The monasteries of the Arab Desert and Wadi Natrun
Ministry of Culture - Supreme Council of Antiquities
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A/ The Monasteries of the Arab Desert: Arid and mountainous, the Arab Desert stretches its great lonely spaces from the Nile Valley to the Red Sea. The monasteries of St. Anthony and of St. Paul are about 10 km south of Zafarana, a place on the western shore of the Red Sea (about 230 km south-east of Cairo). The first monastery is on the flank of Gabal al-Alaa al-Qibliya, there where the cave of St. Anthony is located and where he lived until his death in 356 AD. The second monastery is slightly further to the west on the same mountain where St. Paul lived for 60 years according to the legend (at the beginning of the IVth century AD). B/ The Monasteries of Wadi Natrun The Wadi Natrun is a 25 km long depression in the western desert half-way between Cairo and Alexandria where there are about a dozen saline lakes, two of which, the Bouhaïret el-Gounfadiya and the Bouhaïret el-Hamra, provide natron, the sodium carbonate used by the Pharaohs for mummification. Only four out of the fifty Coptic monasteries which existed in the past have survived to the present day. One is the St. Macarius monastery (Deir Abu Makaria) 94 km south-last of Cairo and the three others, the monastery of the Romans (Deir el Baramos), the monastery of the Syrians (Deir es-Souriyan) and the St. Pshoï monastery (Deir Amba Bichoi) are 10 km away from the first monastery. A/ The Monasteries of the Arab Desert 1-The St. Anthony monastery (Deir Mar Antonios) This is the oldest monastery in Egypt. St. Anthony, with St. Pacomius (287-347 AD) were one of the first leaders of the Church, and founders of Christian monasticism. Towards the end of the IIIrd century Anthony (251-356 AD) abandoned his property and retired into the Arab Desert to live there as a hermit. He chose the Gebel el Qalaa el-Qibliya to come closer to God and lived in a cave where his disciples founded a monastery. The first reference to a monastic organisation only appears at the beginning of the VIIth century. Then, very quickly, a village with its church, its chapels, its bread oven, its mills, cells and its gardens grew up around the cave. This layout has survived up to the present day sheltered within an over 10 m high perimeter. It has been restructured several times but there are still authentic vestiges left illustrating the successive artistic and cultural inputs of the past centuries. Description A big square tower with a storey has several chapels, one of which is dedicated to St. Michael and another one to St. Anthony. The church, built on top on the Saint’s tomb, has a square narthex and a square chancel. It has frescoes from the XIIIth century representing Saints on horseback, archangels and in the small adjoining chapels, the first patriarchs of Alexandria. Access was with the help of a pulley as in a fortress. Two wheat flour mills recall the importance of agricultural work in monastic communities. 2-The Monastery of St. Paul (Deir Mar Boulos) Born in Thebaid around 225 AD, Paul became a hermit to escape from the persecutions of Christians under the emperor Decius which started in 249 AD. He crossed the desert and settled in a cave on the flank of Gabal el Qalaa el Qibliya, an inhospitable mountain scorched by the sun. He left numerous disciples behind at his death who, to perpetuate his memory, set up a community on the site of his tomb which became the nucleus of the present monastery. Description Smaller than that of St. Anthony, the St. Paul monastery had undergone less changes and today seems to be hemmed in with all its buildings within a medieval precinct. A square tower, a refuge for the monks in case of an attack, has chapels as at St. Anthony’s, and also cells, storerooms and water supplied through an underground canal from the monastery’s well. St. Paul’s church is decorated with numerous paintings from the XVIIIth century, including those of saints on horseback, namely St. George, St. Theodore and Michael the Archangel striking at the demons. On the church roof is a chapel. The church of St. Mercurius is located slightly above the St. Paul’s church. B/ The Monasteries of Natrun 3-The Saint Macarius Monastery (Deir Abu Maga) Looking like an imposing fortress which had been constantly redeveloped throughout the centuries, this monastery was founded in the IVth century. Macarius, after visiting the monastery of St. Anthony in the Arab Desert when he lived for a few years in the company of the Holy Hermit, decided to withdraw to Wadi Natrun to live a life of contemplation in his turn. He died in 390 AD leaving behind disciples who continued living as hermits, in almost total isolation. Very quickly many isolated hermits settled in the region, then fifty monasteries were established. Four of these monasteries survived hitherto. The most important and the biggest in Wadi Natrun and probably in the whole of Egypt is that of Deir Abu Maqar (St. Macarius). Built in the IVth century sacked in the Vth century, it developed remarkably in the VIth century, due to the fact in particular that it was used as a refuge by the Coptic Patriarchs of Alexandria who had been banished by the Melkite Church and by the Byzantines. In 866 the church was rebuilt and the ramparts consolidated and thanks to such works the monastery was able to survive to the present day. An imposing tower with three floors which was used as a refuge by the monks in case of an attack, has four chapels, cells, store rooms, a mill and a well. The relics of St. Macarius, St. John the Baptist and the prophet Elisha are fervently venerated there and behind its austere appearance the monastery has retained traces of some of the greatest monuments of the Coptic church. Description· The Church of St. Macarius is the most important and the oldest in the monastery. In its main sanctuary is a mural painting of the tetramorph (the symbolic representation of the four evangelists) from the VIIth century. The cupola of the chapel of the diacomicon rejoins the square plan through the Persian arch pendentives from the Xth or the XIth century. This old architectural part was retained when it was restored about fifty years ago.· The Church of the Forty Nine Martyrs recalls the massacre of the monastery’s monks by desert plunderers in 444. Since the Council of Chalcedon, the chapel of “myron” has been used for the preparation of the holy oil (myron) to be used by the whole Coptic Church. Above the main altar, the cupola rejoins the square plan thanks to pendentives reclining on trefoil arches (Arabo-Moslem tradition)· The church of St. Apaskhiron has been greatly restored but has still retained a curious cupola with pendentives such as can be seen in buildings of the VIIth century. 4-The Monastery of St. Pschoi (Deir Anba Bishoy) Founded by St. Pschoï, a disciple of St. Macarius, it has five churches within a walled enclosure. The main church is that of St. Pschoï which probably dates back to the IXth century and which is used only in the summer whilst the church of the Virgin to the south-east, close to the Iskhurum church, is used in the winter and a drawbridge makes it possible to reach the storeys of the tower where the church of the archangel Michael is to be found and which contains icons from the XVIIIth century. 5-The Monastery of the Syrians (Deir al-Suryan) Founded in the VIth century, it was occupied by Syrian monks until the XVIth century. The church of the Virgin, built in about 980, which is the main church of the monastery, has a mural painting representing the Ascension, from the Xth century. From the same century is the ivory screen of the iconostasis representing religious scenes, portraits and geometric designs. Other impressive frescoes decorate the semi-cupolas of the chancel. The Church of the Holy Virgin Mary contains relics. It is close to the churches of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste, of St. Hennis and St. Marutha (XVth century). Hundereds of old manuscripts are kept in the library of the monastery. 6-The Monastery of the Romans (Deir al-Baramus) The Theodore (Anba Tardus) church is no longer in use. It is next to the chapel of St. George and the St. John the Baptist church was added in the XIXth century. The three-storey tower has some vestiges from the VIIth century whilst the St. Michael church has admirable frescoes from the XIIth century.