A visit to Monasteries between Asuit and Sohag  in Middle Egypt, 8-11 December 2016

I met Serena Fass at London Heathrow and together we travelled to Cairo, arriving at in the early hours of Thursday, 8 December. A Novotel car met us and drove us to the airport hotel. An afternoon flight then took us onward to Asuit, where we joined the main party of about twenty people: two from the Netherlands, and the others Egyptian. Travelling with us was Prince Abbas Hilmi, a member of the Muhammad Ali Dynasty and the Imperial House of Osman, being the grandson of Khedive Abbas Hilmi II Bey, He is also Chairman of Friends of Manial Palace Museum.

We transferred to M/S Opera, our comfortable hotel-boat permanently anchored on the River Nile to Tel al Armana near Mallawi, where we visited a palace of Queen Nefertiti and a tomb complex.

We visited the remains of the North Palace, the foundations of which had been stabilised at the base. It was possible to differentiate the new work from the original. We also discerned a low ramp sloping up to the Palace and boundary stelae. A reconstructed house with lotus capitals on reeded columns gave us an idea how people lived. Indeed, maquettes in the visitor centre helped us to understand the site more easily. Two superb heads of Queen Nefertiti were displayed, one painted and the other flesh-coloured.

The Pharaonic tombs, cut into the living-rock, depicted the rays of the Sun God Aten-Ra, shining upon the king and his consort; with scenes of olive and date palms, dishes and bread baked for sacrifice. The furthest tomb had been converted into a church and two of the four columns removed to give space for the congregation, and with wall paintings pitted to deter evil spirits. A baptismal font had been created in a curved niche. We saw crosses added with alpha and omega from the Christian period.

That evening we were taken to a Zakr ceremony to mark the Prophet of Islam’s birthday. Several girls in Islamic dress sang and men in jalabeyas played reed flutes and the tabla. A girl played the Kanoun (a musical instrument from Turkey). This is usually played by a man. At the end the men put away their musical instruments and twirled un Dervish style.

The Red Monastery

On Saturday, 10 December we travelled to the Red Monastery (Deir al-Ahmar) near the village of Awiad Nusayr, so called because it is built of red bricks. Officially it is named after Saint Bishoi (Pshoi), a hermit and companion of St. Bigul, who was the uncle of St. Shenoute. Whether St. Pshoi was its founder is not known, but it is situated close to where he lived. The Church of St. Pshoi was built between 500-525 of bricks rather than limestone blocks like its larger neighbour, the White Monastery. In the north-east of the monastery the main church is of  traditional basilica-style with a trilobed sanctuary.

The church has a mixture of ancient Egyptian, Roman and Coptic elements in it, but is essentially Byzantine in style. Its walls were constructed by alternating layers of stone and wood, with each layer of stone separated from the next by a layer of large tree trunks, intended to reduce the risk of collapse in the event of earthquakes. In addition, the interior of the sanctuary is decorated with sculptures and paintings, most of which have been dated to between the 6th and 8th centuries AD. These are considered as the best example of the Classical and ancient Egyptian artistic tradition that continued into the Late Antique period.

Nowhere else in Egypt is there a monument of late antiquity or early Byzantine era whose architectural sculpture has survived in situ to the highest level of the building.  Originally, it probably had a pitched wooden roof, but today, the sanctuary is covered with a modern dome, and the nave is open to the sky. The building still functions as a Coptic church.

A thorough and prolonged restoration project began in 2002 under the direction of Elizabeth S. Bolman of Temple University, and a team of Italian conservators, in collaboration with the Supreme Council of Antiquities and the Coptic Orthodox Church. It has been administered by the Egyptian Antiquities Project and the Egyptian Antiquities Conservation Project of the American Research Center in Egypt, with funding provided by the United States Agency for International Development. Now the wall paintings display their natural pigments of earthy brown, ochre, yellow, green and white and are alive again – they look remarkable with several rows of niches topped by Venus shells (Venus born from a shell in the sea without sexual contact, could easily be accepted by Catholics with the Virgin’s Immaculate Conception). Father Maximos of St. Antony’s monastery, whoacted as our guide, kindly explained the monastery’s history.

One of the current threats to the Red Monastery comes not from above the ground, but from underneath. Modern urbanization around the monastery still has not been adequately planned, so lacks a proper sewer system. The inhabitants are still relying on the old mechanism of ditches with the result that sewage is entering the ground beneath the monastery, thus making it unstable. The rising groundwater level, resulting from this development and increased agricultural activities, unless addressed as a matter of urgency, will almost certainly destabilise the walls, which in turn will attract termites, and cause much structural damage to this ancient monument.

The White Monastery

We continued via the desert road to the White Monastery, 5 miles west of Sohag. It is named from the white ashlar from which it is built. Building stone had been taken from ancient Pharaonic sites especially Athribis and Egyptian and Hellenistic inscriptions can be defined on some blocks. The monastery is dedicated to Saint Shenute, who as a child was brought here by his uncle, Saint Bigoul. Saint Shenute was the saint who recorded Coptic literature on papyri in the Akmine dialect. Originally there were some 4,000 monks and nuns, and the grounds of the monastery covered some 12,800 acres.  The church had been much larger, but now the nave is used as an open courtyard.

During the papacy of Pope Michael (Anba Kail), who died in 767, Al-Kasim ibn Ubaid Allah, the Wali of Egypt, visited the monastery with one of his favourite odalisques. They arrived on horseback, accompanied by his bodyguards and proceeded on horseback towards the church. The abbot exhorted him not to “enter with such pride into the house of God, above all in the company of this woman” as never before had a woman entered the church. The Wali ignored the abbot and he and his company rode on straight into the church, but his horse plunged and he fell to the ground, causing his female companion to tumble from him, so she was killed instantly. Al-Kasim was enraged at first, but soon composed himself and repented of his rashness and insisted on giving the abbot four hundred dinars as a sign of his repentance. Despite this incident, one of his companions, an emir, took a fancy to an ivory inlaid wooden chest, reputedly made by St. Shenoute to contain books, and attempted to carry it off despite the entreaties of the monks, but they were unable to do so. Recognising some superior spiritual power, he too repented and offered 300 dinars as reparation.

The monastery served as a host for Armenian monks in the 11th and the 12th centuries. This is indicated in the inscriptions found on the paintings of the central apse of the church, which date between 1076 and 1124. Among these Armenian monks was the Armenian Vizier Bahram, who became a monk after having been banished from his office during the Caliphate of the Fatimid Al-Hafiz (1131-1149 AD). In 1168, the monastery was attacked by the Muslim commander Shirkuh.

Centuries later, the once celebrated monastic library had fallen on hard times and in the 18th century was steadily dismembered by dealers in antiquities. Foremost among those who removed manuscripts was Robert Curzon, who in the 19th century acquired many rare manuscripts, which today form part of the British Library collection.

When Abu al-Makarim, a Coptic priest, visited here in the thirteenth century there was a keep of middle-age construction, and an enclosure wall around the monastery. He also speaks of a garden within the walls full of all sorts of trees. This serves to indicate that monastery’s decline, because it now lacked the vast acreage outside the monastery that it once enjoyed. We do know that the monastery underwent considerable restoration between 1202 and 1259. When al-Makarim visited, the church was still intact and he described it as spacious enough to contain thousands of people.  Here are a double row of Aphrodite inspired niches have had their paintings removed (nineteenth century). Sad, but they display their architectural style, at least. During the centuries the monasteries have been destroyed and rebuilt – Napoleonic troops burnt the monasteries ! Al-Makarim also describes it as possessing the relics of two of the twelve apostles: St. Bartholomew and Simon the Canaanite, as well as the tomb of St. Shenoute the Archimandrite. His body was kept in a chest until the invasion of Egypt by Asad ad-Din Shirkuh (died 1169) , the Kurd, a  military commander, and uncle of Saladin. His military and diplomatic efforts in Egypt were a key factor in establishing the Ayyubid family in that country. and the Ghuz or Oghuz, a western Turkik tribe,  who accompanied him. They broke open the chest and the body was removed and concealed in an unconsecrated chamber near the altar. He says. Armenians ran the monastery during the eleventh and twelfth centuries and were responsible for the lovely fresco of the Virgin to the right of the altar, which has been beautifully restored

In 1672, we hear of visits by Wansleben and again in 1737 by Pococke, both of whom wrongly attributed the founding of the monastery (or at least the surviving church) to St. Helena, Emperor Constantine’s mother. The cosmopolitan illustrator and art historian Dominique Vivant Denon in 1798, tells us that he visited the monastery merely a day after its destruction by the Mamlukes.

We know that in the latter part of the 18th century, the southwest corner of the surviving church complex collapsed. This was later repaired under the direction of Muhammad Ali in 1802, who is also credited with the final demise of the Mamluke influence in Egypt. In 1833, Robert Curzon visited the monastery, leaving us a written record of such and in 1893, Fergusson published a plan of the church complex.

We met the team of Italian  conservators restoring the remaining paintings in the courtyard (originally the body of the church). They hope to erect an over-canopy to protect their work on the north side. Dina, an Egyptian art expert, is negotiating with the Department of Antiquities.

Lunch was taken on the upper deck of a Nile boat with the river flowing by was fasting food for Advent.  On the return journey our military escort ran into the coach, luckily the only damage was the removal of one of the side lights!

After dinner on board, four male dancers performed a stick dance. Later, in the proceedings they invited one of us to join them. As nobody volunteered, I followed them onto the dance floor, twirling and striking sticks, much to everybody’s amusement.

On Sunday, 11 December, we travelled north to the ancient tombs of Mier. Dating to 2400 – 2300 BC, the caves were cut into the rock and Kings buried in the shafts. The rooms above contain carvings of fishing and hunting with food stores containing loads of bread, woven baskets, fishes and gardens of date palms and olive trees, produce to be used for sacrifice.

Monastery of the Holy Virgin at the Hill of the Birds

Having checked out from the Nile boat, we journeyed northwards towards Asyuit, but stopping at the monastery of the Virgin at Gabal El Tair, south of Samalut on the east bank of the Nile. It was called Gabal El Tair because of the huge number of migratory birds usually seen at the top of the mountain. The Monastery was also known as the Monastery of the Pulley since at a certain point people who wanted to visit the monastery at the top of the hill used a box which was pulled to the top by coil or rope. The mountain was also known as Gabal El Khaff (Mountain of the Palm) because it was said when the Holy Family was on a boat one of the rocks was about to fall and the Lord Jesus Christ raised his hand and touched the rock, thus preventing it from injuring anyone. The palm-print of the lord is still visible. Pious tradition recounted how the Holy Virgin appeared to Pope Timothy II in a dream and instructed him to build a church on the rock.  Gabal monastery is situated in vast caves on the mountainside under a massive rock overhang this was the last resting place of the Holy Family before returning to Bethlehem. The interior of the church has massive-rock-hewn pillars of a late antique tomb, probably dating from the fifth century. Sisters run the church complex helped by two monks. One monk explained the monastery’s history. There is a tree at the same site known as the tree of Worshiper or Shagaret El Abid which is located two kilometers south of the hill. The tree has a strange shape with most of its branches stooping towards the ground then going up with green leaves. The people called it the tree of Worship since it was believed that this tree knelt before the Lord when He passed by it.

It has become an important pilgrimage site with up to 2,000,000 Christians and Muslims visiting on feast days, such as the Feast of the Arrival of the Holy Family in Egypt, in June; and the Assumption of the Virgin in August.  Rows upon rows of pilgrims cells above the monastery are cut into the living rock or built about it, and families living nearby will move up to help with food preparations and cleaning and feast days

So we came to the end of our unique pilgrimage. Travelling through the Egyptian desert visiting remote churches and monasteries you can feel a palpable sense of spirituality even today and imagine the desert fathers and Saints in ancient times. This thread continues still with the strength and faith of the Coptic community having to overcome outrages committed by a small minority, who have no care or love for others.

Valeria, Viscountess Coke

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