The Red Monastery or Apa Psoi is a Coptic Orthodox monastery named after an Egyptian saint called Psoi or Pishoy. Also, this monastery has the name Red Monastery that comes from the colour of its outside walls’ construction materials. These walls are considerably thicker at the base than at the top. Like these walls of Ancient Egyptian temples, they are surmounted by cavetto mouldings. The Red Monastery is architecturally similar to the White Monastery.
Location of the Red Monastery
The Red Monastery stands near the Upper Egyptian city of Souhag and about two and a half miles (4.0 km) northwest of the White Monastery.
Foundation and ancient history
The history of the Red Monastery’s foundation is unknown. However, historians think that an Egyptian saint called Pishay built it in the fourth century AD. This saint was a contemporary of Saint Pigol, the founder of the White Monastery.
Almost nothing is known of the history of the Red Monastery (Deir al-Ahmar, Deir Anba Bishoi or Bishai) near Sohag. However, it is one of the most famous Christian monasteries in Egypt. It lies about two miles (3.2 km) north of the White Monastery at the extreme western edge of the cultivated land. The debris mainly covers the north and west of the monastery. However, unlike the White Monastery, it stands within a small village – some houses exist to the south and east.
Its name comes from the colour of the construction material of its outside walls, consisting of red baked brick. These walls are considerably thicker at the base than at the top. Unmistakably, the building material distinguishes it from the nearby White Monastery constructed of stone. The cavetto mouldings surmount ancient Pharaonic temples the same as the White monastery. Otherwise, this monastery is architecturally similar to the White Monastery, and most likely, its construction dates to the same period (probably the fifth century AD).
Copts dedicated the monastery to St. Pshoi (Bishoi in Arabic), not confused with the more celebrated individual who lived in the Wadi al-Natrun. He was a contemporary of Apa Pjol, the founder of the White Monastery. It was probably St. Pjol who founded this monastery as well. In his “Life of Shenute”, Besa says that, “The holy Apa Pjol and the young man Shenoute went out walking together, and with them also went Apa Psoi (Pshoi) from Mt. Psoou. He too was a holy man who walked after godly things” (Besa 9, p. 44). Hence, one may identify “Psoou” (Psou) with the Red Monastery.
While the fifteenth-century Arab historian Al-Maqrizi names the monastery, he provides none of its histories. The probable reason is that it was closely related to the White Monastery. Dominique Vivant Denon visited the abbey during Napoleon’s 1798-1799. He stated that the Mamluks ransacked and burned down the facility only a few days before arrival. Currently, only a few monks inhabit the monastery. However, the church still serves the Coptic communities of the surrounding villages and the pilgrims who come here during the big feasts of the liturgical year.
The Church of Saint Pshoi (Bishoi) lies in the northeastern corner of the monastery. We know that the sanctuary’s principal church, named for St. Pshoi, was built during the second half of the fifth century in the form of a basilica. It also is similar architecturally to the Church of St. Shenute in the White Monastery, though smaller. This basilica, too, is built of red brick rather than stone. Measuring forty-four meters in length by twenty-three meters in width, the church does not have a west narthex like the Church of Shenute, but all other elements are identical.
The nave has small side aisles connected on the west, and there are upper galleries, a triconch apses and a large rectangular room on the south side of the edifice.
Pharaonic and Roman Elements
However, there are elements within this church that distinguish it from the Church of St. Shenute in the White Monastery. Many building materials belong to edifices dating to the pharaonic or Roman period in the White Monastery. In the Red Monastery church of St. Pshoi, the portals and columns (bases, shafts and capitals) were made for this building. Also, there are two columns before the presbytery in this church. For stability reasons, the triumphal arch’s relative narrowness created a discordance between the wide nave and the narrow passage into the presbytery.
Furthermore, the two columns was a clever artistic and architectural solution that resolved the aesthetic problems by removing the discrepancy between the dimensions of the nave and those of the entry to the sanctuary. It was such a brilliant idea! Subsequently, engineers used it in practically all churches having a narrow entry into the presbytery.
The triconch sanctuary is magnificent. It has three apses embellished by two orders of superposed niches separated by small elegant columns. These columns are entirely painted and lend to the spaces’ richness and sacredness. The motif of the broken tympanum surmounting each niche is fascinating. Attached to the haikal (sanctuary) screen that shields the sanctuary from the public areas are icons of Saints Shenute, Bishoi and Bigoul. The north and south apses have no altars.
Currently, a quickly growing number of monks live in the monastery. The several churches (most new) still serve the Coptic communities of the surrounding villages and the pilgrims who visit during the big feasts of the Coptic liturgical year. More and more people from the surrounding area now come to the Red Monastery to hear Father Antonius speak.
Today the Red Monastery is also very significant for art and architectural historians. It includes the only monumental ensemble of architecture, sculpture, and paint (areas fully covered with paint) left from the Greek, Roman and late antique periods in the entire Mediterranean. The paint in the triconch area dates between the late fifth and the late sixth or early seventh century.
Since 2003, the American Research Center in Egypt has undertaken a restoration and conservation project with grant funding from the United States Agency for International Development. In 2017, a team of architectural conservators, under the direction of Nicholas Warner, completed a preservation project on the keep beside the south wall of the church. This keep is highly valued as it revealed an ancient hydraulic system of ceramic pipes.