Christian Antinoopolis (Antinoe, or Ansina) and its Environs

Christian Antinoopolis (Antinoe, or Ansina) and its Environs

By Jimmy dunn

The ruins of Antinoe

The ruins of Antinoe are located a little over six miles south of Beni Hasan at a village called Sheikh Abada, which itself sits in a lovely setting amidst palm trees on the east bank of the Nile. Little is known of this Pharaonic town, which was founded by the emperor Hadrian on October 30th of 130 AD. Legend has it that it was built in honor of Antinus, who threw himself into the Nile to save the emperor. The emperor intended to build a large, wealthy city from which Upper Egypt could be administrated.

Ruins of a unbaked mudbrick building at Antinoe

Hence, the ruins occupy a large area. However, we also find here ruins of temples dating back to the reigns of Amenhotep IV (Akhenaten) and Ramesses II, as well as tombs from the New Kingdom, so the area was obviously populated prior to the time of the Roman emperor. Yet,inhabited primarily by Greeks and Romans, it's importance was certainly at its peak during the Roman era, when it became the capital of the Thebaid. The emperor Diocletian proclaimed it a metropolis, and from the fourth century on, it was a significant Episcopal see, with a wealth of Christian churches and monasteries within its immediate environs.

In the early fourth century, the city saw considerable Christian martyrdom, including a number of well known saints. Among them was St. Colluthus, a physician, who was martyred in either 304 or 308 AD. His will on papyrus has been one of the more interesting finds in the area. As the protector of the city, St. Colluthus was especially revered there as a saint. We also learn of Antinoe's Christian heritage from the Lausiac History (58.1; 59.1), where presumably Palladius tells us that he

"spent four years in Antinoe in the Thebaid and in that time I gained a knowledge of the monasteries there. About twelve hundred men dwell around the city living by the toil of their hands and practicing asceticism to a high degree. Among them there are also anchorites who have confined themselves in rocky caves... In the town of Antinoe are twelve monasteries of women."

A painting of the triumphal arch from Description de l'Egypte (1809)

When the Arabs conquered Egypt in 641, the city soon declined, but it was still noted in the tenth century by Severus of Antioch as "the Ansina bishopric". However, by the twelfth century, Ibn Gubayr, a traveler tells us that this ancient Greek city had been destroyed by Saladin. In the archaic period, the last mention of the city occurs in the fourteenth century.

Regrettably, the city remained almost intact until the founder of modern Egypt, Muhammad Ali (18725-1925), had most of the finer materials carried off for use in the construction of a large sugar refinery. Though only traces remain, we do know however that it took on the appearance of a typical Roman urban center almost void of any Egyptian influence, with a chessboard plan, porticoes with columns, triumphal arches, baths, an amphitheater, hippodrome, temples and as Egypt moved into the Christian era, many churches and monasteries. However, there are extensive remains of the less valuable brick buildings.

An Icon unearthed at Antinoe

For many years, Antinoe has been the object of extensive research and excavation carried out by an Italian led team. Thanks to the Egyptian climate, the cemeteries opened in recent years have supplied the science of Christian antiquity with many noteworthy objects. Roman and Byzantine burial-places have been found in a wonderful state of preservation. The bodies, before burial, underwent a preparation very different from that used by the ancient Egyptians. The dead were provided with a mask instead of mummification, which was no longer practiced.

Specifically, they have unearthed many churches, some of which were part of monastic complexes. Perhaps the most interesting of these remains is a church located near the southern cemetery. It was equipped with an apse surrounded by a concentric series of columns and a an unusual nave. Here, two outer aisles are extremely narrow and served only as ambulatories. The inner aisles were almost twice as wide as the outer aisles, and even wider than the nave itself. While unusual, this church, which probably dates to the fourth century, was typical of that period's Christian architecture in Egypt, which was later superseded by other styles. Near the north cemetery, a basilica with a nave and two aisles, likely dating to the fourth century, was also discovered. In addition, trace remains of smaller and larger churches have been unearthed within the city. Some of these have only a nave, while others have two or four aisles.

The sixth century church in the western part of anceint Antinoe

A large construct situated on the eastern edge of the ancient city, the Church of the Holy Virgin (Mortuary Chapel of the Holy Virgin in the Necropolis) was partially restored in 1934. Here, the altar room is locked with an iron gate. There are paintings on the eastern and southern walls that are badly damaged. However, on the southern wall, one may still make out traces of a painting of Theodosia between Saint Colluthus and the Holy Virgin. Stored within the altar room are three socles (pedestals) and one column.

There is also scant remains of a square church with an apse, which was most certainly a component of a large monastic community, for associated with it are ten rooms containing ten beds each. Within the western section of the ruins of the city, near the cliff that separates the high plateau from the bed of the Nile, a church believed to date to the sixth century has also been unearthed by archaeologists. It has a choir and a triple sanctuary and there remains considerable painted decorations. This church is also thought to have been a part of a monastic community.

The Monasteries of Sanbat and al-Nasara (Deir Sanbat and Deir al-Nasara)

About two kilometers north of Antinoe in the desert area along the lower rocky escarpments lie several quarries which form a semicircle. In the center of this semicircle are the remains of a Christian monastery with walls that were built of crude bricks. About this ancient monastery, are at least nine cells, most of which are on the slopes to the south of the ruins. Within some of the cells are graffiti of crosses, while others are adorned with the "alpha and omega".

Around the Semicircle are the remains of two ancient churches, behind one of which was another monastery. A section of the building was cut into the rock, while the other part was enclosed within a brick wall. Some of the cells belonging to this monastery are still visible. The walls of the attached church are adorned with several wall paintings. Here also is a niche, which in turn contains three small niches separated from one another by columns, surmounted by a dome. A small door communicates with the court of the monastery, where the remains of cells around the court can be seen. The second church, further south, also contains wall paintings of saints and some Coptic graffiti, as well as a cross enclosed by a double circle.

We believe that these two monasteries are those of Sanbat and al-Nasara, though current documentation makes their specific identification unclear.

The Monastery of al-Dik (Deir al-Dik)

Little remains of this monastery, located about four kilometers north of Antinoe, which was built of crude, unbaked brick. It sits near the bank of the Nile opposite the Island of Shiba. The ruins measure some 146 by 92 meters and the Laura (cells of the anchorites) extends for over one and a half kilometers north of the monastery. Surrounding a cave church, there are at least sixteen cells in the Laura. The church itself was rectangular and had one nave with four bays and a single sanctuary. The church is noteworthy because of its numerous wall paintings of crosses. In addition, there is a two story cave monastery hewn from the rock. The entire complex appears to have been surrounded by a high enclosure wall. The settlement itself was founded by Abba Apollo and may date back to as early as the fifth or sixth century, though the monastery itself was most likely built later, in the tenth century. All about the Larua, the surrounding mountains are honeycombed with caves that anchorites occupied in the past.

Deir Abu Hinnis

Only a few kilometers south of Antinoe is the village of Deir Abu Hinnis where the Church of Saint John the Short is situated. This is probably the best known ruins in this area, so it has been addressed as a separate topic within our discussions on ancient monasteries and churches.

Deir al-Barsha

The Monastery

Four miles further south from Deir Abu Hinnis is the Monastery of Saint Bishoi (Pshoi) (Arabic Deir Anba Bishai) at Deir al-Barsha (also known as Deir al-Nakhla). Deir al-Barsha is a rich archaeological site with pharaonic quarries and many tombs predating the Christian era. This monastery sits on the east side of the Nile River and consists of the Church of Saint Bishoi, in the northern section of the complex, with the ruins of the monastic buildings west of the church and a well to the north.

Actually the church building consists of a lower church and an upper chapel, also dedicated to St. Bishoi. In the lower church, the semi-circular apse, the rectangular room north of the apse, the khurus (choir) and the pillars of the nave probably belong to the original building. There are three sanctuaries (haikals) that are dedicated to Saint Bishoi, Saint George and the Holy Virgin. The screen that stands before the sanctuaries is constructed of burnt brick and is apparently very old. Of course, it is adorned with icons of Saint Bishoi, Saint George and the Holy Virgin. To the north of the sanctuary dedicated to Saint Bishoi is a small gynaikion and beside it is the staircase leading to the upper church. There is a bakery for the Eucharist (qurban) in the southwest corner of the church, and a baptistery in the northwest corner.

The upper church is almost certainly older than the lower church. It has two sanctuaries with walls that are decorated with several layers of paintings. Here, the haikal screen is of stone and displays a date of 1582 AM (1866 AD). The church is surmounted by five domes that form the sign of a cross and are beautifully decorated with stars, crosses and other geometrical designs. Traditionally, it is believed that the upper church was used by the local population as a place of refuge during times of danger and persecution.

Local tradition also holds that the monastery was founded by none other than Saint Bishoi, who settled here after his monastery in Wadi al-Natrun was sacked by fierce Bedouins in 407 AD. He is said to have died here in 417 AD. Obviously a large monastic center, during the sixth and seventh centuries, it is said that some one thousand monks populated this community.

Crosses painted in one of the tombs at Deir al-Barsha

We understand that the Church of Saint Bishoi was used on a regular basis until just a few years ago, but now only on special occasions. Interestingly however, until very recently, the church was used for weddings on Saturday afternoons. Afterwards, the bride and groom would spend the night in the sanctuary, and would only return to their home after the Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning.

The Surrounding Area

Today, as long ago, al-Barsha remains a largely Christian community. About one kilometer into the mountains behind the village are hermitages, which were created from the ancient tombs. They are situated at all levels on both sides of the wadi, and just beyond tomb seven, on the north face of the wadi, are several small quarries with ancient Coptic graffiti. On the south side of the wadi are tombs decorated with Coptic crosses and the "alpha and omega".


Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
2000 Years of Coptic Christianity Meinardus, Otto F. A. 1999 American University in Cairo Press, The ISBN 977 424 5113
Christian Egypt: Coptic Art and Monuments Through Two Millennia Capuani, Massimo 1999 Liturgical Press, The ISBN 0-8146-2406-5
Churches and Monasteries of Egypt and Some Neigbouring Countries, The Abu Salih, The Armenian, Edited and Translated by Evetts, B.T.A. 2001 Gorgias Press ISBN 0-9715986-7-3