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The Monastery of Saint Matthew the Potter


The Monastery of Saint Matthew the Potter

by Jimmy Dunn


Saint Matthew the Potter, sometimes also known as Saint Matthew the Poor, an early Egyptian Christian, was originally from Bishnai, and apparently received his early training as a monk in the Church of the Holy Virgin of al-Maqbabat. From there he went to Esna (Isna) in Middle Egypt, and later on to Asfun, where he is said to have founded the monastic community we know today as the Monastery of Saint Matthew the Potter (Deir al-Fakhuri) at Naq 'al-Zinaiqa.

A View of the Overall Monastery and the tower at the Monastery of Saint Matthew the Potter

In the "History of the Patriarchs", we are told that Matthew the Priest was also a fisherman, but he was obviously also a potter. The "History of the Patriarchs" goes on to say that he built his monastery during the time of the patriarch Alexander II (704 - 729 AD), and that many monks were with him. We are also told by Abu Salih, the Armenian, that he was the Bishop of Esna.

The monastery is located about seven kilometers northwest of the the village of Asfun al-Matana. Near modern Esna, one may reach this monastery, which was newly reoccupied by monks in 1975, by leaving the road that follows the west bank of the Nile at Asfun.It sites on the edge of the desert.

Al-Maqrizi, the fifteenth century writer who documented Christian churches and monasteries in Egypt, tells us that: "At Asfun, there was a large monastery, and Asfun was one of the finest towns in Egypt, and the monks of the monastery there were famous for their learning and intelligence. With Asfun, its monastery was also destroyed, and this was the most remote of the Monasteries in Upper Egypt."

Al-Maqrizi, the fifteenth century writer who documented Christian churches and monasteries in Egypt, tells us that:

"At Asfun, there was a large monastery, and Asfun was one of the finest towns in Egypt, and the monks of the monastery there were famous for their learning and intelligence. With Asfun, its monastery was also destroyed, and this was the most remote of the Monasteries in Upper Egypt."


The Ground Plan of the Monastery

The destruction of the monastery probably occurred in the tenth century, when it was raided by Bedouins, but it was subsequently rebuilt, only to be deserted for many years. Recently, it has been re-inhabited by a small number of minks. In 1939, when Lefort visited the monastery, he considered it to be one of the finest testimonies of ancient monastic life in the Nile Valley.

The heritage of monks within the monastery may have evolved, at least partially, from the hermitages that French archaeologists have unearthed between this monastery and Deir al-Shuhada (The Monastery of the Martyrs). They date from the fifth and sixth centuries, and may have been abandoned in the course of the seventh century.

This monastery has striking, massive tower that extends well above its enclosure walls. It is of three stories and, like other monasteries, is accessible through a drawbridge that was lifted when the monks had to take refuge in it from desert plunderers. The top most floor of the tower contains a chapel dedicated the the archangel Michael, who was the traditional defender of Coptic monasteries.

Interior of the church at the Monastery

The principal church of the monastery has a triple sanctuary, and in the center of the building is a square naos roofed with a cupola and surrounded on its each of its four sides by an ambulatory. The eastern ambulatory was used as a khurus (choir). The three sanctuaries were, from north to south, dedicated to St. Michael, St. Matthew, the founder of the monastery, and the Holy Virgin. The central square and the khurus are the oldest parts of the church, both probably dating to the eighth century, though restored at the end of the twelfth century.

The wall paintings that adorn the sanctuaries and the central area of the naos, though unfortunately in very bad condition, and even fragmentary due to vandalism over the last forty years, nevertheless are beautiful. They mostly date from the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries. There are inscriptions here that attribute the paintings to several artists. The themes of the paintings include Christ and the apostles, St. Psote (Bisada in Arabic) and St. John the Baptists, together with various angles, archangels and prophets. The tomb of St. Matthew is in a small space on the north side of the church, where tradition holds that he was buried in a clay casket.

In the southern wing of the monastery are located cells for the monks and the refectory. the cells are divided between either side of a long vaulted corridor in a two story building. Originally, each cell accommodated several monks. The vaulted corridor gives access to the refectory, which is a vast, square room with four pillars that support a roof of nine cupolas over nine bays. The kitchens are on the west side of the refectory.

It should also be noted that in front of this monastery are several Christian tombs that are interesting because of their picturesque cupolas and crosses. These tombs are believed to date from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.


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 Countires, 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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