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Typology of Ancient Egyptian Christian Churches


Typology of Ancient Egyptian Christian Churches

by Jimmy Dunn

At about the beginning of the fourth century, AD, Christianity finally overcame the former pagan religions in Egypt. Therefore, from that time onward, we see a sustained architectural effort aimed at the building of Christian churches. During the Christian period, these churches represent the only type of edifice to be constructed in monumental proportions. The typology of Egyptian churches varied considerably depending on their location (for example, those built on the Mediterranean coast as opposed to the Nile Valley), whether they were built in urban or rural settings and whether or not they were connected to a monastery. However, certain generalities may be defined, and we can identify a number of styles.


Basilica with Transept


Basilica with Transept

Between the fifth and sixth centuries AD, we find, only in urban settings, the basilica with transept. This type of church was mainly located in the delta or middle Egypt regions, and was considered to be an import of architectural styles from Constantinople and the Byzantine world. The rather rare typology consists of a basilica with a nave separated from the side aisles by two ranks of columns which in general also encircle the transept. A common trait of the transept was that its north and south ends are either rectilinear or semi-circular. Examples of this type of church include:

  • Al-Hawariya (Marea) - 6th Century
  • Sanctuary of St. Menas - 5th & 6th Centuries
  • Hermopolis (Al-Ashmunein) - 5th Century

Basilica with Nave and Four Aisles


Basilica with Nave and Four Aisles

Another type of church built from the fourth through the sixth centuries and found only in provincial areas consisted of a basilica with a nave and four aisles, including one modification with six aisles. In this style of church, the central part, the nave and inner aisles, is often encircled on its four sides by a relatively narrow ambulatory. In this arrangement, the east part of the ambulatory often gives access to the sanctuary. The nave in this type of church, which is purely Egyptian, is particularly narrow in relation to the inner aisles. From the middle of the fifth century this type of church was gradually replaced by more traditional basilica designs with a nave and two aisles. Examples of this type of church include:

  • Madinat Madi (Narmuthis) - 5th & 6th Centuries
  • Antinoopolis (Antinoe) - 4th Century
  • Pbow - 4th & 5th Centuries
  • Armant (Mermonthis) - 6th Century

Church with Nave and Two Aisles


Church with Nave and Two Aisles

The traditional basilica with a nave and two side aisles gained ground in Egypt between the fifth and seventh centuries. It was characterized by an impressive, wide nave, and in the interior of Egypt, the architects often retained a small western return aisle, which connected the side aisles and gave access to the two galleries on the upper story. This return aisle was absent from churches located on the Mediterranean coast, where the architecture tended to follow the model of traditional imperial design. The sanctuary was usually either semi-circular or rectangular, and was normally flanked by two adjacent rooms (pastophoria). Examples of this type of church include:

  • Sanctuary of St. Menas - 6th Century
  • Kellia (the Cells) - 5th though 7th Centuries
  • Churches of Old Cairo - 7th Century
  • Monastery of St. Jeremiah (Saqqara) - 7th Century
  • Umm al-Burigat - 7th Century
  • Kom Namrud - 6th Century
  • Monastery of Apa Bane - 6th Century
  • Antinoopolis (Antinoe) - 5th & 6th Centuries
  • Monastery of Al-Balayza - (probably) 6th Century
  • Luxor - 6th Century
  • Madinat Habu - 7th Century

Triconch Church


Triconch Church

The triconch church, built between the fifth and seventh centuries, represents an evolutionary development of the basic basilica with a nave and two side aisles. It provides an enrichment of the presbytery with the sanctuary characterized by three semi-circular apses on its north, east and south sides arranged like in a clover pattern. The two rooms adjacent to the sanctuary are in the shape of a capital gamma (the third letter of the Greek alphabet). This type of church was mostly constructed in middle Egypt, with examples in both urban and monastic settings. Examples of this type of church include:

  • Monastery of Apa Bane - 6th Century
  • White Monastery 5th Century
  • Red Monastery - 5th Century
  • Monastery of St. Pachomius (Akmim) - 6th Century
  • Dandara - 6th century
  • Deir al-Matmar - 6th Century
  • Deir Abu Matta - 6th Century

detail of the Triconch Apse at the White Monastery

Detail of the Triconch Apse at the White Monastery

Church with Central Plan

Church with Central Plan

Rarely found, and then only in the Egyptian Delta, are churches with a central plan. These churches seem to differ significantly from other church designs in Egypt, completely abandoning the traditional basilica. The only examples of this church we know of were built during the sixth century. This type of church consists of a tetraconch structure (an irregular four sided structure) formed by masonry walls delineating the perimeter of the building by means of four semi-circular apses. However, the design may also be found in a rectangular space where four groups of columns form the outline of the tetraconch. This type of church is found in both urban and monastic settings. Examples of this type of church include:

  • Sanctuary of St. Menas (east basilica) - 6th Century
  • Sanctuary of St. Menas (martyrion) - 6th century

Church with Khurus (Choir)

Church with Khurus (Choir)

During the seventh century, the addition of the khurus (choir) was an evolutionary development to the traditional basilican plan. This was a rather popular style of church that was constructed through the twelfth century. In this plan, the khurus is a complementary space located crosswise between the nave and the sanctuary, thus creating a clearer separation between the area reserved for the laity and that reserved for the clergy. In many cases, traditional basilicas were modified with the addition of a khurus, which was probably first developed in monastic churches before being adopted in urban architecture. Examples of this type of church include:

  • Monasteries of Sketis - 7th through 9th Centuries
  • Churches of Old Cairo - 7th through 9th Centuries
  • Monastery of the Archangle Gabriel (Deir al-Naqlun) - 10th & 11th Centuries
  • Monastery of St. Anthony - 12th Century
  • Antinoopolis (Antinoe) - 7the Century
  • Manqabad - 7th Century
  • Al-Hayz - 7th or 8th Century
  • Monastery of Ain Saaf - 7th Century



Church with Naves Roofed with Cupolas

Church with Naves Roofed with Cupolas

A lack of wood in Egypt perhaps prompted a profound change in the architecture of the basic basilica during the tenth century with the addition of a vaulted roof characterized by copulas over the naves. This design element relieved the many problems associated with wooden architecture, including the threat of fire and damage by insects. This type of church varies between Lower and Upper Egypt. In Lower Egypt, a barrel vault is used to roof the central nave and khurus. In Upper (southern) Egypt, the nave was originally roofed by two copulas, that were, around the twelfth century, transformed into another structure comprising one copula supported by four massive pillars located in the center of the naos. Examples of this type of church include:

  • Monastery of St. Victor (Naqada) - 12th Century
  • Monastery of the Potter - 12th Century
  • Monastery of the Martyrs - 11th & 12th Centuries
  • Monastery of al-Kubbaniya - 10th & 11th Centuries
  • Monastery of St. Simeon - 10th & 11th Centuries

Church at St. Simeon
Monastery of St. Victor
Top: Church at St. Simeon, Bottom: Monastery of St. Victor

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