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Egypt: Monastery of Saint Bishoy (Pshoi, Bishoi)


Deir Al Anba Bishoy
At Wadi El-Natrun
by Jimmy Dunn

Sign for the Monastery of Saint Bishoy at Wadi Natrun


The most eastern surviving Christian monastery in the Wadi el-Natrun of Egypt is Dier Al Anba Bishoy (Pshoi, Bishoi), which was founded by St. Bishoy (Pshoi). Though similar, the story of Saint Bishoy is sometimes told with varying details. However, in general, we believe that Saint Bishoy was born in the Egyptian Nile Delta in 320 AD. Apparently, his parents were deeply religious, and it is said that in a dream one night, an angel of the Lord asked for the services of one of his mother's children. St. Bishoy's mother gave the angel his selection of her children, and the angel chose Bishoy.A frail child, his mother thought that the angel might do better, but the angel said that, "the Lord's power in frailty is perfect". At the age of twenty, Bishoy joined the Monastery of Seetis. He was particularly fond of the book of Jeremiah from the Old Testament, and was therefore called Abbot Bishoy the Jeremian.

The Monastery of Saint Bishoy as seen through the gardesn

It is also said that he was a close spiritual friend of John the Little (Saint John the Short), who also established a monastery at Wadi el-Natrun. Indeed, some references claim that, at first, he joined Saint John the Little, who lived by himself for many years. After apprenticing himself to John the Little, the Saint recommended that Bishoy leave him and live by himself in a cave. While observing this solitary life, Bishoy had several visions in which the Lord Jesus Christ appeared to him.

Early morning view of the main entrance to the Monastery of Saint Bishoy

The Life of St. Bishoy (Pshoi), documenting the saint's life and attributed to John the Little, claims that Bishoy originally established himself in a cave which lay two miles north of the place of John the Little. Interestingly, this is indeed the actual distance between the present Monastery of St. Bishoy and the recently discovered ruins of the Monastery of Saint John the Little. When tribes living in the Libyan desert attacked Scetis in 407, Bishoy took refuge in the mountain of Antinoe (Antinopolis)where he died apparently some three months later.

The Monastery of Saint Bishoy is one of the original monasteries of Scetis. Its counterpart monastery is that of the Syrians, which was built in the sixth century by the followers of Severus or the Theodosian monks, when concepts concerning the nature of Christ forced a chrism between many monks in Egypt.

A dark corridor connecting two sections of the monastery

Like the Monastery of Saint Macarius, the Monastery of the Romans and the Monastery of Saint John the Little, the Monastery of Saint Bishoy suffered five sacks by the Berbers. Al-Maqrizi, who wrote during the fifteenth century, refers specifically to the fourth destruction of the monastery during the patriarchate of Andronicus (616-2623). The patriarch Benjamin I (623-662) is said to have rebuilt the monastery after that. When the persecution by the Berbers finally came to an end in the ninth century, the bodies of both Saints Bishoy and Paul of Tammua (Tamweh, Tamwa) were returned to the Monastery of Saint Bishoy.

However, the monastery was once again pillaged in 1096, which resulted in its depopulation. Then, during the reign of patriarch Benjamin II (1327-1339), considerable restoration of the monastery was undertaken because ants had destroyed much of the woodwork, and the buildings were near collapse.

The Monastery of Bishoy as it appeared to the French during the making of the Description de l'Egypte (1809)

A number of visitors traveled to this monastery during late antiquity and into more modern times. Coppin went there in 1638, and Thevenot visited it in 1657, reporting it as the best of the four Wadi Natrun monasteries. Then came Wansleben in 1672, and Sicard in 1712. Granger made the journey in 1730, Sonnini in 1778, Andreossy in 1799 and Curzon in 1837. In 1839, Tattam is said to have acquired numerous manuscripts from the monastery, and in 1843, Wilkinson discovered thirteen monks in the monastery.

Plan of the old monastery of Bishoy

However, in 1875, when Junkers attempted to visit the monastery, he was not permitted to enter because a European before him had stolen several manuscripts. In 1881, Jullien reported that the monastery had the best water of any in the Wadi, and this was substantiated by Butler in 1883. From these and other visitors, we find that the monastery had twenty monks in 1638, four in 1712, twelve in 1799, four in 1837, seven in 1875, fourteen in 1896 and twenty in 1923.

The monastery is nearly oblong in shape, and surrounded by a defensive wall. The great wall was built in the ninth century, and measures about ten meters high and two meters wide. It is one hundred and sixty-six meters on the east and west, and ninety-five meters on the north and south.

Originally there were four entrances to the monastery, one on each side of the wall. Today, there are only two, consisting of one on the north and one on the south. The main entrance is a gateway near the western end of the north wall. This gateway, which possesses an inner gatehouse and a large, carefully built tower, is the best preserved in the Wadi, as well as the most complete and elaborate of its kind of the four remaining monasteries.

The southern half of the monastery is occupied by the church and cells of the monks, as well as by a modern patriarchal residence. The greater part of the gardens and the keep are in the northern half.

Domes, or Copulas, dominate the older buildings of the monastery

The most interesting building in the monastery is the tower, located at the northwest corner of the monastery. Defensive towers, or keeps have been a part of the architecture of Wadi El-Natrun's monasteries since the fifth century. This was a time when the Berbers often attacked monasteries in the area.

The keep at Saint Bishoy dates to the thirteenth century and is a few years older than the keep of the Monastery of St. Macarius. One enters it at the second floor level by a wooden drawbridge that rests on the roof of the gatehouse.On the first floor are rooms where food was stored and prepared. One can see traces of an oven, a mill for grains, a press for grapes, as well as an olive press. There is also a well some thirty meters deep.

New and ancient structure collide at the Monastery of Saint Bishoy

The second floor comprises the living quarters of the monks during the periods of siege. There is also a long corridor and east of this are rooms which have cupolas supported by brick arches. These have now been transformed into a church dedicated to the Holy Virgin. It has a transverse nave and a triple sanctuary.

On the north side of the roof of the tower is the Church of St. Michaels, one of five in the monastery. The icons on the iconostasis, which date to the eighteenth century, have been restored. They depict the twelve apostles in pontifical vestments. It is noteworthy that in no other monastery do we find the Church of Saint Michael so isolated as in the Monastery of Saint Bishoy, so it is probable that at one time the keep had an additional floor, like those of the other monasteries in the Wadi.

Monks perform services in the main church, dedicated to Saint Bishoy, in the Monastery of Saint Bishoy

The other churches really form more of a complex of chapels, with the central and main church dedicated to Saint Bishoy. It has been restored and extended several times, but it has been suggested that the most ancient parts of the church do not predate the fifth attack, which occurred between 830 and 848, on the monasteries of Wadi Natrun. Indeed, nothing remains of the original church built prior to this, and many principal elements of the structure that we see today probably date from the restoration and remodeling conducted by Benjamin II around 1330.

It has a naos, a three-aisled nave, including a main center aisle and a western return aisle, a khurus (Choir) and it currently has a tripartite sanctuary (three alters). The nave has a precious wooden pulpit, while the wooden door separating the two bays of the nave has decorative hexagonal panels with arabesques and ivory inlays. It probably dates to the fourteenth century. The khurus is rectangular in plan and placed transversely in relation to the nave. In the tripartite sanctuary, the north one is dedicated to the Holy Virgin, and is separated from the choir by an arched portal. It is a particularly long and narrow room and its structure probably dates to the ninth century. The middle sanctuary is dedicated to Saint Bishoy, and is connected with the khurus through a high portal with ornate wooden panels dating to the Fatimed Period. However, it's square plan probably dates to the ninth century, and its cupola to the fourteenth. The southern sanctuary is dedicated to John the Baptist, and also dates to the time of the renovations made during the fourteenth century.

Plan of the Main Church and the other Chapels

Plan of the Main Church and the other Chapels

There is a lakan, a marble basin used in the Maundy Thursday foot-washing rite, set in the floor at the western end of the church. The feretory for the relics of the Saints Bishoy and Paul of Tammua are situated in the northeastern corner of the khurus, while those for the body of Patriarch Bejamin II (1327-1339), who restored the monastery, are in the southwestern corner of the nave. The latter is adorned with the icons of the three Macarii, Saint Matthew, Saint Thomas and the Crucifixion. Noteworthy is the modern alter screen in the Church, which features paintings by Ishaq Fanus depicting the apostles and the desert fathers. This church was newly redecorated in 1957. This church is used by the monks during the summer months for the celebration of the Divine Liturgy.

The relicks of Saint Bishoy

The church or chapel, more properly a parekklesion of St. Iskhyrun (Abu Iskhirun, Iskhiron), was apparently added in the eleventh century, though the cupola is part of the renovations made by patriarch Benjamin II. It is accessed from the south side of the khurus of the Church of Saint Bishoy. The plan is almost square and opens on the east into a semi-circular apse which serves as a sanctuary. Here, the relics of the holy martyr Saint Iskhyrun are kept under the altar. An icon from the seventeenth century placed on the iconostasis separating the choir from the sanctuary depicts Iskhyrun on horseback. As is customary, a wooden partition separates the nave from the choir.

The baptistery, accessed by a narrow passage, is located to the north of the sanctuary of the Church of Saint Iskhyrun. The diameter of the stone baptismal font is ninety-five centimeters. Only this monastery, and that of al-Baramus, possess baptisteries in the Wadi. This is because Coptic families sometimes wish for their children to be baptized in holy and particularly venerated places.

Remains of wall paintings were recently discovered in the so-called "Chapel of Benjamin," which probably date to the second half of the twelfth century. The restoration of the wall paintings in this section of the Monastery is not yet complete.

One of the old refectories

To the northeast of the main church, and accessed from the khurus of that church through a door set to the left of the tomb of Saint Bishoy, is the Church of the Holy Virgin, which is actually dedicated to Benjamin I. It features a nave roofed with a barrel vault. The sanctuary, almost square in plan, is separated from the nave by a finely worked wooden iconostasis and surmounted by a cupola. This church is used during the winter months for the divine Liturgy.

Built in the eleventh or the twelfth century, the Church of Saint George is not used now for services. It's entrance is near the southeast corner of the main church. It has two sanctuaries and is roofed with six low cupolas. The monastery contains three refectories. The ancient one is situated parallel to the west end of the main church, from which it is separated by a long, narrow vaulted corridor. Its entrance is in the middle of the corridor, opposite the west entrance of the church. It is a long chamber, measuring twenty-seven meters in length and four and a half meters in width, divided into five domed bays by four transverse arches. The central space is roofed with a beautiful quadripartite vault while the other four have cupolas in which some openings admit light. A masonry table takes up almost the entire length of the hall. It is strangely low, only rising thirty-six centimeters. Clearly, the monks set cross-legged on the floor. Originally, monks came here after Sunday liturgy to celebrate the agape, but today the refectory is used as a museum that exhibits both sacred and secular artifacts.

The two other refectories are older. The smallest one lies southwest of the main church. At an unknown date it was transformed into the present chapel of Mari Girgis. It consists of a square room with a central pillar from which spring four arches. The third refectory, which is now used fro storage, lies in the southeastern corner of the monastery.

The modern church at the Monastery of Saint Bishoy

There is also a bakery and a millhouse in the northeastern corner of the monastery. The latter is the most complete example of its kind in the Wadi Natrun.

Also located on the grounds of the monastery is the Well of the Martyrs, which has been used ever since the time of Anba Bishoy. It is said that the Berbers washed the blood from their swords here after having killed the 49 Martyrs. Monks at the monastery also say that the Martyrs were thrown in the well prior to being interned at the nearby St. Marcarius Monastery. It is twelve meters deep and continues to produce fresh water, which is regarded as miraculous.

A young monk at the Monastery of Saint Bishoy in the Wadi Natrun

Following his enthronement in November of 1971, His Holiness Pope Shenouda III selected this monastery as his pontifical residence, where he generally spends two or three days a week. For this reason, it is therefore the destination of thousands of Copts who visit Wadi Naturn. At one point, he was exiled to this monastery for forty months, and during this time he ordained as many as one hundred young men as monks.

In recent years, four hundred acres of desert land were acquired for the monastery, much of which has been cultivated. Three reservoirs for drinking water, a new library, a three-story guest house, three large units for monastic cells, as well as lecture and conference buildings have been constructed at the rear of the old monastery. This is also the location of the pontifical residence and the new Church of Saint Shenuda. Here, the number of monks has increased to over 160, though many of these monks now serve in the restored Upper Egyptian monasteries as well as in Coptic churches overseas.

Today, there are four monasteries in Egypt named after Anba Bishoy:

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 Neighbouring 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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