CHURCH ARCHITECTURE IN EGYPT
Only church buildings can be considered as a confessional type of structure—like the cultic buildings of pagans, Jews, and Muslims. Churches are a specifically Christian type of architecture. All other kinds of building—including funerary structures—have no confessional ties and take the same form among Christians as among people of other faiths in the same period.
Corresponding to the requirements of Christian worship, church buildings have two fundamentally different areas: (1) the sanctuary, with its side chambers and the altar as the central point and the place of the actual ceremonial, placed in all extant monuments from Egypt in the east; and (2) the nave, as a rule very spacious and generally with several aisles, as the place in which the laity attend the preparatory part of the liturgy as onlookers. Generally the sanctuary consists of a central apse with side chambers disposed on either side.
In simple buildings there is instead of the apse a simple rectangular cultic niche. In addition, more ample types of room like the triconch are also found.
Whatever their outward form, these cultic niches are open to the west, toward the nave, for almost their entire width. In ordinary parish churches the altar stands in front of the opening. It is surrounded in turn by a screen that projects slightly into the nave. In monastery churches the altar is frequently set up in the cultic niche itself, perhaps reflecting a primitive usage. The screen then lies in the area of the front opening.
The nave or naos (Greek, temple), the area assigned to the laity, is considerably larger than the sanctuary, and accordingly is usually constructed with several aisles. Some of the large churches, like the cathedral church of al-Ashmunayn and the great basilica of ABU MINA, have a transept. The several aisles are separated by rows of columns, or pillars connected by arcades; in rare cases, they are also separated by architraves. Very often the pillars were walled up with stones and bricks. West of the area for the laity—at least in the early buildings—there is a narthex and in some cases also an atrium.
Early Christian Period
No church buildings from the fourth century A.D. have so far been discovered, with the exception of a few not yet explored. Hence from an archaeological point of view, Christian architecture in Egypt begins with the fifth century. There must have been earlier buildings, but they have perished. Presumably, they were for the most part only simple buildings of mud brick which in time were replaced by new structures. Large monumental buildings were to be found in the fourth century perhaps only in the capital, Alexandria.
The oldest churches so far discovered are a few small buildings of the early fifth century from the region of the KELLIA on the western edge of the Delta. These are modest houses of prayer designed to meet the needs of monks vowed to the principle of poverty. Thus they are not representative of the architecture of this period. However, these early examples of Egyptian church building do have a sanctuary with three sections. In buildings with a single aisle the sanctuary is consequently wider than the naos. In all churches of the Kellia the altar stands in the inner part of the cultic niche, which here is rectangular.
Alongside these simple monastic churches there must have been a few more advanced buildings, for even before the middle of the fifth century some large buildings were erected at Ashmunayn, Faw al-Qibli (PBOW), and Suhaj; these are inconceivable without corresponding earlier buildings. They represent the highest architectural achievement of their time, and have a fully developed architectural design that was later only slightly altered. Characteristic is the basilica construction of the naos with several aisles, along with the western return aisle peculiar to early Christian building methods in Egypt, and a narthex lying to the west of it. From this at least one door leads into the naos; generally there are three.
An atrium is only rarely found and, in the buildings mentioned, appears only in the cathedral church at al-Ashmunayn (Hermopolis Magna). All the buildings have a sanctuary with several chambers, the main chamber consisting of a cultic niche developed as an apse. In the church of DAYR ANBA SHINUDAH in Suhaj the cultic niche has the form of a triconch.
In addition, the churches mentioned—apart perhaps from the monastery churches in Faw al-Qibli, still not definitively investigated—each had a gallery usually reached by a flight of steps. The two superimposed churches at Faw al-Qibli were certainly constructed with five aisles, which elsewhere was the case only in the basilica of Armant and some smaller buildings in Madinat Madi and Makhurah.
The cathedral of al-Ashmunayn, moreover, is furnished with a three-aisle transept, the sides of which unusually end in a semicircle. This design should not, however, be confused with a triconch. In the last quarter of the fifth and the early sixth centuries a transept of this kind appears again in the church of Hawwariyyah and in the great basilica of Abu Mina, the largest church building in Egyptian territory, but here the side wings have a straight termination.
While these large buildings of the fifth century have in the sanctuary a relatively extensive and complicated groundplan, perhaps resulting from the size of the space available, by the fifth century there was in the smaller buildings a canonical group of three chambers. As a rule, this group consists of a semicircular apse and two rectangular side rooms, of which at least one could be directly entered from the naos. Exceptions in which the side rooms are missing occur so far only in the area of Maryut. In the buildings that have a cultic niche developed as a triconch, the side chambers are brought round the side conches in the shape of a gamma.
In addition, it was common, particularly in Upper Egypt and evidently as early as the late fifth century, to place before the cultic niche an additional triumphal arch supported by two free-standing columns (see DANDARAH). With the exception of the churches in the great laura of the Kellia, the altar now always stands in front of the cultic niche and is surrounded by a low screen. In the area of the naos, the churches of the fifth century almost always have numerous niches, which are symmetrically distributed on the walls, with or without a decorative framework, and provide the reason for the often enormous strength of the walls in most Egyptian churches.
This custom holds for Upper and Lower Egypt, irrespective of whether the buildings are of brick or stone. It is only in the buildings of the Maryut region, which were evidently more strongly influenced by the general architecture of the empire, that these wall niches are not found.
In the sixth century, the form of the basilica remained roughly the same. The buildings, however, became more uniform, and no further large buildings were erected. Instead, especially in the coastal region, there are some churches with a centralized shape, which bear a close resemblance to the four-conch buildings of Syria and Asia Minor, and were probably influenced by these (Grossmann, 1977, pp. 35ff.). So far, two examples have become known from the region of Abu Mina.
In Upper Egypt in the same period or a little later there appear a few four-pillar churches with an ambulatory (Grossmann, 1979, pp. 86ff.) that strikingly extended their influence to the architecture of Nubia in particular and there found numerous successors (see NUBIAN CHRISTIAN ARCHITECTURE).
Early Middle Ages
The early Middle Ages in Egypt began roughly with the Arab conquest of the country (A.D. 639-641) (see ARAB CONQUEST OF EGYPT). During this period church building showed only a continuation of the normal basilica structure, which down to the Fatimid period belonged to the type of church most frequently built, although dimensions became smaller. With the passing of late antiquity, there was an increasing tendency to enhance the division between the sacral area and that of the laity, probably because of an intensified sacralization of the liturgical ceremony. In front of the sanctuary a special room (khurus) reserved for the clergy was separated from the naos, and from about the eighth century, it was divided from the rest of the nave by a high partition wall. In the middle of the wall was one wide opening that could be closed by a curtain.
The room thus formed contained the altar, where all ceremony took place out of the sight of the laity. In older churches not yet equipped with a khurus of this kind, it was subsequently built in, although it required strange architectural compromises. By its very nature a wide room, the khurus opened in the middle of its east wall into the apse, usually covered over by a semicupola. If the side wings were given a similar form of vaulting, they could be combined with the apse into the form of a triconch, which was frequently the case. One of the earliest examples is the al-Adhra Church of DAYR AL-SURYAN in the Wadi al-Natrun, which dates from perhaps as early as the eighth century.
The High Middle Ages (Fatimid Period)
The period of the high Middle Ages, roughly contemporary with the Fatimid rule, must rank as the golden age of church building in Egypt. It was in this period that the most important buildings were constructed. In general, the arrangement of the sanctuary in these buildings corresponds to that of the preceding period, but the disposition of the rooms became tighter and more harmonious. All the chambers—including the cultic niche—were now rectangular. Moreover, since in this period all new buildings were provided with a khurus from the outset, there was no need for the kind of improvisation frequently found in older buildings.
In the area of the nave, however, the development of church building took a fundamentally new direction. As in Byzantine and Islamic architecture, there was a change in Egypt from the wooden roof to vaulting. It was regarded as more economical and less flammable. That the construction of vaults was possible only in the case of smaller buildings was of no consequence, since people had already grown accustomed to smaller church buildings in the preceding period. In addition, the galleries were largely abandoned in this period.
The adoption of vaulting applied in the first place to the area of the nave. Here, strangely, Lower and Upper Egypt followed different paths. Lower Egypt preferred barrel-vaulting. It had the advantage that the directional thrust proper to the basilica remained unaffected. Upper Egypt preferred domes. Since, however, as in Lower Egypt, the ground plan of the basilica was at first retained, this led—in connection with the roofing of the central aisle—to the use of two domed areas linked for internal communication by a great arch.
Further arched entries opened into the side aisles, which were themselves constructed as barrel-vaulted areas running along the domed central areas on either side. In this way a new type of building came into being—the elongated church with a domed main aisle. Examples include, among others, the monastery churches of the DAYR ANBA HADRA at Aswan, Dayr al-Shuhada’ (Isna), and DAYR MAR BUQTUR (Qamulah). A building in Cairo is found in the parekklesia of the Menas church, while other examples can be seen even in Nubia (Tamit, Faras).
In the following period the elongated, domed church went through a singular development presumably conditioned by the structural laws of domed vaulting. The two domed areas, at first regarded as of equal status, eventually became rivals, and in the course of further development this led to a stunting of the rearmost area. In the final phase, toward the end of the twelfth century, it became a small transversally oriented side room, or it entirely disappeared, with the result that this building became a central structure with a single dome.
Alongside these structures, which still stand in clear relation to the preceding basilica form, a second type of building was developed in the early Fatimid period, which was close to the Greek type of octagon-domed churches, and whose origin is probably also to be traced to Byzantine influence. This was a central building roofed over by a dome of unusually wide span (by comparison with other buildings of the period), the dome being carried by eight supports partly set into the side walls.
This type is found in its present form in the church of the DAYR AL-SHAYKHAH at Aswan. Here it was developed as a double belt building with an ambulatory running around three sides. The ambulatory was matched by two chambers set at the sides of the sanctuary, which gave the sanctuary the deceptive appearance of a fivefold arrangement. The two outer chambers had nothing to do with the internal arrangement of the sanctuary. There are examples of single- belt, octagon-domed churches at Dayr al-Qusayr (Turah) and Kulb in Nubia.
Late Middle Ages and Modern Period
The last phase of Egyptian church building is represented by a simple four-pillar church, which at a cautious estimate can be identified from about the Mamluk period. Its spatial arrangement consists of nine bays of approximately the same size, usually roofed with cupolas, of which the central dome is emphasized by its richer development and greater height. This type is the result of a further development from the elongated, domed church, but it is also based upon influences from the Byzantine world. Apart from the uniform inner arrangement of the church, which is probably to be traced to Islamic influence, it shows many similarities to the Byzantine cross- in-square churches.
The program of the chambers, which in the older examples still employ a khurus (see DAYR AL-SHAHID TADRUS AL- MUHARIB), rests unmistakably on Egyptian tradition. In further development, the khurus gradually fell out of use, while the altar was moved back into the cultic niche, where it had already stood at one time in some monastery churches of the early period. The reason for this development was undoubtedly the frequency of masses from the Mamluk period on. Since according to the Coptic rite, it is forbidden to celebrate the mass at the same altar more than once in a day (Nomocanon of Michael of Damietta), there was need for a larger number of altar places, the reason for changing the side chambers of the sanctuary into additional smaller sanctuaries.
With such an alteration of the traditional arrangement of the sanctuary, any understanding of the significance of the khurus was also lost. The decline in the number of the faithful from the Mamluk period had the same effect. The sometimes greatly shriveled congregations felt the traditional distribution of the church building unnecessarily extravagant. So it was that toward the end of the Mamluk period the khurus was eliminated. In place of the former dividing wall of the khurus now appears the hijab (iconostasis), to be set up at the entrance to the altar chamber, a form of structure that persists today.
[See also: Architectural Elements of Churches.]
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