Dair al-Adhra, The Church of the Holy Virgin at Gabal al-Tayr near Minya

Dair al-Adhra, The Church of the Holy Virgin
at Gabal al-Tayr near Minya

by Jimmy Dunn

The Church of the Virgin Mary atop its cliff

Considered one of the most beautiful in Egypt, the Church of the Holy Virgin at Gabal al-Tayr (Gebel al-Tair, Dair al-Adhra, Deir al-Adra, Gebal al-Kaff) is also sometimes known as the Monastery (or Convent) of the Pulley (Deir al-Baqara), because originally one entered the monastery from the base of the cliff up a crevice in the rock by means of a pulley.

This Christian church stands on the east bank of the Nile some forty kilometers north of the Minya Bridge in Middle Egypt and just east of the city of Samalut. One may cross the Nile from Bayahu to Gabal al-Tayr by felucca boat, though there is no regular service and it may take up top two hours for the crossing depending on the wind. After reaching the east bank of the Nile one must climb 166 steps up a cliff to reach the church. The building sit among the dwellings of Gabal al-Tayr, on top of a rock from which one has a wonderful view of the Nile Valley with its carefully cultivated fields and lush palm tree groves.

Steps leading up to the Church of the Virgin Mary

There are several names associated with this place. Gabal al-Tayr can be translated as the "mountain of the birds", so named because of the thousands of birds that live and nest in the cliffs. It is also called Gabal al-Kaff, meaning the "mountain of the hand". Tradition holds that this was one of the locations that the Holy Family visited in their wanderings in Egypt. It is said that, while passing by this place in a small boat headed up river, the Holy Virgin noticed an enormous rock coming loose from the mountain which was about to fall on the boat and its occupants. By extending his hand, the child Jesus promptly intervened and stopped the rock from falling on the boat. The shape of the hand remained miraculously imprinted on the rock. Abu al-Makarim, a well known early historian of Christian monasteries and churches in Egypt visited the site and tells us that:

"This church is hewn out of the mountain-side, and in the rock is the mark of the palm of the hand of the Lord Christ, to whom be glory! which was made when he touched the mountain, when it bowed in adoration before him, after he had gone down thither from Syria. He grasped the mountain, when it worshipped before him, and restored it to its place with his hand; so that the mark of his palm remains impressed upon that mountain to the present day."

The Church of the Virgin Mary

Regrettably, in 1168 while campaigning in Egypt, Amaury, the sovereign of Jerusalem, removed the part of the rock bearing this imprint and took it with him to Syria.

It is said that the Church of the Holy Virgin was built by the empress Helena (mother of the Emperor Constantine) in memory of the passage of the Holy Family. A memorial tablet on the west wall indicates that the first structure was completed in the year 328 AD and repaired by Severus, the bishop of Minya, in 1938. In reality, the original edifice was probably a tomb dating from the late Roman period which was transformed into a church during the 7th century. Indeed, its shape is comparable to that of the funerary monuments of Roman Egypt.

Dair al-Adhra was inhabited by monks until the middle of the 19th century, a fact that is substantiated by various visitors, including Wansleben (1672), F. L. Norden (1740), Richardson (1816), Henniker (1819), and Lord Cursor (1838).

Ground plan of the church

At first glance, the church looks not unlike a modern, massive brick construct with a steeple in the northeast corner. However, it is carved entirely from the rock. The renovation and restoration work carried out in 1938 included the removal of the original stone roof in order to make the church taller so that a second level could be added. Extra rooms were added on the south and west sides. Traditionally, this church is where the local Coptic Christians have their children baptized, and to fill this need, a very large building has recently been built next to the church which contains seven baptismal fonts.

The church itself has a naos, which consists of a nave with two side aisles and a western return aisle, and three sanctuaries. Ten columns hewn from the rock separate the small side aisles and western return aisle. On the south side of the church, the baptismal font has been carved in a column. The area in front of the middle sanctuary, which is raised about one meter above the nave, serves as a Choir (Khurus). The choir is approached by a double flight of steps. Two columns with exquisite Corinthian capitals delineate this space, which prolongs the nave. The central sanctuary is located behind an iconostasis (screen), and is also hew from the rock. It is decorated with small pilasters and niches that are characteristic of ancient Upper Egyptian churches. The small room to the south of the sanctuary was probably the ancient narthex (entrance area), and is thought to be the oldest part of the church.

Inside view of the church

Above and below: Inside view of the church

Inside view of the church

Above the west entrance friezes from ancient Christian edifices in the area present motifs drawn from the vegetal and animal realms. One, which shows seven human figures, is especially interesting. Each of the these are depicted within a niche, and holding a book in the left hand. These human figures probably represent seven apostles, and were once a part of a larger composition, the rest of which is now lost.

The friezes in the west entrance

The friezes in the west entrance

The Church of the Holy Virgin is the goal of a pilgrimage which attracts annually tens of thousands of pilgrims who come by feluccas, trains, busses and other transport from all over Egypt for the Feast (Moulid) of the Assumption of the Holy Virgin, which is celebrated on August 22nd.

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Reference Number

2000 Years of Coptic Christianity

Meinardus, Otto F. A.


American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 5113

Christian Egypt: Coptic Art and Monuments Through Two Millennia

Capuani, Massimo


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.


Gorgias Press

ISBN 0-9715986-7-3

Last Updated: June 14th, 2011