termed the "north" and "south" churches. We appear to have little information on their dedication.

However, the south church has been mostly freed from the sand and even partially reconstructed. Engraved text, apparently on the lintel to an entrance, associates the archangels Michael and Gabriel with the founding fathers of the monastery (Apollo and his companion, Abbot Phib). It was apparently built during the sixth century over an earlier edifice from the fourth century. The earlier structure was perhaps not a place of worship at all, while the second structure presents all the characteristics of a basilica church, with a nave, two side aisles, a sanctuary with a niche, and the entrance on its south and north sides. At one time, there were decorations carved in stone and wood and painted friezes with geometrical, vegetal and figurative motifs that ran along the interior and exterior walls of the building. The nearby north church seems to date from the eighth century, and like the south church, appears to be a transformation of a previous building.

A decorated arch from Bawit

However, for some reason, the archaeological work on the monastery was abandoned in about 1913. Since then, little or no research has been conducted on this, one of Egypt's great monasteries. Even the early work lacks satisfactory written and photographic documentation. In 1976, apparently a number of wall painting were discovered at the site during unprofessional excavations, which were subsequently transported to the Coptic Museum. No report was provided detailing this discovery.

Other Images from Bawit

A decorated arch from Bawit A decorated arch from Bawit A decorated arch from Bawit
Enthroned Holy Virgin & Child Column Capital Archway from the Louvre
A decorated arch from Bawit A decorated arch from Bawit A decorated arch from Bawit
Bust of Christ Column Capital Column Capital

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

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