Egypt: Christian Ruins in the Western Oasis

Christian Ruins in the Western Oasis
by Jimmy Dunn
While Egypt's Eastern Desert is very famous for its several well known Monasteries, including that of Saint Anthony and Saint Paul, Egypt's Western Oasis served both as a remote haven for early Christians and Kharga specifically, as a place where Christian church leaders were sometimes banished when their views were considered to be unacceptable. Today we may find some of Egypt's earliest Christian monuments in the remote regions, and because of the dry climate, often in a decent state of preservation. The Christian Remains in the Kharga Oasis Christianity was probably introduced to the Kharga Oasis in the latter half of the 3rd Century or the beginning of the 4th century. There were a number of important, early Christian leaders who were banished to the Kharga Oasis, especially during the 4th and 5th centuries, for a period of years. Saint Athanasius was sent to the Oasis, but it was probably Nestorius who made the largest impact within the local Christian community. However, though tradition links the local Christians to Nestorius, it is likely that it was more of an isolated enclave of Christians that included both Orthodox and many forms of heteordox Christians. The Council of Ephesus in 431 denounced Nestorius. He had built upon the teachings of Theodore of Mopsuestia (350-428), from north of Antioch, who saw sin as a weakness instead of a disease or tainted will. Nestorius was accused of the heresy that portrayed Christ's death on the cross as only the suffering of his human half. Likewise, Nestorius saw Mary as the Mother of Jesus and not the the Mother of the "Son of God." He was first exiled to a monastery near Antioch, but that did not silence his teachings. One tradition reported by Moffett was that he was a gifted orator with a "beautiful voice and fluent phrases." He was then banished to Petra (in Jordan) and finally to the Kharga Oasis (in Egypt). Each move took him to deeper isolation. The Necropolis of al-Bagawat Probably the most significant Christian remains in any of the Western Oasis are those of the Necropolis of al-Bagawat in the Kharga Oasis, yet these ruins actually predate Christianity and consist of both pagan and Christian temples, chapels and burials. They date from between the 2nd and 6th centuries. The ruins are situated on the slopes of Gabal al-Tayr, about one and a half kilometers from the only known Persian Temple in Egypt, Hibis. The necropolis covers an area of about five hundred meters in length and two hundred meters wide. The main entrance to al-Bagawat is at the south side. There are some 263 chapels or shrines located in the necropolis that have were built in eight distinguishable groups. The Main Church In the center of the Necropolis on the northern edge is a church dating back to the 5th century AD. It is regarded as one of the oldest churches in Egypt, and commands a grand view of the necropolis. It is the largest of the structures to be found here. The Chapel of the Exodus Situated behind the group of chapels located on the central ridge in the northern part of the necropolis is the Chapel of the Exodus. It may be considered one of the oldest Christian chapels in the necropolis, with paintings attributable to the first half of the fourth century. Yet, there is very little Christian to be found here, as most of the interior is painted with scenes from the Old Testament. It takes its name from the paintings of Moses leading the Israelites from Egypt, Moses in the Sinai, the Egyptian King and his army, Noah's Ark, Adam and Eve, Daniel in the lion's den, Sadrach, Mishach, and Abednego in the furnace; the sacrifices of Abraham, Jonah in the whale, Jonah out of the whale, Rebeca at the well, Job in a chair, Job suffering, Susanna and Jeremian at the temple, Sara in prayer, a shepherd, the martyrdom of Saint Thekla, seven virgins, and the Garden of Eden. Only a few scenes touch upon Christian topics. The Chapel of Peace On the western slope of the necropolis, near its entrance, is found the Chapel of Peace. It stands alone, and is often simply referred to as the Byzantine Tomb. Its walls are covered in Arabic, Coptic and Greek graffiti, while the formal decorations are of a pure, Byzantine style. Identified in Greek are the names: Adam, Eve, Abraham, Issac, Eirene, Daniel, Dikaiosyne, Euche, Jacob, Noah, the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, and Paul instructing Saint Thekla. The decorative theme is very similar to those found in Rome at the catacombs and in many early churches throughout Egypt and elsewhere. They may probably be attributed to the 5th and 6th centuries. One typical Egyptian scene within this chapel is a portrayal of Saints Paul and Thecla, who seem to have been very popular saints within this oasis. Also within the necropolis are about five other chapels that still have the remains of good paintings, including themes such as Saints Paul and Thecla, the Sacrifice of Abraham and the Phoenix. The Church in the Temple of Hibis Near the Necropoliis of al-Bagawat is perhaps the best known monument in the Kharga Oasis, the Temple of Hibis. Built by Darius I (about 521 BC) and added to by Darius II, it was later restored by Nectanebo (378-60 BC, and represents the only Persian temple we know of in Egypt. However, soon after it was abandoned by the pagan priests, a Christian church was erected against the structure's north side. of the portico. This probably took place in the first part of the 4th century. Unfortunately, its destruction probably was at the hands of the Blemmyes who invaded Egypt and sacked the temple in about 450 AD. At that time the Blemmyes carried off a large number of prisoners, including Nestorius himself. Within the temple itself, there are only two inscriptions that specifically refer to this ancient church. The Monastery of Mustafa Kashif About two kilometers west of the Necropolis of al-Bagawat is situated the Monastery of Mustafa Kashif. Here, a church was built, evidenced by the remains of an apse that are still visible. One may also still see the ruins of several cells constructed around the tomb of a hermit or local saint. Within the cells are inscriptions that date from the 5th or 6th century, but probably only names. The main building had three floors. Other Remains at Kharga Two other sites in the Kharga Oasis also have evidence of Christian occupation. The walls of Deir Ghanaym (Temple of al-Ghuwaytah) are covered with many Christian texts, and at Gabal al-Tayr, on the summit of one of the hills, Coptic texts evidences the occupation of a few Christian hermits. In addition, while we have little information on these locations, several other monasteries in the area are also evident. These include the Al-Monera Monastery and the Shams al-Dean Monastery. The Christian Remains in the Dakhla Oasis Known as the Inner Oasis, Dakhla is located about 120 kilometers west of the Kharga Oasis. At one time it was part of the Oasis Magna of the Romans. Little in the way of Christian ruins are to be found in the area, though there does remain a scant few. Deir al-Hagar North of Mut, the capital of this Oasis, are the ruins of the Temple of Deir al-Hagar. This ancient, pre-Christian temple is enclosed by a crude brick wall, and within the walls, between the entrance and the temple court, evidence of a Christian church may be seen. These remains or of a basilica with three naves. Six socles in the central nave are still discernable. Also, between the town of Mut and the Temple of Deir al-Hagar are some remains located at Deir Aba 'Uthman. This was possibly once a church, for in the eastern part of the ruins there appears to be the remains of an apse. The Christian Remains in the Bahariya Oasis The Christian community at the Bahariya Oasis was apparently established somewhat later than that at Kharga, at least considering the current evidence that is available to us. Yet it does contain at least one very important church, the remains of which are not so very badly preserved. The Church of Saint George at al-Haiz Al-Haiz was always an important station, especially on the caravan route between the Bahariya and Farafra Oasis. Its importance is evidenced by not only the existence of a Roman fortress, but also the palace of a local Roman governor. Here, we also find the ruins of the Church of Saint George in the southeast section of the area. We find references to this church as the place where the relics of Saint George, with the exception of his head, were kept. At one point his body appears to have been stolen from the church, but was later returned. The church was built in a classical Basilican style, not unlike the better known and one of the oldest churches in the Nile Valley, the Bssilica of Dandara. It had two entrances with the southern entrance leading into the church proper, while one at the northwest corner gave into the baptistery. The Monastery at al-Ris About five hundred meters south of the ruins of the Church of Saint George at al-Haiz are the ruins of a small monastery at the springs of al-Ris. Only two sections of mud brick walls remain, but it is clear that were they extended, a large building would have occupied this site. However, little else is known of this structure. The Temple of Alexander ('Ain al-Tibaniya) When, in 1997, the Temple of Alexander (Qasr al-Magisba) was being excavated, the foundations of a small church with three altars was discovered. It dates to the 8th century, which was the earliest community of Christians we know of in this Oasis. Coptic Ruins of Qasr Muharib About ten and a half kilometers east of Bawiti (4 1/2 kilometers east of Mandisha) are found the ruins of Aasr Muharib. They consist of the ruins of a church, and to the west, the remains of several aqueducts. Archives
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