The Monastery of the Holy Virgin Mary (Muharraq Monastery)
by Jimmy Dunn
The Monastery of the Holy Virgin Mary, also known as the Muharraq Monastery, or simply the Burnt Monastery, lies on the path of the flight of the Holy Family in Egypt. It is located about 60 km from Assiut (327 km south of Cairo). The Monastery is referred to as "Al Muharraq" because "muharraq" is an Arabic word which means "burn or wound inflicted by fire" and the Monastery was partially burned by foreign invaders in the middle centuries. The monastery is unusual in that it is not located in the deser.
Traditionally, the account has the Holy Family traveled from Maadi to Upper Egypt by boat until they reached the village of Qusquam (al Qusia). According to the official Egyptian version of the story, the Holy Family stayed six months at Qusquam, where they lived in a cave. The Muharraq Monastery is said to be built on the very site where the Holy Family settled. It was here that the Angle of the Lord is believed to have appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel; for they are dead which sought the young child's life". (Matthew 2:20 & 21).
The site is considered very holy to Egyptian Copts who have nicknamed the location the "Second Bethlehem". A 13th century historian wrote that multitudes of pilgrims from every district have made the journey to the monastery's churches during ancient times, and that the location was well known for signs and wonders and the healing of many diseases. Al-Marqizi (15th century) list the monastery as the forty-second monastery in his list of Coptic facilities, and tells us of the great feast known as the Palm Feast and Pentecost which attracts large crowds of people.
The monastery is usually very peaceful, even though it is one of the largest and most wealthy Coptic monasteries in Egypt. The walls of the compound enclose an area of 30 feddans, containing five churches and about 100 monks, as well as a large library. This is a fine example of a fortified monastery, like many that were located in the desert.
Between June 18th and the 28th each year, thousands of pilgrims continue to attend feasts to celebrate the consecration of the Church of al-Adra (Church of the Virgin) which is said to have been built over the cave where the Holy Family stayed. Many Coptic Christians believe this to be one of the oldest churches in Egypt originally built in the first century AD. The alterstone, dated 747 AD, is said to be located on the very spot where the baby Jesus rested and is claimed to be the oldest in the world. The ten day celebration, called a Moulid, while considered very serious, is nevertheless a joyful occasion with considerable celebration. There is considerable dancing and music all about.
The Main Churches
The Church of the Holy Virgin Mary (al-Adra), which lies next to the square tower, is the oldest church in the monastery and is believed to date to the 1st century AD. It was St. Pachomious who built the original monastery around the church, which predates the monastery by three centuries. The ancient alter lies in the sanctuary of this church.
The church is not the original, but is ancient and is suppose to be very nearly the same as that of the original. Pope Theophilus, who was the 23rd Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria wrote that he had noticed that the church was small, and very simple. Because of the holiness of the site, he wished to build a great cathedral to replace the small church. He voiced this wish in his prayers, but in a vision the Holy Virgin is said to have visited him and explained that it was the will of her son that the church should be kept as it is, as a symbol of Christ's humility. She also told him that before Christ's Ascension, the Lord, the Virgin Mary and the Disciples came together upon a cloud to the small church to bless and dedicate it, and that the first liturgy was held in the church.
The Nave (inside) of the church is, according to Coptic tradition, divided into three main sections. The first section is for the believers, the second for the penitents and the third for the catechumens (people who are not baptized in the faith). Behind the Church of the Holy Virgin is the Church of St. George (Mari Girgis) which was build in 1880. Inside are a number of religious paintings including that of the twelve apostles. The Church of the Archangel Michael was renovated at the time of Patriarch Gabriel, the 95th Patriarch of Alexandria (1525-1568 AD). This church is built on the upper level of the keep. The keep was a tower which protected the monks when they were being invaded by barbarians or other foreign invaders.
The Church of St. George was built in the 19th century in place of an older one that dated from the 18th century. The most notable characteristic is of this church is itse two high steeples. Another of its characteristic is the Byzantine/Greek styled Iconostases. The Library The library of the monastery is divided into two main sections. The first section contains thousands of modern books and reference material dating from the 19th and 20th centuries. They cover religion, science and other subjects written in various languages including Coptic, Greek, Arabic, English and Amharic. The second section of the library contains hand-written manuscripts in Coptic and Arabic. Scientifically indexed, these priceless manuscripts date back as early as the 13th century.