Egypt: The Monastery of the Syrins in Wadi Natrun

The Monastery of the Syrins in Wadi Natrun

by Jimmy Dunn

This monastery, one of the four well known of its kind in Wadi al-Natrun, was probably founded in the sixth century, though some might date it later. It is located about five hundred meters northwest of the Monastery of Saint Bishoi. It's establishment is closely connected with Julian's heretical doctrine which spread throughout Egypt under the patriarchate of Timothy III (517-535). The Julianist (Gaianists, after Archdeacon Gaianus, a supporter of Julianist theology who was a bishop in Alexandria c.

A closer view of the Monastery of the Syrians from outside the walls

550 was an even more extreme approach to Julianist) heresy, which owes its name to its principal exponent Julian, a theologian and bishop of Halicarnassus (Halicarnarsus) in Ionia, is also called Aphtartodocetism (Aphthartcdocetae or Phantasiastae). Julian was exiled to Egypt for having defined the doctrine of the incorruptibility of Christ's body. Julianist basically believe in an extreme view that the body of the Lord Jesus Christ was incapable of corruption. They held that Christ's body was so inseparably united with the Holy Father that its natural attributes made it sinless and incorruptible. To the Orthodox Church, however, Christ had taken human flesh that prevented him from being ideal and abstract and therefore corruptible. Thus, the Orthodox Church reaffirmed and clarified the idea of the real human nature of Christ. Yet, in the monasteries at Wadi al-Naturn (Scetis), the monks embraced the doctrine of Julian.

A senior monk at the Monastery of the Syrians

A majority of the monks became followers of Aphtartodocetism, while those who refused the doctrine obtained permission from the governor Aristomachus to erect new churches and monasteries so that they could settle apart from the Julianists. These new facilities were often built along side the old ones, even keeping the same name but adding to it Theotokos (Mother of God, or God-bearer). In this way, they recognized the significance of the incarnation, which Aphtartodocetism seemed to minimize, and thus reaffirmed the charismatic dignity of the Holy Virgin.

The Monasteries of St. Pshoi and the Syrians as illustrated in Description de l'Egypte (1809)

The Monasteries of St. Pshoi and the Syrians as illustrated in Description de l'Egypte (1809)

Entrance to the Monastery of the Syrians

The Monastery of the Syrians was thus established by those of the St. Bishoi (Pishoi) monastery who were opposed to Julianist doctrines. Hence, it was originally the Monastery of the Holy Virgin Theotokos, but by the beginning of the eighth century, the problems between the Orthodox Christians and the Julianists died out and there was no longer any necessity to maintain two distinct monasteries. Therefore, it was sold to a group of wealthy Syrian merchants originally from Tekrit in Mesopotamia for the sum of 12,000 dinars. They had settled in al-Fustat in Old Cairo, and a certain Marutha from Takrit in eastern Syria converted it for use by Syrian monks who renamed it the Monastery of the Holy Virgin of the Syrians. However, some manuscripts refer to it as the Monastery of the Mother of God of the Syrians at that point. There had actually been Syrian monks at Wadi al-Natrun since the end of the fourth century, living amongst the other monks. Perhaps, the Syrians wished to live in a monastic community that would be ethnically and culturally homogeneous.

Overall Plan of the Monastery

Overall Plan of the Monastery

All of the Monasteries in the Wadi al-Natrun were subjected to horrible attacks by desert tribes, and the fifth of these by Berbers in 817 AD was particularly disastrous to this monastery. Afterwards in 850, it was rebuilt thanks primarily to the persistent labor of two monks, Matthew and Abraham. After having traveled to Baghdad to ask the caliph al-Muqtadir bi'llah to grant tax exemption to the monasteries, in 927 AD, a learned and cultured hegumen (hegomenos, a title given to priests and monks to emphasize their leading roles) named Moses of Nisibis (c. 907-943 AD) traveled to Syria and Mesopotamia in search of manuscripts. After having spent three years gathering material, he returned to Egypt, bringing with him 250 Syrian manuscripts. Soon, the monastery became an a prosperous and important facility, possessing many artistic treasures and a library rich in Syrian texts, making it a fundamental source of history and culture of Syria.

A manuscript from the Monastery of the Syrians  (Deir al-Surian)

We know, from a census taken by Mawhub ibn Mansur, the co-author of the History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church, that the monastery was populated by some sixty monks at the end of the eleventh century (1088). At that time it was the third largest in the wadi, after those of St. Macarius and St. John the Little. We are told that sometime in the middle of the twelfth century, it must have witnessed a period of trouble for a period of ten years when "no Syrian priests was present there". In the fourteenth century, as with other monasteries here, it was once again decimated, but this time by the scourge of the plague. Thus, when a monk named Moses from the monastery of Mar Gabriel in Tur Abdin called on this monastery in 1413, he found just one remaining Syrian monk. This time, it was the Patriarch of Antioch, Ignatius XI, who visited the monastery at the end of the fifteenth century and granted to it privileges and donations in order to restore it to its former glory. However, by now, Egyptians were once again beginning to inhabit the monastery and by 1516, only eighteen of the forty-three monks were Syrian. The trend of Egyptian replacing the Syrians continued as the prosperity of the monastery increased.

An ancient doorway within the monastery of the Syrians

By the time of the patriarchate of Gabriel VII (1526-1569), who himself had been a monk at the Monastery of the Syrians, it was able to supply ten monks to the Monastery of St. Paul and twenty to that of St. Anthony in the Eastern Desert when those two communities were damaged by Bedouin raids. In the seventeenth century, western travelers from France, Germany and England visited the monastery and reported that there were two churches, one for the Syrians and the other for the Coptic Christian monks. They also mention a miraculous "St. Ephrem's tree". Interestingly, according to tradition, Ephrem was a fourth century Syrian theologian and ascetic from Nisibis. He sought to meet the holy monk Pshoi, and thus came to the monastic centers of the wadi.

Apostles (detail), aquarelle copy from the Monastery of the Syrians

We are told that he visited Pshoi's hermitage that was located on the future site of the monastery of the Syrians. However, when the two men met, they were unable to communicate because Ephrem spoke only Syrian. Yet, suddenly and miraculously, Pshoi began to express himself in that language, enabling his visitor to understand him. During this exchange, it is said that Ephrem leaned his staff against the door of the hermitage and all at once it became rooted and even sprouted foliage. Near the church of the Holy Virgin, monks will continue to point out even today this tamarind, miraculously born from Ephrem's staff.

A shrine within the Monastery of the Syrians

By the middle of the seventeenth century, there is no evidence that Syrian monks still inhabited the monastery, as evidenced by the visit of Peter Heyling, the Lutheran missionary of Lubeck in 1634. This fact may have surprised the Levanese Joseph Simeonis (Yusuf'Sim'an) Assemani, who was sent to Egypt by Pope Clement XI to seek ancient texts in 1715 and 1735. When he visited the Monastery of the Syrians, he found not a single Syrian monk. Nevertheless, he did manage to visit the monastery library and acquire forty precious manuscripts that today are kept in the Vatican Library. Later, between 1839 and 1851, the British Museum in London was also able to procure about five hundred Syrian manuscripts from the monastery library, concerned not only with religious topics, but also with philosophy and literature. Actually, in 1730, Granger was refused entry to the library and Browne found it impossible to obtain any manuscripts in 1792. However, in 1799 Andreossy removed some manuscripts and Lord Curzon actually purchased a considerable quantity in 1837. Tattam secured many manuscripts for the British Museum in 1839, while Tischendorf obtained only a few parchment sheets in 1844. The British Museum secured over two hundred items from Pacho in 1847, though in 1852, Brugsch was unable to purchase any. Other visitors to the monastery included Lansing (1862), Chester (1873), Junkers (1875), Jullien (1881) and Butler (1883).

The Ascension from the Monastery of the Syrians, Virgins and Apostels, aquarelle copy

Afterwards, these very manuscripts inspired intense research on the Syriac language and culture, for until that time, many classical texts from Aristotle, Euclid, Archimedes, Hippocrates and Galen were known to Western scholars only in their thirteenth century Latin translations. Even these were often translations from earlier Arabic sources. Even though many of the manuscripts from the Monastery of the Syrians have reached us in a fragmented state, these documents are the oldest copies of important Greek classical texts, with some dating back to the fifth century. Only two Coptic patriarchs came from the Monastery of the Syrians. They were Gabriel VII the modern Pope, Shenouda III. Both patriarchs shared a common interest in restoring and repopulating abandoned monasteries. The monastery of the Syrians provides a great opportunity to study the development of Coptic wall painting. Between 1991 and 1999, several segments of wall paintings layered on top of each other were uncovered in the Church of the Holy Virgin and the Chapel of he Forty-nine Martyrs, dating from between the seventh and the thirteenth centuries. Undoubtedly, the ongoing project to uncover, restore and conserve wall paintings within this monastery will increase our knowledge about Christian Art in Egypt.

The Monastery Buildings

The Enclosure Walls The walls of the monastery enclose a rather unusual plan in relationship to others in the Wadi al-Naturn. They form an almost rectangular quadrilateral with the short sides measuring 36 meters at one end and 54 meters at the other. The two longer sides measure some 160 meters. The height of the walls varies between nine and a half and eleven and a half meters. Traditionally, the monks explain this abnormal plan in an unlikely way. According to them, the monastery was built on a model of Noah's ark. These walls most likely date to the end of the ninth century. The entrance to the monastery is located at the west end of the northern side of this enclosure wall. The Keep (Tower) The mammoth keep (qasr) is situated west of the north entrance to the monastery.

The Keep, or Tower within the Monastery

We believe it was built in the middle of the ninth century, but at any rate it was built after the enclosure walls. It belongs to a less well developed type of tower, of which the oldest examples may be found at Kellia. It consists of four stories, with access granted by a wooden drawbridge to the second floor. This is a somewhat typical configuration, where the bottom floor was used for storage of food supplied as well as the production of flour, oil and wine in order to assure supplies during a siege. In order to further insure the complete autonomy during times of trouble, there was also a water well. The second floor was, for centuries, used to house the precious library of manuscripts that were gradually surrendered, mostly to experts from the West, who sought out these volumes to enrich the collections of the Vatican Library and the British Museum. Some of the niches that once held the manuscripts are still visible. The third story, consisting of a corridor with four vaulted rooms to one side and two on the other, probably provided housing to the monks during time of danger. Like very many of the Egyptian monasteries, the fourth floor of the keep was reserved as a chapel dedicated to the Archangel Michael. Here, one finds a nave and a choir separated by the traditional wooden screen. The sanctuary is surmounted by a brick cupola supported by four pendentives that are adorned with stalactite motifs that might date back as early as the fifteenth century.

Plan of the Church of the Holy Virgin

The chapel has a barrel vaulted roof. The Church of the Holy Virgin (el-Adra) The Church of the Holy Virgin within this monastery is very ancient, dating to probably 645 AD (though some references date it as about 950 AD) and was constructed in the basilican style originally with a wooden roof. Were it not for the court and a side chapel that is dedicated to the forty-nine martyrs of Sebaste, its plan would be almost perfectly rectangular, measuring twenty-eight meters long by twelve meters wide. This church has an entrance on its north side through a court which is square and surmounted by a cupola. It opens into the monastery courtyard. The principal building of this church is clearly divided between the nave, the khurus (choir) and the triple sanctuary. The nave is completely roofed with a barrel vault and flanked by two small side aisles, which join on the west, an arrangement that is typical in Egypt. There is a masonry balustrade somewhat over one meter in height that divides the nave into two sections. There is, almost in the middle of the nave's floor, a laggan, a marble basin that was used for washing feet on Maundy Thursday (and on the feast of St. Peter and Paul).

The Three Patriarchs

Recent restorations have also revealed a composition on the southern wall of the nave. This is a tableau depicting three patriarchs, including Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Here, they are enthroned in paradise with the souls of the blessed on their laps. Their facial features and hair are schematically treated. They where brown tunics and pallia (a cloak, plural of pallium). The one in the center wears a white pallium. Small, naked figures held on the laps of the patriarchs represent the souls. This scene gives expression to the prayers found on Coptic gravestones from the eighth and ninth centuries, which read, "May God repose his soul [that the dead individual] in the bosom of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This scene, which is also the subject of a daily evening prayer for the dead of the Coptic Church, is the oldest of its kind in Egypt, and can probably be attributed to the eleventh century.

The Annunciation, enrished by the presence of Moses, Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel

Prior to the restoration, a painting that has been preserved from the western half cupola depicted the Ascension of Christ. It dated to about 1225 AD. In the lower register we find the Virgin orans (with hands extended in prayer) flanked by the twelve apostles, who are depicted conversing with one another or looking upwards towards Christ in the mandorla held by two angels in the upper register. Within this upper register, Christ is enthroned and holds a book in his left hand while raising his right in blessing. To his right is the moon and to his left, the sun. All of the elements of this scene are labeled in Syriac, while the names of Christ, the sun and the moon are repeated in Coptic.

After the removal of this scene, another beautiful wall painting dating back to the time of the church's construction or a period immediately following was discovered, though this is a matter of scholarly controversy. It has been suggested by art historians that it dates either to the early eighth century, shortly after 900 AD, the time of Moses Nisibis during the first half of the tenth century, the late twelfth century, the 1170s or early 1180s and the beginning of the thirteenth century. The lettering of the inscriptions in Coptic and Greek can be dated to the ninth and tenth centuries. It is very likely that they date to the period of Moses Nisibis. There is no doubt that this painting of the is unique in Egypt. It's style differs completely from medieval Coptic painting. It depicts the annunciation in the traditional way with the Holy Virgin and the archangel Gabriel. Here, the angle Gabriel, who is the bringer of glad tidings, approaches the Holy Virgin from the left. He holds his cross-staff, and looks at the Virgin with his message written in Greek, which reads, "Hail, you full of grace! The Lord is with you!". The enthroned Virgin is turned slightly towards Gabriel, with her left hand supporting her chin and her right hand outwards.

The Annunciation, enrished by the presence of Moses, Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel

In the middle of this scene is a censer with blue flame placed on a column. This imagery of incense is exceptional in medieval Coptic wall painting. This painting is enhanced by the presence of four prophets, including Moses and Isaiah on the left and Ezekiel and Daniel on the right. Moses and Ezekiel wear red tunics and bluish pallia. Isaiah's tunic is beige and his pallium is red, while Daniel on the extreme right wears Phrygian costume with a short tunic and peaked cap. There names are written in Greek. These are the prophets who foretold of the incarnation, and they carry the text of their prophecies, written in Boharic Coptic on an opened scroll. The text of Moses reads, "I saw the bush while the fire was blazing in it, without being consumed." This text was adapted from Exodus 3:2, referring to the common title of the Virgin Theotokos as "the Burning Bush" in Orthodox hymns. The text of Isaiah is the better known prophecy, "Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel" (Isaiah 7:14). The prophecy of Ezekiel reads, "Then said the Lord unto me: this gate shall be shut and no man shall enter in by it save the Lord, the God of Israel" (cf. Ezekiel 44:2). The last text is a variant of Daniel 2:34, and reads, "I saw a stone cut out from the mountain without being touched by hands." In the background one sees Nazareth, represented as a walled town with gates, a church, tower, other buildings and gardens. By juxtaposing the ancient prophecies and their fulfillment, the artist has expressed the fulfillment of the divine plan through the intimate union of the Old and New Testaments.

On the west end of the south aisle is a door that, according to tradition, leads to a cell where St. Bishoi lived. He should be distinguished from the famous St. Pshoi, who lived in the fourth century, long before the establishment of this church. The shape and position of this room corresponds roughly with the narthex of Coptic churches, though on the east wall stands an altar. There is also a hook screwed into the ceiling that we are told was used by the saint to attach his hair in order to avoid falling asleep during his many hours of prayer.

The Annunciation scene in the choir

The staircase leading to the roof lies to the south of this room. There is a grand, wooden portal that separates the center nave from the khurus, upon which a Syrian inscription marks that date, 926. The portal has ebony panels that are richly inlaid with ivory. The upper section of the portal is adorned with the figures of St. Peter, the Holy Virgin, Christ and St. Mark. The choir itself is transverse in relationship to the nave, and is the oldest of its kind in Egypt. It is typically Syrian and somewhat similar to that in the Holy Virgin of Hah in Tur Abdin. The middle part of the choir is caped by a cupola some twelve meters high. It is flanked on the north and south by two half-cupolas that are embellished with fine wall paintings that date to the thirteenth century (c. 1225). The style of these paintings is linear and incisive. The colors are pure and warm and the inscriptions are in both Syrian and Greek lettering.

The Nativity scene in the Choir

Within the south half-cupola there is a depiction of the annunciation on the left and the nativity on the right. This iconography is Byzantine in style. In the painting of the annunciation, the Holy Virgin is seated, and we see within her expression surprise at Gabriel's announcement. She has her hand raised to her chin, while the angle Gabriel approaches he from the right, extending his right arm in greeting and carrying the herald's staff. In Greek and repeated in Syrian, the angle greets Mary with, "Hail, you who are full of grace! The Lord is with you!". She sits before a house with a small dome and an arched doorway. There is a wide variety of colors including red, purple, brown and ochre against a blue and green background in this painting. In the nativity, Mary dominates the scene. She is in a lying within a cave, resting her left hand upon her knee, while her right is on her breast. The infant Jesus, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lies in a manger constructed of masonry. Above the rocky hill, angels proclaim the good news before a blue sky dotted with white stars. One of the Syriac inscriptions read, "Glory be to God on high, and on earth peace, goodwill among men." Below her we find St. Joseph, and to the far right, the Magi approach the cave bringing their gifts. According to the very ancient convention of Christian iconography, they represent the three ages of life, which include old age, maturity and youth. In the lower left corner of the scene are the shepherds, one of whom is playing a flute.

The dormition scene in the north half-cupola of the choir

The dormition scene in the north half-cupola of the choir

The Byzantine painting in the north half-cupola depicts the dormition (as the Virgin "falls asleep") of the Holy Virgin. Here, Mary is lying on the bed of her transitus (a draped bier) with her hands crossing over her breasts. At her head is Peter, while John is at her feet. Both apostles weep for her, and on either side stand five apostles communicating with on another. Behind the bed, Jesus stands holding in his arms Mary's soul in the form of a baby in swaddling white clothing, a symbol of her rebirth. Above his head, inscribed in Syriac, is the name of Christ. Christ is flanked by two medallions, each enclosing an angel holding a flabellum. In the upper register there is a mandorla carried by two angles. Here also the blue sky is dotted with stars.

The Virgin mary Suckling the Baby Jesus

There can bee seen on the west wall of the choir an inscription which represents the epigraph of the tomb of St. John Kama. His body was most likely moved to this monastery after the one dedicated to him fell into ruins. During the restoration work of this church that began in 1991 after a fire in 1988, a number of layers of plaster were partially removed, revealing many more wall paintings of different periods. Within the khurus on the half column to the right of the entrance of the sanctuary, one such scene is of the enthroned Virgin suckling the infant Jesus (Maria Lactans or Galactotrophousa). She is wearing a blue tunic and bluish green mophorion (a mantle), which is decorated with crosses. On her hap she holds the baby Jesus with her right hand while presenting her breast to him with her left. The quality of this depiction is such that it must have been the work of a master artist. One of the most beautiful of all such paintings in Egypt, it probably dates to about the seventh century. More recent restoration and preservation work in this area of the church has, and will continue to reveal other ancient paintings. Work on the northern wall, which was completely covered with plaster during the eighteenth century, has revealed a number of reasonably well preserved paintings. They belong to the second layer of painting and are probably to be dated to the first half of the eight century.

St. Pisentios, bishop of Koptos and St. Apakir

As most of the other paintings on this layer, they were executed in the encaustic technique (using a paint consisting of pigment mixed with heated fluid bee-wax). Here, one painting depicts St. Pisentios, bishop of Koptos, and St. Apakir. Pisentos is dressed as a traditional sixth century Coptic bishop, while Apakir takes on the attire of a doctor. Then, in the middle of the wall and separated from the other paintings by two blocked windows, there is a figure of a standing patriarch who is possibly St. Damianos, the 35th patriarch of Alexandria. On the far end of the same wall is a depiction of St. Luke and St. Barnabas.

There are two large steps that lead into the main sanctuary, called a haykal from the Hebrew hekal. The door that separates the choir from the sanctuary, which was the work of Moses of Nisibis, is simply a wonderful piece of artwork with extraordinary inlays. This door is made of forty-two panels arranged in seven horizontal and six vertical rows. In the panels of the uppermost row, depicted, from left to right, are St. Dioscorus, patriarch of Alexandria, St. Mark who the Evangelist and first bishop of Alexandria, Christ, the Holy Virgin, St. Severus I, patriarch Antioch, and St. Ignatius who was a bishop of Antioch. Significantly, the representations indicate respect for both the Coptic and Syrian patriarchates. Below, the second row of panels shows a repeated pattern of circles interlaced to form crosses. In each of the six fields of the third row, six linked circles are arranged in pairs, each circle containing a cross. The fourth row, though somewhat damaged, has in each panel a cross enclosed in a four-leafed shamrock with a trefoil at the junction of each leaf. The fifth row has in each panel six swastikas, each enclosed in a circle. The sixth row is a dark grille based on linked circles on a white background. A pattern of a plan cross in a double-stepped frame, the design of the cross thus filling the whole of each panel, takes of the seventh row. This door dates to the beginning of the tenth century, evidenced by a Syrian inscription written on the door itself and indicating that it was made during the patriarchates of Anba Gabriel I, the fifty-seventh patriarch of Alexandria (910-921 AD) and Anba Yuannis IV , the twenty-fifth patriarch of Antioch (902-922 AD).

The principal sanctuary itself is square and surmounted by a high cupola. Centered under a canopy that dates from the nineteenth century is an altar from the tenth century. It is made of black stone rather than white marble, which was the usual choice of the Copts. There are interesting stucco friezes, dating as far back as the tenth century, that adorn the walls that bear a striking resemblance to the stucco reliefs of Muslim workmanship. In fact, at Samarra, the Abbasid capital located north of Baghdad, there can be found very similar stucco decorations. It was probably Ibn Tulun, the governor sent to Egypt in 868, who brought this type of decoration to Cairo, which may also be seen in his mosque in Cairo. There is also similar work in the Chapel of the Forty-Nine Martyrs attached to this church.

The Chapel of the Forty-Nine Martyrs

Attached to the north side of the Church of the Holy Virgin is the Chapel of the Forty-Nine Martyrs. Moses of Nisibis was probably also responsible for this building. It is entered through the court at the north entrance of this church. In 444, forty-nine martyrs were massacred during a bloody raid by the Berbers who plundered the monasteries of Wadi al-Naturn. It is to them that the chapel is dedicated. Buried within the chapel is Anba Christodulus, the abun of Ethiopia at the beginning of the seventeenth century.

Recent restorations have also revealed ancient paintings in this chapel. Work in the eastern wall of the sanctuary, where three niches are surrounded by the rich, decorative stucco work similar to that in the central sanctuary of the Church of the Holy Virgin, revealed several scenes. In the central niche is a scene of the Holy Virgin holding Christ before her. The niche to the right is adorned by a standing figure with a Syriac inscription identifying him as "St. Mark [the] Evangelist." Though the figure in the left niche is not identified by text, he might be the Patriarch Athanasius. A similar composition is found in the old Church of St. Antony (monastery) at the Red Sea. These paintings, however, are newer than the tenth century stucco decorations that surround them.

Plan of the Church of St. Mary

The Church of St. Mary (al-Sitt Mariam or Maryam, Church of the Lady Mary)

Dedicated to the Holy Virgin, as is the principal church, this structure dates from the ninth century, according to some references, or to the eleventh century, according to others, and, with the exception of the cupola over the main sanctuary, precisely reproduces the Typology of monastic churches in Tur Abdin. It is also made up of a naos, khurus and triple sanctuary that may have been built in the fourteenth or fifteenth century.

The nave is entered through a portico on the south side. The level of the entrance is some three steps lower than the present grounds of the monastery courtyard. There are three more steps that connect this portico with the nave of the church. Contrary to other Coptic churches, the nave, on a rectangular plan, is transverse in relationship to the main east-west axis. This is a characteristic feature of churches in Mesopotamia.

One of the ancient churches within the monastery complex

It has a barrel vaulted roof, divided into three bays by arches resting on consoles, another Mesopotamian feature. In the west end within the floor is the marble laggan (also called a lakan). there is a central large door and two smaller side doors that lead into the choir. The central door is of inlaid woodwork and can be dated to the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries. The choir is also rectangular and transverse in relation to the principal axis. It likewise has a barrel vaulted roof which is divided into three parts. The iconostasis (screen separating the choir from the sanctuary) is made of dark, inlaid wood and probably dates from the fifteenth century.

The Church of St. Honnos and Marutha

This church, which is no longer in use, is attached to the east wall of the Church of St. Mary. It dates from the beginning of the fifteenth century, a period in which the monks from the ruined monastery of St. John Kama took refuge in this monastery. St. John Kama, who's remains were transferred here, is therefore closely associated with this monastery. Saint John Kama was a native of Jebromounonson (Shubra Manethou) in the district of Sais. At an early age he was forced into marriage, but persuaded his wife to consent to a life of virginity and permit him to live the life of a monk. He was inspired by a vision to enter the Wadi al-Natrun, where he became a disciple of Saint Teroti, who inhabited a cell in the vicinity of the Monastery of Saint Macarius.

The Church of St. John the Little

The ruins of the Church dedicated to St. John the Little stand in the northeast corner of the monastery enclosure wall. Until the nineteenth century, Ethiopian monks occupied this church after their own monastery had fallen into ruins. Ethiopian monks lived in the monastic communities of Scetis as early as the twelfth century and at one time occupied a monastery dedicated to St. Elisha. After that monastery fell into ruins, they were received by the monks of the Monastery of the Holy Virgin of St. John the Little. However, that monastery also had to be abandoned because of its precarious state, and the few remaining Ethiopian monks were then welcomed by the monks in the Monastery of the Syrians.

The Refectory

West of the Church of the Holy Virgin is the ancient refectory, which is no longer in use. It is mostly rectangular (the east wall is slightly longer than the west one), with a masonry table running down its axis.

A view of the Refectory, complete with dummy monks

This table is flanked by chairs that are also of masonry. The room is roofed with a vast cupola in which small windows are opened to admit illumination. Near the east wall of the refectory is a large stone pulpit from which the sacred texts were raid and the saints' lives were revealed during the common meal.

Above the monastery grounds are, of course, other buildings of various uses. The cells of the monks and gardens occupy the eastern and southern parts of the monastery grounds. A water tower built between 1955 and 1956 in the eastern part of the monastery, now provides it with running water. A guest house including a library and museum built by Qummus Maksimus Salib in 1914 was replaced during the 1960s with additional cells, a special library building and a museum. Today, this library contains over three thousand volumes including several hundred valuable manuscripts.

Return to Christian Monasteries of Egypt






Reference Number

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Meinardus, Otto F. A.


American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 5113

Christian Egypt: Coptic Art and Monuments Through Two Millennia

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Gorgias Press

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