The Monastery of the Martyrs

The Monastery of the Martyrs

by Jimmy Dunn

During the first period of Egyptian monasticism in the early Christian period, the movement grew in the Nile Valley perhaps mostly due to the ascetic zeal of the founding father Saints Pachomius (c. 349 AD) and Shenuda of Atripe (c. 466 AD). In additional to the famous monasteries on the west bank of the Nile near Sohag known as the White and the Red monasteries, there existed in the 7th and 8th Centuries east of Ancient Akhmim the monasteries of Harpocrates (7th century), Christophrus (8th century) and Colluthus (7th century). Ab `l-Makarim, the 13th century traveler who visited many of Egypt's monasteries, mentions three monasteries consisting of St. Pachomius at Barjanus, Ab Halbanah east of Akhmim and St. Paul. Al-Maqrizi (15th century) still refers to the Monastery of the Seven Mountains at the entrance to Seven Valleys and the Monastery of Sabrah, dedicated to St. Michael.

Today, there are eight monasteries east of Akhmim, including some of that were recently reactivated. These monasteries are dedicated to the Martyrs, the Holy Virgin, St. Michael at as-Salamuni, St. Thomas at Sawamiah Sharq, St. Pachomius the Martyr, St. George (Dair al-Hadid), St. Bisada opposite of Minsha and the Seven Mountains at Bir al-'Ain.

The persecutions of the Christians during the reign of Diocletian and Maximian resulted in a large number of martyrs. In Upper Egypt, they were carried out by the Governor Arianus who had come to Akhmim from Lycopolis (Asyut) to hunt for Christians in the provinces of Panopolis (Akhmim) and Antaioupolis (Qaw al-Kebir). Vatican documents mention 8140 Christians who refused to offer sacrifices to the Roman gods and subsequently suffered martyrdom in Akhmim. Whereas most of the Akhmim martyrs remained anonymous, some of them received special commemoration. These included Dioscorus and Aesclepius, who were ascetics in the desert east of Akhmim. St. Michael appeared to them and ordered them to witness before Arianus. They were tortured and finally beheaded. Forty soldiers of the garrison including their captains Philemon and Akourius joined the saints in their martyrdom.

However, Christians were persecuted by others besides the Romans. Mercurius and Ephraem, natives of Akhmim, were monks in the Thebaid and suffered martyrdom during the reign of the Arian Emperor Constantius (337-361) because they upheld the orthodox faith. Menas the "new martyr" lived in the 7th Century as a hermit near one of the monasteries east of Akhmim. He went to Hermopoplis Magna (al-Ashmunain) where where he was killed by the Arabs.

Monastery of the Martyrs (Deir as-Shuhada)

On the desert ridge about six km northeast of Akhmim (seven km south of the Greco-Roman Temple of Khnum at Esna there are three monasteries. The northern one near as-Salamuni is dedicated to the Angel Michael, the central one to the Martyrs and the southern monastery to the Holy Virgin. The monastery of the Martyrs lies about one kilometer from the road connecting Esna and Edfu.

Exterior of the Monastery of the Martyrs

Exterior of the Monastery of the Martyrs

This monastery, also known as the Monastery of St. Ammonius (Deir Manawus), is not to be identified with the 15th century Church of Asutir (Soter, Savior), in Akhmim, which according to al-Maqrizi (15th century) was also known by the name of the martyrs. The Monastery of the Martyrs (Dair as-Shuhada') is situated on an elevation at the edge of the desert east of al-Hawawish,

The Monastery of the Martyrs is built within a large necropolis. Many tombs were desecrated and plundered. Obviously they belong to various periods. This necropolis provided the large quantity of Coptic textiles which are exhibited in the art-collections of Europe and America. Among these are, for instance, the famous 8th/9th century orbiculi with the history of the Old Testament Patriarch Joseph. While the oldest building within the monastery today date back at the earliest to the second half of the eleventh century, many funerary stelae with Greek inscriptions attest to the more ancient age of the monastic complex.

In 1740 (?) Richard Pococke mentioned that the monastery was inhabited but a short time later it was reported that only one priest lived in the monastery.

Exterior of the Monastery of the Martyrs

A wall, built of mud-bricks about three meters high, encloses the Monastery. Upon entry through the western gate one reaches an extensive outer courtyard with 24 tombs belonging to notable citizens of ancient Akhmim and al-Hawawish. The inner court is separated from the outer court by another mud-brick wall. A passage leads from the inner court to the church (actually two churches attached to each other), which extends to the eastern section of the outer wall. The southern of the two churches is undoubtedly the oldest of the two dating to about the 11th or 12th century. Its structure is similar to that of the church of Deir al-Fakhuri. It has a naos that consists of a nave divided into two square spaces, each of which are covered by cupolas. There are two small side aisles that serve as ambulatories, a khurus (choir) and a sanctuary with two adjacent rooms. The north room serves as a baptistery.

The northern of the two churches was almost certainly built soon after the southern church. It has two aisles, a khurus and two sanctuaries. Apparently, at a later date, three additional sanctuaries were added to the south side of the churches, and one on the north.

Both the north and south churches are interestingly both architecturally and pictorially. Noteworthy is the device which here replaces the iconostasis (screen) which usually separates the sanctuaries from the nave. Here, simple little columns separated by small doors and windows fulfill this function.

The three original, central sanctuaries of the two churches are dedicated to the Holy Virgin (or perhaps, Saint Gregory, south), the Holy Martyrs (center) and Saint Michael (north). Only the central sanctuary has a wooden ciborium, which consists of a freestanding vaulted canopy supported by columns. The iconography of this ciborium corresponds to that of the Church of St. Mercurius (Ab's- Saifain) in Akhmim and may be assigned to the 18th or 19th century.

The sanctuaries and choirs of the two churches are decorated with fine wall paintings, though in rather bad condition. Many of these are as old as the two churches.

Interior View of the the church at the Monastery of the Martyrs

Interior View of the the church at the Monastery of the Martyrs

Interior View of the the church at the Monastery of the Martyrs

In the southern sanctuary, Christ is represented between the archangels Miachel and Gabriel and two saints who are probably Basil and Gregory.

The walls of the sanctuary (haikal) of the Martyrs (center) are adorned with several paintings of Coptic crosses with the shroud. These designs are undoubtedly copies of the famous 11th century apse-fresco of the Church of St. Shenuda in the White Monastery (Dai al-Abiad) west of Sohag. In the lower part of the sanctuary are depictions with the image of the Holy Virgin enthroned between the archangels Michael and Gabriel.

Interior View of the the church at the Monastery of the Martyrs

The concha (a semidome) of the apse has an image of Christ Pantocrator (ruler of the universe) surrounded by the apocalyptic symbols of the evangelists, consisting of an ox, lion, human being and eagle. Saints Peter and Stephen are presented on the arch that divides the choir from this sanctuary. The screen of the sanctuary dedicated to the Martyrs has an inlaid Coptic text dating to the 18th or 19th Century, which reads "Be greeted church, thou mansion of angels."

In the north sanctuary, one finds again the iconography of Christ Pantocrator and the archangels. In the choir of the north church, two warrior saints on horseback are portrayed, consisting of Saint Theodore to the north and Saint Claudius to the south.

Notably, from this monastery comes the now famous Book of Proverbs that was discovered in 1904, which is one of the earliest complete papyrus manuscripts in existence. It contains a translation of the Proverbs of Solomon into the Akhmin dialect. It was probably written in the 4th century, and is one of the longest texts in this dialect ever preserved.

Return to Christian Monasteries of Egypt


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 Countires, The Abu Salih, The Armenian, Edited and Translated by Evetts, B.T.A. 2001 Gorgias Press ISBN 0-9715986-7-3

Last Updated: June 12th, 2011