The Monastery of the Holy Virgin in the Fayoum near Luhan

The Monastery of the Holy Virgin

in the Fayoum near Luhan

by Jimmy Dunn

An overall view of the Monastery of the Holy Virgin also known as Deir al-Hammam (Hamam) or The Monastery of Anba Ishaq (Father Isaac)

An overall view of the Monastery of the Holy Virgin
also known as Deir al-Hammam (Hamam) or The Monastery of Anba Ishaq (Father Isaac)

The Fayoum (Fayyum) region, often called an Oasis but really not so strictly, considering its water is derived directly from the Nile River, was once a major destination that has come in and out of fashion over the years. The Fayoum remains today a microcosm of archaic Egypt, with temples and pyramids, together with representative monuments from both the Christian and early Islamic periods. Settled many Greeks in late antiquity, the Fayoum became a major holdout during the Christian period and there are a number of important monasteries in the region, including the 7th century Monastery of the Archangle Gabriel and the Monastery of St. Samuel. Another is the Monastery of the Holy Virgin, sometimes called the Monastery of Anba Ishaq (Father Isaac, Deir Abu Ishaq), the Monastery of the Dove, or Deir al-Hamam (Hammam)

This monastery is thought to date as far back as the third century. Coptic traditions holds that it was founded by Saint Issac of Tiphre, one of the disciples of Saint Anthony (known for a monastery dedicated to him in the Eastern Desert), who is known as the father of monasticism. Father Isaac is not one of the better known hermits, despite the fact that evidence suggests he actively spread the idea of Antonian monasticism. Surviving documentation evidences that he was a native of a village near Memphis who, after having a vision, submitted his life to piety and prayer in the desert.

Another View of the Monastery

Traditional accounts hold that an angel of the Lord appeared to Saint Anthony and told him to go to the desert in the Fayoum, where he would find a community of holy men who would listen to his call. Anthony then left the Red Sea coast, setting off in the direction of a certain Lake Arsanius. He crossed the lake by walking on its waters to the opposite shore, and came to the place where the hermit Isaac lived. Anthony then asked Isaac to call together all the other hermits in the area and they formed a congregation in the "Church of the Angel", a rock-hewn cave that exists to this day. There Saint Anthony anointed the hermits, declared the whole congregation to be monks.

Isaac, who had originally lived as an anchorite (a solitary hermit), then took on the role of a spiritual leader. He went first to the Gabal Al-Barmil area of Giza (just outside Modern Cairo), then moved to the monastery now named after him in Mofset (Enfast). In each place Isaac introduced Anthony's style of monasticism, encouraging the isolated hermits to lead a semi-communal life. Finally, he went to Gabal Al-Khazain, near Alexandria, where he lived until his death in 356. We are told that he was put to death during the persecutions of Diocletian, by order of Arianus, governor of the Thebiad (area surrounding Thebes), after being horribly tortured. His martyrdom is commemorated on Bashans 6 (May 1).

After Isaac's death, it is believe that his relics were brought to this monastery in the Fayoum.

The 13th century Arab historian named Abu Makarem first mentioned the Monastery of the Holy Virgin, telling us that it was spacious, well located and had fine architectural elements. From the 13th century writings of Abu Salih, the Armenian, we learn of this monastery at a place he calls Hajar al-Lahun:

"Here is the monastery of Saint Isaac; and the church named after the Lady, the Pure Virgin Mary. This church is spacious and beautifully planned, skillfully built and designed, and resembles the church in the monastery of Al-Kalamun. In the [monastery of Saint Isaac there is also a church, named after the glorious martyr Saint Isaac. Round this monastery there is a triple wall of stone. It is much visited, and stands on the mountain to the north of Al-Lahun, at the place called Barniyudah, in the mountain-range in the south of the Fayyum."

However, it was later deserted and fell into ruin. The famous Egyptologist, William Flinders Petrie visited the monastery in the 19th century, noting that it was inhabited by a married priest and his family. At that time, he dated the monastery to the sixth century, but he also tells us of a visit by Johann Georg, the duke of Saxony, who visited it just before him and dated the monastery to the eighth century.

Petrie also observed that there were the outlines of a much larger monastery about the current one. He mentions that there were rubbish mounds where valuable scraps of papyrus might be found, but alas we know nothing more about this today.

Some say that the Monastery of the Holy Virgin, with its three white domes, is the most picturesque monastery in the Fayoum, though it is not particularly easy to reach. Hence, until recently, few people visited this ancient monastery, which has now been renovated. It is beautifully situated in the desert on the edge of the Nile Valley about eight kilometers northwest from the village of al-Lahun. One must travel over about five miles of desert track in order to reach the monastery.

This is a fairly small monastery, originally built of unbaked mudbrick, the remains of which can still be seen today. One of the most distinctive features of the monastery became its eastern wall, which was covered with a thick layer of wasp's nest while the structure was uninhabited. However today the monastery has been re-populated and the most of these insects have gone, though their mud hives have become an interesting mark upon the structure. Still, there is some return of the wasps between January 10th and March 10th of each year.

A modern, colorful icon within the Church

The monastery has a newly tiled courtyard lined with benches from which the Church of the Holy Virgin is approached. In the inner court, Abuna Zosimus Anba Bishai built a model of Golgotha (Calvary) and the Via Dolorosa (the route to Calvary, sometimes known as the "Way of the Cross"). The oldest part of this Church of the Holy Virgin is its walls, where were probably a part of the original construction, and within its floor is situated a few meters below the present courtyard. There is a naos consisting of a nave, covered by two of the three copulas (domes) which are supported by pillars and columns, and two side aisles. A khurus, or choir separates the naos from the sanctuaries, of which there are three. The central sanctuary is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, while those to its south and north are dedicated to Saint George and Saint Bishoy, respectively. The ancient baptismal font is situated to the north of the center sanctuary.

There is also a small chapel dedicated to the monastery's founder, Saint Isaac, which is small and has only one sanctuary.

In 1985, this monastery was placed under the direct authority of Pope Shenuda III, and in May 1987, major renovations of the church and monastery were begun.

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Reference Number

2000 Years of Coptic Christianity

Meinardus, Otto F. A.


American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 5113

Christian Egypt: Coptic Art and Monuments Through Two Millennia

Capuani, Massimo


Liturgical Press, The

ISBN 0-8146-2406-5

Churches and Monasteries of Egypt and Some Neighbouring Countries, The

Abu Salih, The Armenian, Edited and Translated by Evetts, B.T.A.


Gorgias Press

ISBN 0-9715986-7-3

Coptic Monasteries: Egypt's Monastic Art and Architecture

Gabra, Gawdat


American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 691 8