By Karel Innemée
Photography by Karel Innemée

Wadi al-Natrun, a geological depression west of the Delta, is one of the cradles of Coptic monasticism. In the fourth century, hermits retreated here in search of asceticism and solitude, but soon the monasteries that developed out of these anchoretic communities became centres of ecclesiastical culture. One of them, Deir al-Surian (the Syrian Monastery), is of particular interest.

The Beginnings

The Syrian Monastery was founded under another name: the Monastery of the Holy Virgin of Anba Bishoi. This happened at the beginning of the sixth century when a group of monks from the nearby monastery of Anba Bishoi left because of a theological dispute and started their own monastic settlement. At that time, we should imagine the monastery as a kind of open village, a church surrounded by the cells of the monks. But how did a Coptic monastery become Syrian? Until recently it was believed that at the beginning of the eighth century, the monastery was sold to the Syrian community after the dispute with the monks of Anba Bishoi had been resolved. Then, when the Syrian community died out in the sixteenth century, the Copts took over the monastery again. Today, we know this story to be inaccurate. Since 1994, important discoveries have been made in the church that have changed the appearance of its interior and our ideas about the history of the community.

How an Accident Triggered Discovery

In the western semi-dome, this annunciation was painted using the encaustic technique (eighth century).

In 1987, a small fire in part of the church damaged a painting in the western semi-dome. Consequently, in 1991, a French-Dutch team undertook a rescue campaign and separated the thirteenth-century painting from an earlier one hidden beneath. Although the presence of the painting was not unknown, its state of preservation, style and iconography were a surprise. The painting discovered represents the Annunciation to the Virgin Mary, flanked by four Old Testament prophets. No similar painting had previously been found in a Coptic church, and a lively discussion erupted among scholars in the field. ‘Was this Coptic art or Syrian?’ they asked, ‘When was it made and by whom?’ Opinions on its date ranged from the eighth till the twelfth centuries. The only way to find out more about this mural was to search for more hidden paintings under the plaster elsewhere in the church. In 1995, Karel Innemée, a professor of art at Leiden University, and Ewa Parandowska, a Polish restorer, started their investigations and concluded that almost everywhere in the church, mural paintings were hidden under a layer of eighteenth-century plaster, sometimes up to three superimposed layers. Since then, a group of restorers from Poland, Portugal and Egypt have been gradually uncovering these layers. Their results are surprising: paintings from four different periods, from the seventh till the thirteenth centuries, sometimes in three layers on top of each other, provide a cross-section through the development of religious painting in Egypt. And this is not all: apart from the paintings, countless inscriptions and graffiti were found on the walls, in Coptic, Syriac, Greek and Arabic. These texts provide us with valuable information about the paintings, the history of the monastery and its inhabitants.

The History of the Monastery Rewritten

St Collouthos performing an eye operation. Encaustic painting on the south wall of the khurus (eighth century).

Since the first painting appeared, the interior of the church has not only become more colourful; we now know considerably more about the history of the building and the community that used it. We know, for instance, that the first Syrians probably arrived in the monastery around 800 CE, a hundred years later than was previously presumed. They did not buy the monastery, but lived there together with the Coptic monks, forming a mixed community based on the common theological ideas of the Coptic and Syrian Orthodox Churches. At some moment in the early ninth century, the region of Wadi al-Natrun was invaded by nomads from the Libyan Desert, who ransacked the monasteries and murdered or drove away their inhabitants. After several years, the monks returned and started rebuilding their monasteries. A Syriac inscription on one of the walls mentions how two brothers, Mattay and Yacoub, took the initiative of rebuilding the monastery, probably adding a defensive wall around it. This text is dated to the year 818/819 CE, and represents the beginning of a period in which Syrian monks from the region of Mosul and Tikrit (present-day Iraq) not only repopulated the monastery together with the Copts, but also invested considerable sums of money in the monastery and its library. In the first half of the tenth century, the monastery flourished under the Syrian abbot Moses of Nisibis. He was responsible for important renovations in the eastern part of the church and probably commissioned important additions to the painted decoration. The famous wooden doors that separate the nave from the transept and the transept from the sanctuary were also ordered by him. The recent restoration of the sanctuary doors has shown that expensive wood and ivory were imported from Asia and Africa to construct these doors. In the sanctuary, decorative stucco work was made by workmen that must have come from the region of Samarra. Meanwhile, the monastery library grew to house the largest collection of Syriac manuscripts in the Near East. In other words, the monastery had become a centre of learning and cultural exchange. Pilgrims and visitors came from far away and left testimonies of their visits in graffiti on the church walls. There were less fortunate episodes as well: an inscription from 1165/66 mentions how after a period of crisis, when not a single Syrian priest was left in the monastery, life resumed and problems were overcome (unfortunately the cause of the crisis is unknown). The cohabitation of Syrian and Coptic monks probably lasted until the end of the sixteenth or the beginning of the seventeenth century, when the Syrian community probably died out. By that time, the glory days of Coptic monasticism were over. By the end of the eighteenth century, the monastery enjoyed renewed interest, but this time with less constructive results: the rich Syriac library of the monastery was discovered by Western libraries and collectors. As a result, the most valuable manuscripts were bought for often ridiculous prices from the monks who had forgotten their value. Many of them are now in the Vatican Library, the British Library and the Library of St Petersburg.

The results were surprising: paintings from four different periods, from the seventh till the thirteenth centuries, sometimes in three layers on top of each other, give us a cross-section through the development of religious painting in Egypt.

The Paintings

The days of glory seemed past, but whereas the library books were sold or stolen, the mural paintings remained like a hidden treasure, covered by a layer of grey plaster that was applied after a crude renovation at the end of the eighteenth century. Since 1994, they have gradually been awoken from their slumber. The church must have been built around 645 CE, with the first preliminary decoration applied soon afterward, consisting of decorative patterns and crosses, painted in simple red ochre paint. Probably before the beginning of the eighth century a more monumental layer of paintings was begun. This second layer was apparently not planned as one consistent decorative programme; instead, paintings were added over the course of the eighth century, like a collection of icons, hung one by one. The first painting uncovered in its entirety was that of the breastfeeding Virgin, an impressive image that must have been painted as one of the first of the second layer, the Virgin being the patroness of the church. It is not a coincidence that the face of Mary reminds the viewer of the Fayoum portraits, especially when seen from nearby. This painting, like most of the other eight murals in the church, was done in the so-called encaustic technique, using beeswax as a medium for the pigment. This was another interesting discovery. It was generally thought that by the eighth century, this painting technique had been forgotten, but these paintings, undertaken by different masters over a span of several decades, prove the opposite. The paintings on the ground floor level in the khurus (transept) are all representations of saints, some famous, others less well-known. One scene, on the southern wall, draws the attention for its unusual iconography. We see a saint, seated on a decorated chair, performing an eye operation on a patient standing in front of him. In the background, a second patient awaits treatment, next to a medicine chest. It is most probably Saint Collouthos, a Coptic saint venerated for healing eye diseases. He is not the only holy doctor in the church; at his right-hand side, there are the famous saints Cosmas and Damian, holding scalpels and medicine boxes. In the tenth century, a third layer of paintings was added, partly covering the second one, but mainly meant as an addition to the decoration. These paintings show clear Syrian influence in their iconography, not surprising if we realise that Moses of Nisibis must have commissioned them. A particularly interesting painting from this layer is that of the deathbed of the Virgin Mary, where the archangel Michael stands behind the bier to receive her soul while seven virgins are burning incense. The most recent discovery is that of a painting in the northern half-dome. There used to be a thirteenth-century painting there, also representing the death of the Virgin Mary. When this painting was detached and moved to the museum next to the church, an eighth-century encaustic painting of the Epiphany (the presentation of Christ to the Magi and the shepherds) was found underneath. Although it was badly damaged, the unmistakable quality is apparent in the face of the Virgin, which has the appearance of a Byzantine icon. Work is still in progress and during the winter months, when the church is not in use, the restoration team continues uncovering the artistic jewels from this treasure chest in the desert.


This article was first published in print in RAWI's ISSUE 3, 2011

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