Egypt: The Monastery of Jeremiah at Saqqara

The Monastery of Jeremiah at Saqqara

by Jimmy Dunn

Details of Saints Apollo and Pamun from a 7th century painting found at the monastery of St. Jeremiah, now in the Coptic Museum

One of the easiest ancient Christian monasteries that one may visit in Egypt is the that of St. Jeremiah (Deir Apa Jeremiah), because of its location in at Saqqara, the largest known ancient necropolis in Egypt, which is a common stop on most tours. Saqqara, home to the famous Step Pyramid of Djoser, is only about fifteen kilometers from the great Pyramids of Giza located on the outskirts of Cairo. The Monastery of St. Jeremiah is situated in the southern part of the necropolis about five hundred meters from the Step Pyramid.

This monastery was discovered by James E. Quibell, when, between 1906 and 1910, he excavated an area of some eighteen thousand square meters from the sand, unearthing a vast church, a funerary building, a refectory, monastic cells and other buildings. At that time, a large number of elements, including decorative items, an ambon (pulpit), columns and capitals, friezes and other architectural fragments were removed from the site to the Coptic Christian Museum in Cairo, where a chamber known as "the Hall of Saqqara" exits for the sole purpose of displaying these items. Afterwards, the site was almost completely ignored by archaeologists until 1970. In that year, Peter Grossmann, a German archaeologist conducted some brief explorations of the site, but in the intervening years before and after that limited effort, sand largely recovered the site. Nevertheless, it remains a very interesting site to those interested in early Christian monasteries.

The Saqqara Hall at the Coptic Christian Museum with columns, capital and other items from St. Jeremiah's Monastery

John of Nikious, who was both a historian and a monk, tells us of a native of Alexandria named Jeremiah who was the abbot of a monastery close to Memphis and who was also known to Anastasius I, an emperor from 491 until 518 AD. De situ Terrae Sacrae (The Site of the Holy Land), written sometime between 520 and 530 AD by a monk named Theodosius also references it when he tells us of two monasteries near Memphis, the second being dedicated to St. Apollo. However, beyond literary references, it is clear that this monastery was dedicated to St. Jeremiah, for many inscriptions naming him, as well as depictions of the saint were recovered during the early excavations. Associated with him at the monastery was another abbot named Enoch.

The Ambon (Pulpit) from the monastery now in the Coptic Christian Museum

However, we really do not know the precise origins of the monastery, we assume that it developed as many other such facilities did in Egypt. Typically, an anchorite would have settled in this lonely part of the desert on the margin of fertile land, perhaps making a dwelling out of one of the tombs of the pharaonic period scattered throughout the necropolis. Following some period of time, and as his reputation as a holy man grew, he would have attracted a few disciples, followed by numerous others. A stable community would have resulted, necessitating the building of churches and other constructs to facilitate their religious purpose and daily life.

We believe that the first phase of construction goes back to about the early part of the sixth century. This earliest development merely established the essential elements needed for communal living. Later in the seventh century, the community was extended, apparently to provide a level of dignity and prestige to the monastery. In this phase, the main church was enlarged using fine, free stone that was decorated with small friezes together with painted decorations. A substantial refectory was also built and a funerary building from the pharaonic era was converted for the same use by the monks.

This early monastery was a cenobitic complex, where monks lived a much more communal life than, for example, those at Kellia (the Cells). While at Kellia, monks lived in either solitude or later small groups, here the edifices were designed to provide living quarters for a fairly large number of monks, which with his own cell to which he had access through a common antechamber. For the needs of a large community, other building consisting of refectories, warehouses, stables, cisterns ovens to bake bread, oil presses and artisan shops were also constructed. In addition, evidenced by inscriptions, painted figures and tomb discoveries, the complex also had an area for women. As with other more familiar communal monasteries such as St. Anthony's in the Eastern Desert, a high defensive wall was then built to protect the community, some fragments of which remain in its southern most section.

Though there is an absence of evidence to suggest the reason, this monastery was probably abandoned in about the middle of the ninth century, as evidenced by coins found during the excavations. However, we might reasonably assume that it may have had something to do with its situation so very near Cairo, the Islamic capital of Egypt.

The Principal Church

The ruins of the monastery today

Located in the center of the monastic complex, only the limestone floor and the bases of the columns, together with a few of the exterior walls of the main church survive. As with temples and other buildings so near major centers such as Cairo, this one too was raided for construction material, though a few columns were spared and today lie on the ground. Of course, it should be noted that many of the edifices in the complex were themselves constructed from material salvaged from more ancient pharaonic constructs in the area.

Floor Plan of the main church at St. Jeremiah

However, archaeological investigation has revealed that the first church was probably build during the middle of the sixth century. It was very modest both in size, measuring a mere twenty-one meters by twelve, and in its construction materials consisting of unbaked mudbricks. Later, a substantial church representing a significant and prestigious achievement of the community was built. Using limestone blocks that were certainly taken from buildings dating to the late pharaonic period located in the necropolis, the gifted, artisan monks who were especially talented stonecutters, masterfully succeeded in adapting this recycled material into a structure of unerring elegance and considerable decorative richness. Measuring thirty-nine meter long and twenty meters wide, the west side of the church had a wide portal that gave way to a rectangular nathrex (an entrance hall) which in turn opened into the naos. The naos consisted of a nave (the central, public area of a church usually flanked by aisles), two side aisles and a western return aisle. Corinthian capitals (now in the Coptic Christian Museum in Cairo), beautifully decorated with a floral motif, surmounted eighteen columns that separated the nave from the aisles. A few of the capitals are adorned with vine branches and clusters of grapes that are sinuously intertwined. They represent some of the finest capitals in the Byzantine Empire, with a convex vase profile and eight vertical flangeds decorated with delicate vine scrolls. Others are decorated with acanthus leaves or branches from which spring a number of large palm leaves. One fascinating capital portrays acanthus branches twisted as if by the wind.

Vine and Grape Cluster Capital

Vine and grape cluster capital

Another type of capital found at the monastery

Another type of capital found at the monastery dating to the sixth century

On the exterior are Pilasters that correspond to the interior columns. The provide the same rhythm as the interior to the exterior walls. Curiously though, the columns corresponding to the portal on the west that today still lie on the ground were made of pink granite, whereas the columns on of the south entrance were made of marble.

Constructed as one rectangular bay, the sanctuary area of the church was probably preceded by four small, slender columns. The apse (altar) to the east of the sanctuary and two rooms on its north and south sides all opened into the sanctuary area. In the immediate area of the apse, two staircases led to two other larger rooms situated at a lower level.

The church was very richly decorated, though unfortunately, by the time Quibell excavated the site, the greatest part of these had already disappeared. Only fragments representing saints on the columns, friezes with ducks, draperies and geometrical designs remained.

The Funerary Chapel

Some fragments remain of the building that was probably the funerary chapel of St. Jeremiah who founded the monastery, as well as other illustrious monks. It is located in the west part of the monastery. The investigation by Grossmann indicated that this building was not used for liturgical purposes. Apparently the building was built during the Roman Empire to serve funerary purposes, and therefore the monks put to a similar use with minimal remodeling. It does have a basilican plan with a nave, two side aisles and a return aisle on its west side. On the east side a triumphal arch provided access to the funerary chamber, with walls adorned with precious marble plaques.

The Refectory and Subsidiary Buildings

A great refectory (where common meals were taken) stood about thirty meters north of the main church with a main rectangular room which served as the refectory proper. This room was surmounted by a roof that was supported by a twofold rank of columns arranged along the main north-south axis. Though every building thus far mentioned was embellished by paintings, the refectory must have been particularly rich in reference to biblical episodes, amongst which was the sacrifice of Isaac which is now in the Coptic Museum. The refectory communicated with a second spacious chamber on the south side which probably served as a meeting hall for the monks. Here was found a splendid limestone seat of the abbot which is now to be found in the Coptic Museum. The east side of the refectory hall gave access to a square chapel with an apse in on its east side. There were four marble columns, the bases of which are still visible, that supported the chapel's roof.

A courtyard stood to the north of the refectory, named the "courtyard of the octagons" by archaeologists. Close by, a rectangular room split into two sections by a line of columns probably served as an infirmary.

Monastic cells have been unearthed over the entire area of the monastery. they usually consisted of rectangular spaces made of unbaked bricks. Windows high within these mudbrick walls admitted both light and fresh air. One of the most interesting aspects of these chambers were their east walls. Within the Coptic Museum we find small, semi-circular apse with a vault in the shape of a quarter-sphere, which were decorated with paintings depicting the enthroned Christ or the Holy Virgin with the baby Jesus on her knees. These paintings were framed by architectural motifs consisting of small columns or pilasters surmounted by capitals. These niches which were located on the east side of the monk's cells were used by them for their personal devotions. To either side of the main niche, there were sometimes smaller niches where containers and various objects for daily use were kept and where the oil lamps were placed.

Return to Christian Monasteries of Egypt






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 Neigbouring Countires, The

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


Gorgias Press

ISBN 0-9715986-7-3