St. Simeon Monastery (Deir Anba Sim'an. Monastery of Anba Hatre, Hidra, Hadri or Hadra)

St. Simeon Monastery

(Monastery of Anba Hatre)

by Jimmy Dunn

General View of the Monastery of St. Simeon

General View of the Monastery of St. Simeon

Those on a fairly standard tour of Egypt that includes the Aswan area will most likely visit St. Simeon (Deir Anba Sim'an), the monastery otherwise known as Anba Hatre. It is very likely that this will also include their one substantial camel ride (about 15 minutes), which is how these ruins, located some one thousand two hundred meters from the west bank oppose the southern tip of the island of Elephantine, are usually accessed. The monastery was given the name St. Simeon by archaeologists and travelers, but earlier Arabic and Coptic sources called it Anba Hatre (Hidra, Hadri, Hadra), after an anchorite who was consecrated a bishop of Syene (now Aswan) by Patriarch Theophilus (385-412 AD). Anba Hatre married at the age of eighteen. Tradition provides that just after the wedding, he encountered a funeral procession which inspired him to preserved his chastity and later become a disciple of Saint Baiman. After eight years of ascetic practices under the supervision of his teacher, he retired to the desert and applied himself to the study of the life of Saint Antony. He died during the time of Theodosius I.

Another view of the  monastery

Little actual archaeological attention has really ever been paid to this ancient site. It was examined and published by Grossmann in 1985, and in 1998 the inspectors of the antiquities removed some debris from the church, but apparently little else was accomplished.

Plan of the Monastery

The Plan of the Monastery

Plan of the Upper Terrace

It is clear that by the sixth or seventh century, from wall paintings in some of the rock caves dating to that period, that there was a monastic settlement at Anba Hatre, though whether it dates back to the life of the anchorite who it was named after is unknown. The monastery apparently was subject to significant building activity during the first half of the eleventh century, when several tall structures were built. Afterwards, Abu al-Makarim, a well known travelers and historian, also speaks of the monastery being occupied by monks. During the twelfth century (1173 AD), is suffered a particularly violent attack and heavy damage when the troops of Salah al-Din (Saladin) conducted their expeditions into Nubia. It is possible that Saladin may have feared that marauding Christian Nubians might use the monastery to make forays into southern Egypt. By the end of the thirteenth century, what was at one time one of the largest monasteries in Egypt with perhaps as many as 1,000 monks had been abandoned, either because of the lack of water are due to frequent raids by desert marauders.

Even though much of the monastery is in ruins, many of its main features are well preserved. It is of considerable architectural interest, for the church provides the most important example of an oblong, domed Christian church in Egypt and the keep, or tower, which served as a permanent residential complex, is the most developed of its kind. Furthermore, the large number of tombstones in the monastery cemetery are invaluable sources for the study of early Christian tombstones in the Nile Valley, and the kilns of the monastery have also proven significant for research into archaic Aswan pottery.

Another view of the church

There is a cliff that separates the monastery into two natural terraces on two levels. There is a relatively thin, six meter high trapezoid wall that encloses the terraces that occupy about a hectare of land, with two gates that give access to each terrace. This wall, with its lower portion made of rough stone and upper of unbaked brick, was equipped with towers and lookouts. Originally parts of the wall may have stood as high as ten meters, but today, most only the stone section of the wall remains intact, while the mudbrick is all but gone. The brown-ocher color of the brick contributes to the perfect harmonization of all the buildings with their desert surroundings.

The Lower Terrace

In the lower terrace are the original rock caves of the saints, the church with its baptistery, and (ancient) lodging for pilgrims. Here, the entrance gate projects out from the east wall of the enclosure beneath a defensive tower. Its vestibule leading into the monastery has a barrel vaulted roof.

The Principal Church of the Monastery

The enterior of the 10th or 11th century church

Within, the church was built during the first half of the eleventh century (or possibly earlier, in the tenth century) and represents the oldest of its kind in Egypt. Though only the lower part of it remains, it is an important example of a domed oblong church, a type that dates back to the beginning of Egypt's Fatimid Period (969-1173). The naos has a nave and two side aisles. The domes are octagonal in shape, with the two largest domes covering and dividing the nave, which is lined with pillars, into two square areas. The aisles of the nave end to the east along the sanctuary in a room which originally had an entrance in its east wall. This was an unusual arrangement for Coptic churches, and the entrances were subsequently blocked. The room at the east end of the south aisle served as a baptistery. There is also a grotto at the west end of the north aisle of the church, where the structure rests against the rock which delimits the lower terrace, that is an ancient Egyptian rock tomb used by the monks as a habitat. This may have been the original dwelling of Anba Hatre himself. A rectangular cruciform sanctuary, originally covered by another dome, was once connected with the khurus (choir) so that altogether, they formed a large, single trefoil with three rectangular compartments. The addition of two rectangular rooms flanking the sanctuary, covered with half domes, was a later expansion in the eastern zone of the church. Behind the sanctuary is a room that reminds us of the corridor in a similar location built into Nubian churches. Behind the church lining the east wall of the monastery are a few cells for monks, each with three stone beds.

Plan of the Church

Plan of the Church

There were a number of visible wall paintings that were still discernable at the end of the nineteenth century, but alas, most of these are now badly damaged or even destroyed. It has been suggested that these paintings date to the eleventh or twelfth century, though below those that can still be seen are at least another layer of paintings in the apse of the church. In the eastern semi-dome their remains visible a scene of Christ enthroned within the mandorla, held by two angles, with flames rising to its base. Christ holds a book on one knee with his left hand, while his right hand is raised in blessing beyond the edge of the mandorla. A human figure with a square nimbus appears in a praying position on the extreme right. Below this scene, the walls are adorned with arcades and pendentives.

Painting within the  semi-dome

On the north wall of the sanctuary there is still extant a painting of juxtaposed, haloed figures seated, representing the twenty-four Priests (elders of Revelation). Also, in a niche on the west side of the church is a painting depicting the Holy Virgin Mary standing between two bowing angles.

Within the grotto at the west end of the north aisle, the walls were originally decorated with a sequence of figures numbering thirty-six in one register. It has been suggested that these represent some of the seventy-two disciples of Christ. The ceiling of the grotto is adorned with busts within large squares and small octagons and set against a geometrical design of fretwork patterns. These painting can be dated to the sixth or seventh century.

Ceiling of the Grotto

Ceiling of the Grotto

The Upper Terrace

The upper terrace consisted of the large keep (qasr) that provided permanent living quarters for the monastic community. This was somewhat unusual in that most keeps served only as temporary housing during sieges. The upper terrace can be approached by a stairway along the north wall of the church in the lower part of the monastery. The keep, its massive size unusual in comparison to those of other monasteries, is a three-storied building that dominates the ruins. Individual cells for the monks, a refectory, kitchen and several workshops were included in this structure, though no well or other water supply to sustain the community during times of siege has ever been discovered. Nevertheless, it represents the climax in development for this type of structure.

The Refectory

The Refectory

The ground floor of the keep encompasses the refectory, together with rows of cells that flank a vaulted corridor. This corridor, with three windows for illumination, is oriented north-south, and the wall at its north end is the northern enclosure wall of the monastery. The cells are furnished with as few as two and as many as six stone beds. The refectory, a rectangular room that was originally divided by a row of four columns and roofed by two rows of contiguous cupolas n pendentives, is on the northwest side of the corridor. The floor of the refectory is paved with baked bricks, upon which are seven mudbrick rings that formed the base of the seats used by monks when they took their common meals.

A cell with beds of stone

A cell with beds of stone

Thee are various dependencies attached to the kitchen west of the refectory. One room contains a reservoir that held part of the monastery's water supply. Even though no water well has ever been found on the monastery grounds, there is an elaborate plumbing arrangement that provided water on the upper terrace bathrooms, latrines and several laundering establishments.

The Corridor in the Keep

The Corridor in the Keep

The oil press, with its granite millstone decorated with three crosses, is situated on the upper terrace south of the keep. There was also a mill and bakery outside the keep, and a number of ovens of different sizes were found on both terraces. Other structures include a wine press, storage annexes, stables, a vat to decant the water and another to extract salt.

Oil Press Mill

The pottery kilns in the southern zone of the monastery were used to produce Aswan pottery that was used in Upper Egypt and Nubia during Roman, Byzantine and the early Islamic periods. Hence, they are of special interest.

The cemetery of the monastery has yielded nearly two hundred tombstones, many of which range in date from the sixth through the ninth century. Their text, which shows three distinct editions and different prayer formulas, is highly valuable to researchers.

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