Al Muharraq Monastery was settled for the Holy Virgin Mary Monastery with time at Al-Muharraq (the burnt) area, Asyut Governorate. The original naming of Al-Muharraq Monastery “Dayr Al Muharraq” derives from the close vicinity where Ancient Egyptians used to burn harmful plants and weeds. So the whole region was known as “burnt”.
- Location of Al Muharraq Monastery
- Derivation of Qosqam
- The Holy Family at Mount Qosqam
- Qosqam monastery second Jerusalem for Abyssinians (Ethiopians)
Location of Al Muharraq Monastery
Dayr Al Muharraq lies in Al Qusiya, Al Kossia, Asyut 71, Egypt.
Derivation of Qosqam
Qosqam is an ancient name (dates back to the Pharaohs era) of the whole desert region, where Al Muharraq Monastery exists. It consists of two sections:
- Qos: “Tomb”
- Qam: the public meaning is: esparto grass (alpha grass), used in making burial shrouds. At the same time, the religious meaning is infinity – forever.
The Holy Family at Mount Qosqam
The Monastery of Al-Muharraq is now a barren desert at Mount Qosqam. So every town surrounding it today was non-existent, except for an abandoned house and water well adjacent to it. The Holy Family (the child Jesus and his mother St. Mary, St. Joseph the carpenter and Salome; their helper) rested in that modest house after being repaired and restored by St. Joseph.
After King Herod died in 4 BC. (which confirmed by the scholars of Bible History studies), the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream (here, at the very spot where Al-Muharraq Monastery Ancient Church stands, as most important sources and manuscripts of Coptic church unanimously agreed), and the angel said:
“Arise, take the young Child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the young Child’s life are dead”. (Matthew 2:20) It might be fulfilled, which the Lord spoke through the prophet, saying, “Out of Egypt I called My Son”. (Hosea 11:1).
According to the Mss. of Coptic Orthodox Church. According to the Roman (Julian) calendar, the Holy Family arrived at Qosqam on the night of 7th Barmoudah (Coptic month), Monday of April 2nd, according to the Roman (Julian) calendar, which was in use at that time. Furthermore, they left on 6th Babah (Coptic month), Wednesday of October 3rd (Julian calendar). Consequently, the Holy Family stayed in Qosqam for six Coptic months and a few days (185 days).
Qosqam monastery second Jerusalem for Abyssinians (Ethiopians)
Since Christianity had spread in Ethiopia widely, Ethiopians loved and adored where Jesus Christ lived, Palestine and Qosqam of Egypt. They viewed the latter as a Second Jerusalem. Thus many Ethiopians left their country to lead the life of reclusion, asceticism and monasticism in such sites.
Presence of Ethiopian Monks
Moreover, there is an apparent reference to the Ethiopian monks’ presence in the Qosqam area at the end of the 4th and 5th centuries AD. This presence was reported in The Paradise of the Holy Fathers, vol. 1, chapter IX, (The Triumph of the Blessed Apollo and Ammon), p. 347. by Ernest A. Wallis Budge published by Chatto and Windas, London, 1907 AD.
The Monastery of Al-Muharraq in general and its ancient church, in particular, were of great significance to them. They exalted, respected, sanctified and venerated the monastery. Even they considered its sands a blessing simply because the Child Jesus Christ trod it.
Words are unable to describe to what extent they venerated the monastery. Their preserved manuscripts in their monasteries attest to the numerous miracles which the Holy Virgin Mary made in the sanctuary of Qosqam.
C. Counti Rossini, one of the research specialists in Ethiopian manuscripts (early 20th century), states that the Ethiopian monastic community at Qosqam monastery in the 14th and 15th centuries was active and vital. It consisted of about 30 people, including monks, Hegomens and deacons. This Ethiopian community was so popular that the Ethiopian King Sayfa Arad (in 1350 AD) honoured it by donating gospels to them.
History mentions that some Ethiopian monks of the monastery were martyred. One of them, called Arsanious (or Archeledes in some other manuscripts), was martyred during Pope Metthaous the Great (1378-1408 AD).
Queen Mentowab (meaning beautiful or extraordinary), the Empress of Ethiopia who gave up her reign to her son Iyasu II (meaning Jesus) (1730 – 1755 AD), visited Qosqam Monastery in the 18th century. She carried some monastery sands with her. She mixed it with the building materials of a great church (Qosqam Monastery Church) in Qosqam (one of the leading Ethiopian cities in Gondar). Her son Iyasu II built the church in 1738 AD. The Ethiopian church set fasting known as Qosqam Fasting (forty days from 26th Tot to 5th Hator), where 6th of Hator is the anniversary of Holy Virgin Mary’s Church consecration at Qosqam Monastery in Egypt.
When the number of Ethiopian monks increased in the Qosqam Monastery in Egypt, they had built their church to perform their ritual prayers in their language. The oldest Ethiopian church is John the Baptist Church adjacent to Virgin Mary Church. On removing John the Baptist church to enlarge the ancient church and build its outer nave, a new church was built above it for the Ethiopian monks in the 19th century when their number reached forty monks. However, in the thirties of the 20th century, this church was removed because the monks were afraid that it might badly affect the building of the ancient church.
Ethiopian monks have consistently decreased since the Ethiopian-Italian war (1936-1948 AD.). Because of the turmoil and disputes in the south of Sudan, they came to Qosqam Monastery on foot.
The Ethiopian clergymen still remember that most of their bishops deputised by their mother Coptic Church to Ethiopia came from Qosqam Monastery’s monks. Thus the Ethiopians would never forget this monastery because they loved it; they still hold it in the greatest of esteem till now and forever.
Main building of Al Muharraq Monastery
The Holy Virgin Mary Ancient Church
This church is the oldest in the monastery. It is unique in its simple structure, considering the maintenance, repairs, and modifications that have been made throughout the church’s history. It cannot be categorised under the geometrical style of the architectural art of any Coptic church. In other words, it is famous for its simple and unsophisticated – not artificial – architectural structure. It is built of sun-dried brick. Its walls are unsymmetrical and unsystematic. There are no ornamental ancient Coptic patterns, engravings, dappling, variegations or drawings on its walls.
The following is a detailed explanation of the church:
God Father’s Bosom is a curved semicircular area in the eastern wall of the “sanctuary”, symbolising God’s longing for His church, which is waiting for His coming.
Two other rooms were also built on both sides of the sanctuary. They are far more straightforward than any architectural art, yet they are featured with the church’s ancient original ritual. The left (Northern) room is used as a Sacristy, a dressing room for the clergy members, and had no door to the church’s nave. The right (Southern) room is for the deacons’ service, where the “Holy Communion set” is kept. It also had a hole in the floor, at the bottom of its eastern wall, emptying the thurible (censer) at the end of the liturgy service.
It is worthwhile mentioning that during the restoration and renewal of the church in the year 2000 AD, archaeologists discovered that the eastern wall is not one, but rather two walls with a space in between, enough for a person to stand in it. This space had an opening to the southern room of the sanctuary. According to church rituals, four pillars must be erected around the altar, symbolising the four Evangelists. However, three pillars were erected and fixed to the right and left walls due to the sanctuary’s narrow spacing. The fourth pillar was added later during the same restoration mentioned above. Three domes were later built, in the 16th century, over the sanctuary and the two rooms, on each side.
It is the most critical content in the sanctuary; it is cubic and not equilateral. A marble with a semicircular edge on its surface engraved a Greek inscription. It reads “O, Lord repose the blessed Kulthos”, dated Kyahk 15th, 463 A.M. (December 11th, 746 AD according to the contemporary calendar of that period).
This semicircular marble is considered a peculiar shape that distinguishes ancient Coptic altars in Egypt. The idea of semicircular shape is an old Coptic convention that first appeared in the Last Supper icons where the table is semicircular.
Oil Lamps and Ostrich Eggs
While the church is considered a symbol of Heaven, the oil lamps and candles stand for stars. Since the yellow stars decorate the material sky, the spiritual Heaven should also be the same decoration.
Oil Lambs are placed in front of icons during the liturgy service and lit with pure olive oil, standing for Jesus Christ who gleams through His saints. Nowadays, the only remaining oil lamb is that of the east wall within the sanctuary; and is always lit, so that no strange fire should be used in the church; as a symbol of what was said by the Lord to Moses, that the oil lambs be lighted constantly, (Exodus 27: 20 – 21). The east lamp also symbolises the star which appeared to the wise men from the east in the Levant.
Ostrich eggs in the church symbolise the divine providence and resurrection of the Lord.
Two Other Ancient Churches
Through the history and documents of the monastery, two churches were identified but are non-existent now.
St. John the Baptist Church
Christians dedicated St. John the Baptist Church to the Ethiopian monks. However, its date of construction is unknown. However, the oldest news about it that was reached till now – dates back to the midst of the 17th century. The church was close to the Holy Virgin ancient church, on the northern side, and was demolished in the 19th century and replaced by the external narthex and its attached rooms. What remains today are only the stone altar and some icons.
Saint Takla Heymanot Church
The iconostasis of this church was placed in the Holy Virgin old church (as mentioned previously). Although the iconostasis bears the Apostles Peter and Paul’s name, the term “St. Takla-Heymanot” prevailed over the church. It was also dedicated to the Ethiopian Monks, built on the ancient church’s external narthex in the 19th century. Nevertheless, it was demolished in the thirties of the 20th century for the weakness of the old church building.
The Ancient Keep
The history of the keep began in the 6th / 7th century. However, some archaeologists dated back to the 8th century. It is one of the smallest keeps existing now in the inhabited monasteries. Generally speaking, monks built the keeps to protect the monks against fierce barbarian raids.
The keep contained:
- A source of drinkable water: As this keep had no well, there must have been a link between the well of The Holy Virgin ancient church and the lupine basin in a room on the ground floor. A different opinion says an old well to the east of the keep connected to the lupine basin. Monks opened the basin inlet to let water flow when needed.
- Sufficient food: No other food could be stored during any siege as it would soon become rotten, but lupine. No matter how long the storage time was, lupine would be efficient food and not decay. Science has discovered the nourishing benefits of lupine as it contains vegetable fats, carbohydrates, calcium, phosphorus and a good amount of vitamin B complex.
- Cells or living rooms.
- A Place for worship: In this keep, there is one chapel in the name of Archangel Michael: That he might intercede on their behalf and protect them from evil.
- One or more small burial rooms: If a monk dies under siege, he is buried in a designated area, usually between the keep’s roof and the chapel’s ceiling.
- Emergency caches: The most crucial stock is situated under the sanctuary if barbarians could break through to kill the monks. If this took place during liturgy, the priest (and those who served with him if possible) would escape to the cache, and they should receive the Holy Communion hastily before it reaches the hands of the attacker.
The Keep Chapel
It has one altar, and its nave comprises two minor divisions by two pillars and a wooden partition in between. It seems that the two pillars are probably from ancient ages were taken from a nearby pagan temple, which existed during the earliest periods of Christianity, as indicated from the broken capital of one of them.
Standing to the front of the nave is a wooden pulpit from which the “lectionary book” – the book of ritual readings – is read. It is believed to date back to the 12th century when the keep was renovated.
The church’s door and the other entries are the same design as The Holy Virgin Mary ancient church. However, there is no information to date to confirm if the keep has ever been used.
The Hemicycle Sundial
It consists of a fixed gnomon, in the middle of the diameter of a semicircle, carved on the southern wall of the keep. The time reading depends on the gnomon’s shadow, falling on the time scale.
Saint George Church
The church was established in the late 18th century by Abbot Hegomen Abd El-Malak El-Assiuty, through the help of elementary resources. In Amsheer 1594 A.M. (1878 AD), the Monastery Abbot, Hegomen Mikhail El-Abuteegy, started establishing a new church called “The Holy Virgin Mary” over the ruins of St. George Church. He accomplished it in 1880 AD; named the northern altar after “John the Baptist” and the southern altar after “St. George”, on the basis that the central altar is in the new name of the church “The Holy Virgin Mary”.
The following lines are written over the northern entrance of the church from outside in beautiful Arabic calligraphy:
Open your doors O kings, O ye gates; and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in. Who [is] this King of glory? The LORD strong and mighty, The LORD mighty in battle, He [is] the King of glory.” This is the gate of the Lord, the righteous enter. Remember O Lord your servant Fr – Mikhail El-Abuteegy, Abbot of Al-Muharraq Monastery, caring for the renewal of this holy place, 1596 AM.
A notable characteristic of this church is the Byzantine/Greek styled iconostasis. This iconostasis has a beautiful story known to the monks of the monastery. “Some Turkish rulers came to the monastery. The monks hosted them so generously that the rulers were impressed. They promised to get a firman (decree) issued to assign the monastery property of 285 acres of the neighbouring land as an expression of gratitude. When the Turkish rulers left, the monks were worried lest the decree affair should be neglected. Moved with zeal in the heart of one of them, named Fr. Hegomen Saleeb El – Hory, he went to Istanbul on foot to get the decree where he achieved his goal. On his way back home, he passed through the Syrian lands to collect donations to build the church, where he met a man and asked him to donate for the church.
The man waved his hand abruptly in the monk’s face. Instantly, his arm got paralysed. He cried out for the monk’s help by praying for him. The monk complied, and the man’s hand was healed to normal. He was so stunned so that he donated the marble iconostasis for the church”.
The interior of the church was renovated in 1990 AD. It is designed upon the medieval pattern, where women had a private place on the second floor upon the church’s nave. After the renovations, it was inaugurated on the commemoration of our Fr. Hegomen Mikhail El-Buhairy’s repose.
Monastery administrators moved the relics to a hand wood carved reliquary. They placed them in a magnificent Epitaphius Canopy, in the nave, during a ceremony attended by H.G. Bishop Sawiros, Abbot of the Monastery, along with other thirteen Bishops of the Coptic Church elite on Amsheer 16th 1707 A.M (February 23rd 1991 AD).
This Holy Father pursued the monastic life during Abbot Fr. Boulis El-Delgawy (1866 -1870 AD), later known as Anba Abram, Bishop of Fayoum Giza famous for his holiness; Reposed in 1914 AD.
St. Mikhail El-Buhairy, he too, was famous for his virtues and his holiness; He reposed on February 23rd 1923 AD. In 1963 AD., the Holy Synod proclaimed his sainthood and his spiritual father, Anba Abram Bishop of Fayoum and Giza.
On the outside of the church’s eastern wall, there is a wall painting of two martyrs; St.George on the southern side and St. Marqorius Abu-Seifin, on the northern side.
New Church of the Holy Virgin Mary 1964 AD
There are three altars in this church. Copts dedicated the middle – the principal – to the Holy Virgin Mary; the southern was named after Saint George and now is to Saint Abram, Bishop of Fayoum and Giza (Reposed 1914 AD). The northern altar gained its name after St. Takla-Heymanot, the Ethiopian. The Painter painted all the icons in the church Yacoub Fanous.)
Abbot Residence in Al-Muharraq
Abbot of the Monastery. The style of abbot’s residence and hosting of senior visitors (such as Patriarchs Bishops) is an Italian design. Copts established it in 1910 AD, during H.G. Bishop Pachomius the 1st (1896 -1928 AD.)
Visitors and Pilgrims of Monastery of Al-Muharraq
The monastery celebrates all Coptic Orthodox Church feasts throughout the year, especially the Holy Virgin Mary. Multitudes of visitors and pilgrims attend these occasions in the monastery to receive the blessings, to baptise their infants. Accordingly, there was a need to equip the monastery with facilities, such as several guests accommodations and a celebration yard.
Education in monasteries profoundly influences students and scholars to develop their intellect spiritually and scientifically by engrossing them in monastic life.
The Theological Seminary
The Theological Seminary is a primary source of effective instruction and arable land of morals. Its mission is to reform individuals and society to plant steadfast faith and pure love. The purpose of the Theological Seminary is to prepare qualified clergy members to lead the people to live in God. The Seminary offers a four-year bachelor degree program in Theology.
St. Didymus Institute for Cantors
The institute aims to graduate cantors and chanters who perform an essential role in churches. The monastery administration devotes these cantors, charters, and priests to regularly serve the liturgical prayers.
This institute offers a five-year study period to enable students to learn educational curricula besides chants, melodies and rites of the church.