Christian Oxyrhynchus (modern al-Bahnasa) and its Environs

Christian Oxyrhynchus (modern al-Bahnasa) and its Environs

by Jimmy Dunn

The Oxyrhynhus from a satue found at al-Bahnasa

Oxyrhynchus (meaning sharp-nosed fish) was the main city within the nineteenth nome (province) during Egypt's Pharaonic Period. In ancient times, it was called per-meged (Per-medjed) and Pemje by the Coptic Christians. It played an interesting role in Egyptian mythology and was given the name Oxyrhynchus during the Roman period because of the local worship of a Nile fish by that name (a form of pike).

Oxyrhynchus, which is today the predominately Muslim town of al-Bahnasa (Behnesa), was in the archaic Christian period, an important center for that religion (as well as an Episcopal See). There is evidence that the persecutions by the Emperor Diocletian were especially severe at Oxyrhynchus. Elias the Eunuch, Isaac of Tiphre and Epiuse are said to have suffered martyrdom here.

An early drawing of the  area showing some of the various ruins

The actual ruins of Oxyrhynchus lie outside the modern village as well as beneath it, some seventeen kilometers west of Beni Mazar on the banks of the Bahr Yusuf canal at the edge of the Western Desert. In fact, in the streets of al-Bahnasa, one can easily recognize fragments of decorations that once adorned Christian edifices, including capitals, friezes and the shafts of columns. Even the local mosque utilized Corinthian and composite columns and capitals that had once belonged to Christian churches.

The first excavations of this region were conducted by English (B. P. Grenfell and A. S. Hunt) and Italian archaeologists, mostly seeking papyri, between 1896 and 1907 under the auspices of the Egypt Exploration Fund. This effort, which sprang from a chance finding near what must have been the dump of the ancient city, was successful, for they discovered several thousand documents among some 40,000 pieces and scraps of Papyrus written mostly in Greek and Latin but also demotic Egyptian, Coptic, Hebrew, Syriac and latter, Arabic. They are indeed priceless in our understanding of life and the economy of Egypt during the first few centuries of the common era. The fragments mostly date from between 250 BC and 700 AD.

A papyrus from the  large dump near the city

Pre-Christian documents including material such as poems of Pindar, fragments of Sappho aned Alcaeus, along with larger pieces of Alcman, Ibycus and Corinna. There was also a large part of the Ichneutae of Sophocles, extensive remains of the Hypsipyle of Euripides and a large portion of several plays of Menander. One of the oldest and most complete diagrams from Euclid's Elements of Geometry is a fragment of papyrus found among the remarkable rubbish piles of Oxyrhynchus. Another important find was the Hellenica Ozyrhynchus, who's author is unknown for certain, but may be Ephorus. A vita of Euripides by Satyrus, written in the form of a dialogue was also unearthed, which represents an interesting specimen of a popular biography, while an epitome of some of the lost books of Livy constitute the chief literary find in Latin.

Among the documents, the earliest Christian discoveries were the two series of the Sayings of Jesus, or Logia Jesu, which were published in 1897 and 1904. An example from this text reads:

"Jesus saith, I stood in the midst of the world and in the flesh was I seen of them, and I found all men drunken, and none found I athirst among them, and my soul grieveth over the sons of men, because they are blind in their heart, and see not ..."

Logion III, lines 11-21

However, for Biblical scholars, the most noteworthy finds were probably the third century fragments of Matthew, chapter 1, verses 1-9, 12 and 14-20 (Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 2) and fragments of chapter 1, 15, 16 and 20 of John (Oxyrhynchus Papyrus 208 and 1228). We also find many other ancient Biblical references in the papyrus, such as the Gospel of Peter, though most of this is highly fragmentary.

Yet it should also be noted that the papyrus fragments included such mundane items as private letters, shopping lists and tax returns.

Due to a gap in the written documentation discovered at Oxyrhynchus, it is probable that the city may have suffered a period where it was abandoned, though for how long is uncertain. This would have occurred some time after 645 AD, but by the 9th century, it was again populated.

During 1922, Flinders Petrie and 1930, there were some topography and architectural studies conducted of the ancient city, but even today, although there are some limited excavations continuing, there are no plans known for any methodical and complete unearthing of the city. However, we do know that it took up an area of about two kilometers long and eight hundred meters wide and was enclosed by a high wall with five gates. The main streets of the community were about a mile long and flanked by colonnades. They crossed in a central square and terminated at quays on the east, and led to a road to the desert camel routes to the west. During its peak development, the city may have contained over thirty thousand inhabitants.

A standing column remaining at Oxyrhynchus

Apparently, the city had many public buildings, as noted in the papyrus unearthed in the region, as well as places of worship. Though only traces remain, archaeologists have identified a theater, which could seat eleven thousand spectators, a hippodrome, where the traditional chariot races took place, four public baths, important because there was no running water available in private homes, a gymnasium, which was an important center of cultural life during the Hellenistic and Roman periods, and two small ports on the Bahr Yusuf canal. It is also likely that there were military buildings, such as barracks, since the city supported a military garrison on several occasions during the Roman and Byzantine periods.

As for places of worship, during the Greek and Roman periods, Egyptian temples to Serapis, Zeus-Amun, Hera-Isis, Atargatis-Bethnnis, Osiris have been identified. There were also Greek temples to Demeter, Dionysius, Hermes, Apollo, the goddess Fortune together with Roman temples to Jupiter Capitolinus and Mars.

From the forth century on, the city, which tradition holds was visited by the Holy Family on their travels in Egypt, became one of the leading centers of Egyptian Christianity, with scores of churches and monasteries. In fact, we are told in the "History of the Egyptian Monks" that:

"Eventually we came to a certain city of the Thebaid called Oxyryncus, which was so famous for good religious activities that no description could possibly do justice to them all. We found monks everywhere inside the city and also in all the countryside round about. What had been the public buildings and temples of a former superstitious age were now occupied by monks, and throughout the whole city there were more monasteries than houses. There are twelve churches in this very spacious and populous city where public worship is conducted for the people, as well as the monasteries which all have their own chapels. But from the very gates with its battlements to the tiniest corner of the city there is no place without its monks who night and day in every part of the city offer hymns and praises to God, making the whole city one great church of God. No heretics or pagans are to be found there, for all the citizens are Christians, all Catholics, so that it makes no difference whether the bishop offers prayer in the streets or in the church."

The well that Jesus is said to have played near when planting the wood for a tree

Though perhaps an exaggeration, the author of this work tells us that there were some ten thousand monks and twenty thousand virgins in Oxyrhynchus. The principal church located in al-Bahnasa (actually, the twin village of Sandafa), built by Ibrahim Ghattas and Abuna Butrus Ishaq in 1923, of of little interest, except for its modern Byzantine iconostatasis (a screen with icons that stands before the sanctuaries). This church has three haikals (sanctuaries), which are dedicated to the Holy Virgin, Saint Theodore, who is highly venerated in this section of the country, and the Archangel.

Otherwise, there remains a well and a tree in the middle of a desolate Muslim cemetery. It is said that while the child Jesus was playing near this well, he planted a piece of wood in the soil that grew into a green and fruitful tree. In 1995, archaeologists also found the remains of a church beneath the cemetery of al-Bahnasa, though little is known of its history.

Ruins of an ancient church beneath the Muslim cemetery

The best known ancient monastery nearby is that of al-Sanquriya (Deir al-Sanquriya), located about three kilometers away from the modern village. The present buildings of this facility, where the Mulid of Amir Tadrus is held, is rather recent, though their foundations date back perhaps to the forth or fifth century. This was the time of the greatest splendor of Oxyrhynchus.

The Church of St. Theodore here dates to the medieval times, but has kept some ancient elements, such as the four columns at the center of the nave and those of the portico, situated near the northwest corner of the building. They date from the ancient church. The portico columns are made of red granite and three of them have acanthus-leaf capitals.

The church has three haikhals (sanctuaries), which are dedicated to the Holy Virgin (north), Saint Theodore (center), and Saint George (south). The haikal screen is noteworthy for its ivory inlaid designs.

There is an amdon (pulpit) attached to the northwestern column that is adorned with icons of the Twelve Apostles. The baptistery is situated in the northeastern part of the church.Just west of the church is an enclosed necropolis with eight tombs belonging to the family of Mikha'il Athanasius, who was responsible for a restoration of the church.

Another ancient monastery, though hardly anything is left of it besides a church built in the nineteenth century, is located just northeast of Oxyrhynchus. This was the monastery of al-Garnus (Deir al-Garnus), which was dedicated to the Holy Virgin. In the church's courtyard can be found many architectural fragments from an older church, including columns and capitals from the sixth century. On its west side, once can still see a well from which, according to tradition, the Holy Family drew water in the course of their journey through Egypt.

As a side note, it should be mentioned that the Al-Hassan Ibn Saleh Mosque located in Al-Bahnasa dates to the Fatimid era, marking it as one of the oldest outside Cairo. It has recently been restored.

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 14th, 2011