Egypt: The Convent of Saint Damiana in the Nile Delta of Egypt

The Convent of Saint Damiana in the Nile Delta of Egypt

by Jimmy Dunn

An icon depicting Damiana and the 40 virgins

Some monasteries in Egypt are not so very old, though they may have a shrine are remains that are, and therefore they have become a pilgrimage site. So it is with the Coptic monastery of Saint Damiana in the northern Nile Delta, not very far to the south of Damietta. The shrine here is dedicated to a woman known as Damiana (Dimyana, Damyana, Damyanah, Demiana) who, according to tradition, was the daughter of Marcus, a Christian governor who lived in the middle of the third century AD. Her story is different, though in some ways, very reminiscent of St. Catherine, who is perhaps better known because of her association with the more famous Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai. Nevertheless, it is Saint Damiana who is frequently referred to as the founder of female monastic life.

When Damiana flowered into womanhood, her father chose a nobleman for her to marry. However, Damiana refused, for she had ben taught the Christian virtue of virginity. "If you really care for me, built me a castle where I can live and preserve my virginity and serve my Christ," she told her father. Being a beloved child, the father complied, building her a large palace that covered an area of fifteen feddans. Soon afterwards, the daughters of other noblemen followed her example, so together with forty other virgins, she took up residence in the palace to serve their lord.

The modern convent of Damiana in the Nile Delta of Egypt

One day, Diocletian, the Roman emperor, summoned all of the noblemen from Egypt, demanding that they worship the Roman gods. Those who refused to worship the gods were promptly persecuted. Indeed, Damiana's father, Marcus, decided to give up his Christian faith, but upon his return to Egypt, his daughter warned that, "Either you become a Christian again, or I refuse to be called your daughter." Of course, that was his doom, for he went back to Diocletian and made a Christian confession, whereupon the king had him killed. After the king discovered that it was Damiana who had inspired her father to this treachery, he sent a statue of himself to Damiana's castle, demanding that she and her virgins worship it, rather than their god. They, of course, refused to do so and were consequently also tortured and killed.

A Coptic Christian priest at the Convent of Damiana

There is also an oral tradition regarding the journey of the Holy Family in Egypt. According to the homily of Zacharias, the Holy family traveled north to nearby al-Burullus which, because of its salt marshes of Lake Burullus, was a good place to hide from the soldiers of Herod. Hence, if the Holy Family passed through al-Burullus, they could have also passed through Damiana, which is often described as "the wilderness of Bilqas," in reference to the surrounding salt marshes. According to this tradition, Saint Damiana had her palace constructed on the very spot where local Coptic Christians believe the Holy Family rested, hence adding to the allure of the complex as a religious pilgrimage destination.

The Old Church in the Convent of Damiana

According to tradition, it was Saint Helena, the mother of Constantine, who later built Damiana and her forty virgins a tomb, and around that tomb a monastery was eventually erected. The first church of that complex is said to have been erected on the orders of John I (496-505), the twenty-ninth patriarch of Alexandria. That church, however, was destroyed when ocean floods covered the whole land. Even the tomb of Saint Damiana and her forty virgins remained under water for seventy years. Finally, the local Christians began to pray, asking God to withdraw the waters from their holy shrine, and the waters afterwards receded. Then, John II camped near the original location of the tomb, he had a dream in which Saint Damiana appeared to him and ordered him to build a church. He complied with her wishes, building her a church which today is located in the southwest part of the complex. There is no doubt that it is in the most ancient part of the monastery.

One of the old churches at the Convent of Damiana. Note the ancient column capitals

Actually, these days this is a convent, rather than a monastery. The Shrine of Saint Damiana, or Dair Sitt Dimyana, once belonged to the diocese of the metropolitan of Jerusalem, but was served from very ancient times by the monks from the Monastery of Saint Antony. However, since 1970, the Shrine has been incorporated into the newly formed diocese of Damietta, and is now administered by nuns, though there are still priests for the services held in the convent.

Today, there are four churches in the convent, including the First Church of Saint Damiana, the oldest, the Second Church of Saint Damiana, the Third Church of Saint, Damina, and the Church of the Holy Virgin Mary. The Second Church is known as the Old Church, even though it was built in the latter part of the nineteenth century by Anba Yuhanna of the metropolitan of Burullus.

An old haikal screen in the Church of St. Damiana

One reaches this church through the inner court of the convent. Other than the wooden screen, the church is rather uninteresting historically. It has one haikal, which is dedicated to Saint Damiana, and which bears the date of 1845, thus antedating the construction of this church. North of the sanctuary is a prayer chamber with icons and paintings of Saint Damina, Saint George and the Holy Virgin Mary. Before the prayer chamber is a candelabrum with an icon of Saint Damiana and her forty virgins. To the south of the sanctuary is the gynaikion, the prayer chamber for women, which is completely undecorated. In t he western part of his church is the tomb of Saint Damiana.

The ancient shrine, these days encased in glass

The Third Church of Saint Damiana located in the outer court of the convent is a very recent addition, built in 1932 on the orders of Bishop Peter of Mansoura, though it was completed under Bishop Timonthy. It measures forty meters by twenty meters. Within there is only one haikal.

Old cells where monks or nuns once lived in the convent

The fourth church, dedicated to the Holy Virgin Mary, dates to 1879 and is situated on the first floor of the south wing of the inner court.

Early foreign visitors to the church include Wansleben, who came in 1672, and Father C. Sicard s.j., who in May 1714 describes coming via Mansoura and Bilqas to the shrine of "Sainte Germianne, where he saw a church with twenty-two domes. Sr. Gardner Wilkinson (1843) mentions the shrine and tells of a fair associated with it, but Leeder provides a rather more complete account of the Moulid:

"The moolid is still attended every year, between May 5 and May 20, by some 4,000 to 6,000 pilgrims coming from all parts of Egypt. They usually pitch a tent round the monastery, and live there for a period of not less than eight and not more than fifteen days, ending with the actual day of the celebrations. Numbers of merchants usually go and hold bazaars, in which they sell food, drink, sometimes clothing, ornaments, perfumes, rings, handkerchiefs, sticks, etc., and especially wooden and brass crosses imported for Jerusalem. They refer o Sitt Damiana for the ability to give fruitfulness to women, or long life the the children of a woman who has lost many in infancy. Therefore, many gifts of money, jewels, gold and silver are presented to her church."

Ancient wall along the courtyard entrance to the convent

Today, the pilgrimage takes place annually on May 21, celebrating the date on which the church was believed to have been dedicated by Saint Helena, and on January 20th, the day of the martyrdom of Saint Damiana, and it remains a major moulid for Coptic Christians.


The "new" Church at the Convent of Damiana in Egypt

On May 7th, 1975, Pope Shenuda III consecrated the new cells for the nuns and the new buildings of the convent. Some nuns follow a strictly contemplative life, while others are engaged in social and welfare work. Still others are devoted to painting icons and embroidering liturgical textiles. A clinic at the Convent serves pilgrims, the population of the region and the nuns.

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Last Updated: June 14th, 2011