Churches in Akhmim
Of the numerous churches in Akhmim, two are of some historical interest.
The Church of Abu Sayfayn is situated in the southeastern part of the city. A walled enclosure is partitioned into two unequal parts by a wall. The larger area contains a cemetery of the Ottoman period and some dependent structures. The smaller area leads to two adjoining churches. One, which was added in the twentieth century, is a three-aisled BASILICA with rectangular sanctuaries. The other, earlier church represents a local variant of a type that evolved in the Mamluk period, the domed hall church (Hallenkirche) with columns (for the type, see Grossmann, 1982, p. 196). As originally constructed, Abu Sayfayn was five units (i.e., rooms or bays) wide and three deep. The east end consisted of three sanctuaries flanked by rectangular rooms, with two bays in front of each sanctuary and room. The northern row of two bays and a corner room were destroyed when the adjoining church was built.
Domes on squinches pierced by windows surmount the bays in front of the central sanctuary, and domes on pendentives cover the side bays. The three sanctuaries have a shape favored in other local churches: straight sides ending in semicircular apses (see DAYR AL-‘ADHRA’ near Akhmim), each decorated with rounded niches. The sanctuaries are closed off by wooden screens, each with a door in the middle and two side windows. Geometrical designs are inlaid in the left screen and painted on the other two. The columns, arches, and domes are of fired brick painted black and red in cross patterns, not always following the mortar joints (see Dayr al-‘Adhra’ [Akhmim] for local parallels). The rest of the church is built of mud-brick, plastered and whitewashed. To the right of the entrance stands a marble LAQQAN (epiphany tank). Behind the central altar is the bishop’s throne.
The second structure of interest is the complex of DAYR SITT DIMIYANAH, which is situated on the northern edge of the city. From an outer court, a corridor leads to Sitt Dimiyanah. The Church of the Virgin is on the right of the corridor. Sitt Dimiyanah is the older and sits 20 inches (50 cm) lower than the Church of the Virgin. It represents a modified form of the domed hall church with columns. It has three deep sanctuaries with straight walls culminating in curves, as in several other churches of the area, such as Dayr al-‘Adhra’ near Akhmim, but at Sitt Dimiyanah each sanctuary is shaped and articulated slightly differently. At the back of the central sanctuary is a bishop’s throne. Behind the northern sanctuary there is a corridor, probably originally balanced by one on the south, as in Dayr Mar Jirjis al-Hadidi (for such corridors generally, see Dayr al-‘Adhra’). The two bays in front of the central and south sanctuaries are covered by domes on squinches; the southern three bays, by a barrel vault; and the remaining bays, by domes on pendentives.
For better support, the originally free-standing columns between the bays have subsequently been built into walls, thereby forming irregularly shaped corridors. In the early 1980s, the whole interior was plastered and painted. It is said to have been previously painted in red-and-black patterns with white divisions. A sixteenth-century date still visible on the extensively restored hijab (iconostasis) provides a terminus ante quem for Sitt Dimiyanah and probably for the other local churches with similar sanctuaries and corridors. The later Church of the Virgin is in poor repair. It has a roughly square plan. As in Sitt Dimiyanah, each sanctuary is shaped differently, and the supporting columns are embedded in the walls. The dome in front of the central sanctuary is on squinches, and the others, on pendentives.
- Grossmann,P. Mittelalterliche Langhauskuppelkirchen und verwandte Typen in Oberägypten. Glückstadt, 1982.