A crypt is a partly or entirely underground room, usually under a church. In ancient times a crypt was simply an underground vaulted room or passage (cryptoporticus), and in early Christian times, it was a subterranean burial chamber. In the Greek-speaking Eastern Roman Empire, such a chamber was called a taphos (Arabic, tafus).
Since cemeteries in the pagan world were considered a sacred area, whose occupants were free of persecution, Christians took advantage of this privilege to meet there for worship. After the Edict of Milan in 313, ending persecution, this custom led to the erection of numerous cemetery churches. Since, in addition, some martyrs had already been buried in almost all cemeteries, it was natural that their graves should be associated with the churches there. This development was encouraged in particular by the pagan custom of organizing a regular commemoration festival on the birthday of the deceased, which the Christians turned into a celebration of the death of the martyr.
At first, spatial proximity between the grave and the church was not important for this association. The intensifying of the cult of the saints toward the end of the fourth century, however, led to a need for linking the sanctuaries of the cemetery churches more closely with the martyrs’ graves and facilitating access to them. A desire also arose for supplying churches in towns with martyrs’ graves, which formerly had not been possible because of the Roman prohibition against burials within a town.
A series of changes followed. New churches were erected so that their apse lay directly over the grave of a saint or martyr, and the grave itself was made accessible by a staircase from the interior of the church. Usually two staircases were built, one for descending and the other for ascending, to expedite the traffic of visitors. In addition, there was need for a crypt or confession, a room directly adjoining the grave or linked with it, in which brief devotions might be held in the neighborhood of the tomb. In later days these rooms were furnished with altars and so made suitable for celebration of a complete liturgy.
There was also a wish among many believers to be buried in the neighborhood of a martyr’s grave. At first, people were content to obtain a grave in the same cemetery. Once there were large churches at the martyr’s graves, people sought to have a place in the interior of these churches, a privilege accorded to only a few of the faithful and, as a rule, only to members of the higher clergy. If a memorial church was founded by private citizens, they could naturally ensure for themselves a place of the first rank in the crypt itself, close to the martyr’s grave. From this developed in the late Middle Ages the great subterranean crypts under many collegiate churches, which had a small chapel but essentially served to receive the graves of the founding family.
Crypts that were burial places and were under church floors, or at least entered from the interior of a church, are known in Egypt but do not appear to be widespread. They are not commonly called by a term equivalent to “crypt” but only tafus and are not linguistically distinguished from an ordinary subterranean grave such as might be in any hypogeum (underground room). The only early Christian example of a crypt that stood in close association with a grave, the remains of which can still be identified, is under the Martyr Church at Abu Mina (Grossmann, 1980).
It shows clearly regulation of visitor traffic by entrance and exit. Some medieval examples of crypts with graves are known from the literature. The crypt at the north wall of the Church of Saint Mercurius at Dayr Abu Sayfayn is the room in which Abu Barsum, one of the last saints of the Coptic church, spent part of his life. An altar was later placed there. A genuine modern crypt is the grave of Patriarch Cyril VI (who died in 1971), under the church of the modern monastery of Saint Menas in Maryut.
In all the other crypt chambers so far identified in Egypt, there is no indication of a directly adjoining grave, although there are frequently two staircases, sometimes symmetrically arranged, which implies the proximity of a grave. They thus have only the significance of a memorial room (Onasch, 1981, pp. 261-62). Characteristic examples are the crypts of the church on the east wall of Antinoopolis (Uggeri, 1974, pp. 42-46), the Church of Saint Sergius in Cairo (Middleton, 1885, pp. 405-407), and a new church in al-Farama (ancient Pelusium). The crypt of Saint Sergius took on a cruciform shape because of two semicircular niches at the sides, which likewise suggest an ecclesiastical function.
Presumably, the chamber was originally provided with four central supports, and it is conceivable that it served at least for a time as a burial place. The crypt in al-Farama exhibits all the details of a chapel intended for liturgical use. It seems to have been an important foundation, for sidewalls of the staircase are encrusted with marble slabs. Two crypt chambers only recently discovered, under two large buildings in Manqabad, are without any fittings. One of them is remarkable for its rich figurative painting. The other, belonging to a second building phase, has traces of a central dome. Finally, a domed crypt without superstructure, only half sunk into the ground, was found in Abu Mina. A bench running along the walls suggests that it could have served as the commemoration room for a grave in the neighborhood.
- Claussen, H. “Krypta.” In Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, cols. 651-53. Freiburg, 1961.
- Grossmann, P. “Aufnahmearbeiten in der Gruft.” Mitteilungen des deutschen archäologischen Instituts—Abteilung Kairo 36 (1980):206-212.
- . “Weitere Beobachtungen zur baulichen Gestalt der Märtyrergruft.” Mitteilungen des deutschen archäologischen Instituts—Abteilung Kairo 38 (1982):137-39.
- Middleton, J. H. “On the Coptic Churches of Old Cairo.” Archaeologia 48 (1885):397-420.
- Onasch, K. Kunst und Liturgie der Ostkirche. Leipzig, 1981.
- Uggeri, G. “La chiesa paleo-cristiana presso la porta orientale.” In Antinoe (1965-1968): Missione archeologica in Egitto. Rome, 1974.