Egypt: Christian Churches and Monasteries of Luxor and the West Bank

Christian Churches and Monasteries of

Luxor and the West Bank

by Jimmy Dunn

Many western tourists who have an interest in archaic Christian monuments, even though they may be taking a classical pharaonic tour, will visit the famous old churches in Coptic (Old) Cairo. Of course, outside of Cairo, many classical tours will also visit the abandoned St. Simeon Monastery outside of Aswan, and extended tours to the Sinai will very often make a trip to St. Catherine's Monastery, a very popular attraction. They may even stop by the Seven Girls Monastery in Wadi Firan on their way to or from St. Catherine's. However, if the tourist looks a little closer, they will also discover Christian relics elsewhere on their tour.


Coptic platter from KV3

There was a fairly large community of Christians during that era of Egypt's history both at Thebes (modern Luxor) and on the West Bank across the river. Some of the ruins are among the oldest to be found in Egypt, dating from the 4th century, and indeed, a see was established at Thebes probably before 325 and the Council of Nicaea.

On the West Bank

"I beseech thee, Jesus Christ, my Lord, suffer me not to follow after my desire; let not my thoughts have dominion over me, let me not die in my sins, but accept Thy servant for good."

Coptic graffito in KV2, the Tomb of Ramesses IV

Regrettably, the center of this activity was in the town of Jeme, which could have extended from Deir el-Medina to Madinat Habu, but the remains of the church built there, probably called the Cathedral of Saint Athanasius, was cleared away by the Service des Antiquites in 1895. It would have been located in the second court of the Temple of Ramesses III. In fact, most of the Christian structures at Thebes were incorporated into various pharaonic monuments. Like the Cathedral of Saint Athanasius, some have been cleared away, while others remnants remain. However, the extent of this Christian community is evidenced by the number of pharaonic sites with Deir in their names, a word that basically means "church", or at least a Christian place of worship.


Above: Old Picture of the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut. Note the tower of the monastery

For example, one important settlement was Deir el-Medina, and specifically the temple begun by Ptolemy IV, which owes its name to a Christian monastery and church that may have been dedicated to Saint Isidorus. Another is Deir el-Bahri, well known for its famous Temple of Queen Hatshepsut. Known as the Northern Monastery or the Monastery of Pa Phoibammon, the upper terrace was settled by Christian monks in the large hypostyle hall, but again, all traces of their existence have been cleared away. We do know that the monastery had a square brick tower nearly eighty meters high, and the buildings that were constructed were made of mud brick and stone taken from the 18th Dynasty walls. This monastery was apparently abandoned around 780 AD.

However, there are some remaining Christian monuments in the area, including a few that remain incorporated into the more ancient sites. For example, up on a hill that divides the Valley of the Queens into two branches are the remains of a small monastery that we know little about, other than its name, Deir el-Rumi. It probably received its name from three wells located in the area, which is known as the Valley of Rumi (or the Valley of Three Wells). Within this area are also located a number of smaller tombs with some interesting decorations.


A Coptic pottery dish, circa 6th century AD from the Monastery of Epephanius

Another site we have more information concerning is the Monasteries of Saints Cyriacus and Epephanius (Epiphanius). The Monastery of Cyriacus extended roughly from tomb 65 belonging to Nebamon to tomb 67, that of Hapuseneb on the eastern slope of Sheikh Abd el-Qurna in the area known as the Tombs of the Nobles. From this monastery, one may reach the Monastery of Epiphanius, which is about twenty meters above the road to Deir el-Bhari. This monastery was excavated in 1912 by the Metropolitan Museum of Art under the direction of Herbert E. Winlock. It was built on the site of the 11th Dynasty tomb (courtyard) of the vizier, Daga (Dagi), about four hundred meters south of Deir el-Bahri. While there are only a few remains of the monastery, it was first mentioned in a will of the 7th century monks Jacob and Elias. On up the hill, especially, in tombs TT84, 85, 87 and 97 show signs of extensive Coptic settlement.


the Tomb of Daga

The Monastery of Phoebammon (Phoibammon), or Deir Abi Fam, was excavated in 1948 by the Coptic Archaeological Society. It is located about eight kilometers west of the Valley of the Queens, and is difficult to reach. One must cross the desert of al-Kula in al-Hamra. However, it may date from the 4th century and has yielded considerable Coptic graffiti.


Coptic graffiti in the Tomb of Ramesses IV

Other hermitages on the west bank included monasteries and cells of anchorites on the hilltop of Qurnat Murrat and in the Ramesseum. However, of particular interest is the Tomb of Ramesses IV, which shows the most evidence of actual occupation by early Christian with a large number of Coptic graffiti (50 or so), including a number of inscriptions written in red paint. In one scene, a saint praying with his arms raised in the air is probably Apa Ammonius the Martyr (located on the right wall behind the entrance). Another inscriptions lists seven famous Coptic hermits, consisting of Apa Paul, Apa Antony, Apa Pachom, Apa Palemon, Apa Petronius, Apa Theodore and Apa Horsiese. Such graffiti can also be found in the tomb of Ramesses XI (KV4) as well as tomb KV3, the tomb of one of Ramesses III's sons which had been adapted as a chapel.

At Luxor and Karnak

No less than five churches were built within the confines of the Luxor Temple during the Byzantine period. The Mosque of Abu al-Haggag was built upon the site of one of these churches, while there was also a large basilica with a baptistery northwest of the nave southeast of the eastern pylon. There was another church built in the court of Ramesses II, and a smaller church in the southwestern section of the temple area. There is also the remains of an apse with wall paintings at the southwest end of the narthex where thirty-two columns are located.

While none of these churches exist today, within the temple, there are a total of twelve column or statue bases inscribed with 4th century Latin dedicatory text, while west of the temple are four more bases with dedications to the emperors Diocletian and Maximian and the caesars Contantius and Galerius. In fact, there are a number of other statue or column bases with such dedications which all date to the Christian period prior to the legalization of the religion.

Within the Temple of Karnak, an ancient 4th century Christian church as established in the Great Festival Hall of Tuthmosis III, where paintings of saints can be clearly identified on six columns. While the space between the central columns was used for worship, it is impossible to reconstruct the plan of this ancient church.

However, within the Temple of Montu at Medamud about eight kilometers northeast of Luxor, the ruins of a small church built into the temple are still traceable. It apparently had three naves, and the remains of pillars can still be seen. Again, this church probably dated to the 4th, or perhaps as late as the 5th century.

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2000 Years of Coptic Christianity

Meinardus, Otto F. A.


American University in Cairo Press, The

ISBN 977 424 5113

Cairo (The Coptic Museum Old Churches

Gabra, Gawdat


Egyptian International Publishing Company, The

ISBN 977-16-0081-8

Complete Valley of the Kings, The (Tombs and Treasures of Egypt's Greatest Pharaohs)

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Thames and Hudson Ltd

IBSN 0-500-05080-5

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ISBN 1-5866-3295-7