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The Monastery of the Archangel Gabriel at Naqlun near the Fayoum


The Monastery of the Archangel Gabriel

at Naqlun near the Fayoum

by Jimmy Dunn

One story about the Monastery of the Archangel Gabriel in the Fayoum relates a tale of a 5th century magician from Persia, named Ibrashet, who secretly married the daughter of the king without the king's knowledge. A child named Oor (Ar), who was raised secretly, was the result of the matrimony. At the age of three, Oor's mother died, and when Oor was about eight years old, we are told that the king finally found out about the child, who then ordered the father and son to appear in the royal court. Apparently afraid of the possible consequences, however, father and son fled first to Jerusalem, and then on to Egypt, where they settled in the Naklun Desert next to the Fayoum. Only a short time later, Oor's father died, leaving the son alone. We are told that Oor then learned the way to God and received a vision of the Holy Mother Mary, along with the Archangels Michael and Gabriel who asked him to build a church in the desert.


A view of the Monastery of the Archangel Gabriel in Egypt's Fayoum

A view of the Monastery of the Archangel Gabriel in Egypt's Fayoum

The story goes on, telling of Oor's return to visit his grandmother the queen, and of the royal family apparently providing funds for the building of the church which would be dedicated to the archangel Gabriel, and of considerable harassment by the devil in order to prevent its construction. Apparently this is not the only legend of the monastery's establishment, but it is certainly one of the more curious tales. Others would place the formation of the monastery as early as the 4th century AD.

The floorplan of the Church of the Archangel Gabriel

Another tradition holds that the mountain called Naqlun contained the place where Jacob, son of Isaac, who was the son of Abraham, enjoyed the shade and worshiped and offered sacrifices to God. This was during the period when Jacob's son, Joseph, supervised construction in the Fayoum and at Hagar al-Lahun. In any event, it does seem that little is known about the monastery's founding.

We know somewhat more about the demise of the monastery. When it became known that the Melkite patriarch Cyrus would visit this monastery, Saint Samuel, who had spent about three and a half years at Naqlun, persuaded the two hundred lay members and 120 monks of Naqlun to flee to the mountains. Apparently Saint Samuel was then imprisoned by the Byzantine, but when he was released he set about establishing his own monastery at al-Qalamun. Within two years, his new monastery consisted of forty one monks, fourteen of whom had come from the Monastery of Naqlun. Due to the dynamic leadership of Saint Samuel at the monastery named for him at al-Qalamun in the Fayoum, the Monastery of the Archangel Gabriel was slowly but steadily pushed to the background in importance and position.

Saint Samuel was probably born in the very late 6th century, living most of his life during the 7th century. Yet we are told by the Ethiopian Synaxarion that in his day the relics of Abba Kaw, one of the foremost martyrs of the Fayoum, resided at the Monastery of Naqlun. Hence, we believe that the monastery retained considerable influence between at least the latter part of the 12th century and the beginning of the 15th century, though there is evidence of at least one devastating fire during the 13th century, that may have irrevocably helped cause the monastery's ultimate demise.

Apparently by the middle of the 15th century, the monastery had truly declined to a very low level, and when Johann Michael Wansleben visited it on August 19, 1672, the complex was almost completely ruined, though its two churches (probably those of Michael and Gabriel) were still standing. Yet even then Wansleben provides us with evidence of activity at the monastery. Apparently, he was unable to enter the Church of Saint Michael, for the monks used it as storage, and he goes on to describe the Church of Saint Gabriel as being very beautiful, all painted within with pictures of stories of the holy scriptures, and having a nave supported by slender columns of several stone drums each.

Today

A part of the modern monastery

The Monastery of Archangel Gabriel (or Dair al-Malak Ghubriyal, Deir al-Malak Ghubriyal, Deir al-Naqlun), which is of fairly modest dimensions and occupies only a part of the original settlement, nevertheless is certainly one of the oldest Coptic Christian monasteries in the Fayoum region of Egypt, dating from perhaps as early as the 6th or 7th century. In fact, a few architectural elements within its oldest church (particularly the foundation, which probably dates from the second half of the 5th century) might predate this to even an earlier period. In various histories of the Fayoum Monasteries, it is referred to simply as the Monastery of Naqlun. It is easily seen from a distance, sitting upon an elevated limestone rock on the slope of Gebel al-Naqlun on the edge of the fertile plain some thirteen (to fifteen) kilometers south of Madinat al-Fayoum. The ancient monastery walls of the inner and outer courts are still discernible. Within, the remains of cells and their respective niches can be seen from the roof of the Church of Saint Gabriel.

Ancient doors within the monastery of the Archangel Gabriel

It would appear from the architectural evidence that the present day church dedicated to the Archangel was largely rebuilt and almost completely redecorated during the latter part of the 19th century, or the beginning of the 20th century, although most of the material used perhaps came from the two earlier churches at Naqlun. Dedicated to Saint Gabriel, it has three haikals, or sanctuaries, with the center most of these, which is semi circular and adorned with small decorative columns, dedicated to the Archangel. The other two honor the Holy Virgin Mary and Saint George. The church is divided east to west into four sections by wooden screens. These sections include the sanctuaries, the choir (khurus), which is roofed with a cupola, the section for the faithful and the narthex. Both the narthex and the choir appear to date from a later time, and occupy space which was formerly part of the nave. The nave of the church is separated from the side aisles by two ranks of three columns with precious Corinthian capitals which almost certainly date from an older church. On the south side of the nave is a laqqan.

Within the monastery area itself, archaeologists have identified the vestiges of a massive tower and a church that was probably constructed on its ruins in the 10th or 11th centuries.

In July, 1991, twelve skeletons were discovered about 150 meters southwest of the monastery. They showed signs of severe mutilation. Soon afterwards, the Coptic Church declared them martyrs and distributed the relics to many Coptic churches in Egypt and overseas.

When the Church of Saint Gabriel was being restored in 1997, several 11th century paintings portraying the Archangel Gabriel, Saint Mercurius and Saint George were discovered. Other recently revealed paintings include the Holy Virgin, Christ, Saint Bisada and Saint Simeon the Stylite. In addition, the central apse was adorned with a painting of the Holy Virgin and the Apostles, and some of this artwork could be assigned to an even earlier period than the 11th century.

Archaeologists also discovered, in the hills east of the monastery, some eighty-nine rock hewn hermitages consisting mostly of two rooms. Later discoveries may place the number of these hermitages as now being over one hundred. The monastery and the hermitages were almost certainly associated, and we may even see some similarities between this monastery and the region of Kellia near the Egyptian Delta.

Archaeologists also discovered more than one thousand manuscripts, some on parchment. Written in Greek, Coptic and Arabic, they attest to the great vitality of the monastery at least up until the 13th century. Today, the region has become one of the most famous archaeological sites in the Fayoum.

Yet, the church of Saint Gabriel today is a living church, and the monastery itself is being reborn once again. HG Bishop Abraam of Fayoum has built a living monastery around the old one. It is once again being occupied by Coptic monks, and during an annual mulid, large numbers of pilgrims, particularly from the Fayoum and Beni Suef, assemble at the monastery. There are small houses in the southwest part of the monastery as well as apartments inside the monastery south of the church and a small chalet west of the church which may be used for visiting pilgrims.

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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 28th, 2011

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