The Egyptian Christian Monasteries near Naqada

The Christian Monasteries Near Naqada

by Jimmy Dunn

The Monastery of Abbot Pisentius (Deir Anba Bisantawus)

It would seem that everywhere one travels in Egypt to visit the most ancient monuments, if they have a desire, they may also explore archaic Christian facilities. Naqada, not to far north of Luxor (ancient Thebes), was an important region during the pharaonic period, where a vast necropolis may be found. However, it is also of interest to students of Christian antiquities. Here, the desert was once inhabited by famous anchorites such as Elias of Mount Bishwaw and Samuel of Mount Banhadab.

During the thirteenth century, there were many churches and monasteries between Naqada and nearby Qamula, including the famous Churches of Saint Theodore, Saint Mercurius, Saint George and Saint Victor. Others included churches dedicated to Saint Shenute and Saint John, and there was also the monasteries of Saint Nub and Saint Theodore. Today, there is also a well known church of Saint Mercurius near Qamula, which claims the tomb of that early Christian, and where a festival, or mulid is held annually on August first. Other ruins go back to the very earliest Christian period, though the present buildings in the region date considerably later.

The current monasteries in the region that can be explored number at least seven, and are located on the edge of the desert a few kilometers from the road that runs parallel to the Nile along its west bank. Most of these monasteries are disserted, though sometimes their churches are used for liturgical celebrations on special occasions.

The Northern Monastery of Saint Michael

Ancient monuments in the area between Naqada and Qamula are, for the most part, bordered to the north and south by monasteries dedicated to Saint Michael. Called Deir Malak Mikha'il by the Coptic Christians, the northern most of these, located about four kilometers southwest of Naqada on a slight elevation, is surrounded by a large desert necropolis (cemetery). There are several gates that allow access to the monastery in the northern and southern walls. Within the monastery's eastern enclosure is a Church dedicated to Saint Michael, which is roofed with a number domes, typical of construction that dates from the eighteenth or nineteenth century. There is another church situated in the southern section of the enclosure, but regrettably it is completely ruined. Another new, small church with one sanctuary (haikal) is located about fifty meters north of the monastery.

The Monastery of the Cross and the Monastery of Deir Abu Lif

Most monasteries in Egypt are dedicated to a specific person who was usually an early Christian saint, but south of this Monastery of Saint Michael is a monastery that was dedicated to the Holy Cross. It is situated exactly on the edge of the desert in the small village of Hagar Danfig. Known to the Coptic Christians as Deir al-Salib, this monastery has two churches. Again, the most ancient of the churches, dedicated to the Holy Cross and located in the western part of the monastery, is in a state of ruin. The newer church, dedicated to Saint Shenute (Shenuda) and containing three sanctuaries, is to be found in the eastern part of the monastery. Both churches are roofed with cupolas and are of actually fairly recent construction, though they contain architectural elements from ancient edifices.

Nearby is another monastery, known as Deir Abu Lif. Abu Lif may refer to Saint Andrew, since it is also called the the Monastery of Andrew.

The Monastery of Saint George and the Monastery of Abbot Pisentius

The next monastery south, known as the Monastery of Saint George, or Deir Mari Girgis (also Deir al-Magma'), is the most extensive in this region. It is located just west of Qamula al-Bahri where it is situated about five hundred meters west of the edge of the desert on a slight rise.

This monastery is enclosed by a high enclosure with an entrance though a gate on the north wall. Within, three churches are all attached while a fourth stands along to the west in the debris of other ancient buildings. It too, is mostly ruined. The three churches that stand together are dedicated to Saint Michael (northern church), Saint George (central church) and Saint John (southern church). Though they all stand together, they were each built at different times and differ considerably in their construction.

The Monastery of Saint George

One enters the Church of Saint Michael through a hole in the north wall of the nave of the adjoining Church of Saint George. The main apse of this church, located furthermost to the north, was once adorned with beautiful painted depictions of Christ surrounded by angles, but is now ruined.

The basilican style church of Saint George is also ruined, though there are vestiges of the paintings that once adorned the walls of its sanctuary. It dates from the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. The iconostasis (screen) that separated the three sanctuaries from the nave was built using the columns of an earlier church. The southern most church of Saint John dates from a later period than the other two, and has been entirely rebuilt.

About two hundred meters from the monastery of St. George is that of Abbot Pisentius (Deir Anba Bisantawus), which has a church that dates from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It was roofed with twelve cupolas.

The Monastery of Saint Victor

The Monastery of Saint Victor

The next significant monastery, which is the oldest of the lot, is that of Saint Victor, located on a small hill about one kilometer northwest of the village of Qamula al-Awsat and five kilometers south of the Monastery of Saint George. It is known by the Copts as Deir Mari Buqtur. This monastery has an entrance gate in the east wall. In the southwestern corner of the monastery is the tomb of Basiliyus Ghali (1938). Here, the ancient mud-brick church has four sanctuaries, or haikals, dedicated to Saint Victor, Saint Michael, the Holy Virgin Mary and Saint Menas. Three of these sanctuaries were recently rebuilt, whereas the naos has kept the architecture of the ancient phase of construction. The north, east and south exterior walls go back to the original edifice from the eighth or ninth century, while the square central space is the result of an architectural remodeling in the twelfth century. It was at that time that the church received the cupolas which are so traditional to upper Egyptian churches of the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, the paintings that adorned these sanctuaries are mostly now lost. At least one monk occupies this monastery today. South of the monastery is the new Church of Saint Victor, with its entrance facing west.

Floor Plan of the triple sanctuary church at Saint Victor Monastery

Floor Plan of the triple sanctuary church at Saint Victor Monastery

The Southern Monastery of Saint Michael

The Monastery of Saint Michael

Finally, there is the southern most Monastery of Saint Michael, also known as Deir al-Malak Mikh'il. This church is also known as the Monastery of the Well, because of its well that produced extraordinarily fresh and wholesome water. Here, a keep is surrounded by enclosure walls. This monastery is entered through a gate in the east wall, and within there are two churches, both of which are mostly in ruins. In the southern church, one can discern three sanctuaries, but the vestiges of the northern church are such that considerable imagination is required in order to picture its original structure. In the southern church dedicated to the archangel, which is actually the older of the two, the triple sanctuary was preceded by a choir and a nave with six equal-sized domed chambers, or bays. It dates to the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. This monastery is said to have possessed the body of Saint Pisentius at one time, who was one of the founders of monasteries in Upper Egypt. Today, this monastery may be inhabited by religious women.

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