Egypt: Deir Abu Magar, also called Deir Anba Makaryus in the Wadi al-Natrun

The Monastery of St. Macarius (Deir Abu Magar)
by Jimmy Dunn

The Monastery of St. Macarius (Deir Abu Magar)

It is said that the Christian, St. Magar (Maker), who lived as a hermit monk in a cave for over forty years, received a divine revelation in the form of a dream to build a church. When he died in 390 A.D, he was buried in his beloved cave, but his monks remained and the cell where he was buried became the venter of the monastery. His relics were kept as treasures and still remain. The monastery became a memorial to him so that people might not forget his story, devotion and piety.

A team from Leiden University in the Netherlands has been excavating this site since 1995, and it seems they may end up providing an analysis of how a loose group of hermits might have evolved into a monastic society.

Deir Abu Magar, also called Deir Anba Makaryus was probably the first monastery in the Wadi al-Natrun.. In the 6th century, the Byzantine rulers mandated that the Coptic Patriarchs no longer reside in Alexandria and so Deir Abu Magar acquired a new importance as the seat of the Coptic church. It remained an important monastery throughout the ages.

Seemingly, the monastery began as an open, informal structure more like a village. There was a church and a keep (tower).

Most of the present monastery was rebuilt by Patriarch Shanudah (859-81) after it was attacked and mostly destroyed for the third time by Berbers in 866. By the end of that century, the tower's outer walls were reinforced, and most of the settlement was surrounded by an outer defensive wall, giving it the real appearance of a monastery. This wall may have encouraged hermit monks to live within, resulting in a true monastery.


The Monastery of St. Macarius (Deir Abu Magar)

The qasr of this monastery is a three story building accessed by a drawbridge at its first story level. There are mills, storeroom sand a well on the ground floor. The Chapel of the Virgin (Al Adra) with three haykals (sanctuaries) of about 13th century origin is on the first floor. Three churches, consisting of the Church of the Angle Michael to the North, the Church of St. Anthony, Paul and Pachomius, and the southernmost Churhc of the Travelers (Al Sawwah) occupy the second story.

Much of the Church of St. Macarius was destroyed in 1930, but there remains two haykals dating to 830. St. Macarius and St. John the Short, among a few other saints are buried there. There is a small church of St. Ishkhirun of Killin with three haykals and two alters which is used for storage, and also a Church of the Forty-Nine Martyers which is used during fasts and the Feast of Nativity. And in the Church of Anba Mager, to the back of its keep are icons of the three St. Macarii, which is the oldest icon in the monastery.

The icon of the Three St. Macarii is the oldest in the Monastery

The icon of the Three St. Macarii is the oldest in the Monastery

Relics of the Three Macarii

Relics of the Three Macari

The Monastery of St. Macarius (Deir Abu Magar)

The monastery is said to be the richest in the Wadi Al Natrun. There is a coffin in the church of Abu Magar, which contains the relics of sixteen patriarchs of the Coptic church. There is also the relics of the forty nine martyers killed by the Berbers and buried in the church of the Elders. Relics also include those of the three Macarii who are St. Macarius the Great (Abu Magar or Maqarah, St. Macarius the Alexandrian and the Martyr St. Macarius the Bishop of Edfu (Idfu). Other releics include those of St. IIaria, the daughter of King Zenun, who disguised herself as a man in order to be a monk in the monastery. And finally there are the relics of St. John the Little (St. John Colobos or Anba Yoanis the Short).

Ancient icons within the monastery depict the following:

  • Anba Maqar the Great, the Egyptian carrying the cross (as a symbol of his perseverance, honesty and self mortification).

  • Anba Maqar the Alexandrian carrying a ladder (as a symbol of his zeal to acquire virtues step by step).

  • Anba Naqar the bishop of Edfu carrying a small lamb between his arms (as he is a Priest and martyr brought to slaughter, he is painted with white clothes).

Saint Yehnis the Short was the spiritual son of Anba Maqar. He was of the second generation, and his monastery was 15 kms south west of the monastery of Anba Maqar. His relics were transferred to the monastery of Anba Maqar when his monastery was ruined.

The Monastery of St. Macarius (Deir Abu Magar)

The Monastery of St. Macarius (Deir Abu Magar)

The Monastery of St. Macarius (Deir Abu Magar)

It was the usual habit after a patriarch had been elected and consecrated to the See of St. Mark in Alexandria, that he would be ordained and sanctified in this monastery. Many patriarchs were ordained in this monastery, and many of them were buried here. The Monastery of St. Macarius (Dair Abu Maqar) is the southernmost of the monastery group of the Wadi al-Natrun. it can be seen west from the Cairo-Alexandria desert highway at about 129 Km. to Alexandria or 86 to Cairo.

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Reference Number

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