Dayr Abu Qarqurah


A monastery discovered in 1948 in ruins at Hilwan by Zaki Yusef Saad, who had been conducting First and Second Dynasty necropolis excavations in the of that town. This area is supposed to have been in the proximity of the old dynastic Egyptian of Iwnu. While digging the popular cemetery of that early period, Saad came upon what remained of this monastery, which was known only from early medieval literature on Coptic churches and monasteries by the twelfth-century writer ABU AL-MAKARIM, wrongly ascribed to Abu Salih the Armenian. The writer states that during the reign of ‘Abd-al-‘Aziz ibn Marwan, Umayyad viceroy of Egypt (685-706), a monastery by the name of Dayr Abu Qarqar or Qarqurah, possibly an Arabic corruption of the Coptic Gregorios, existed between Shahran and Hilwan a few miles south of Cairo on the right bank of the Nile.

The writer associates that monastery with a bishop of al-Qays, a district at Bani Mazar in the province of Minya in Middle Egypt, whose name was Gregorios. There is a lacuna in the manuscript of that work that makes it difficult for us to define the specific particulars or foundation date of that monastery. But Abu al-Makarim states that it was restored and extended during the regency of ‘Abdal-‘Aziz ibn Marwan by his servants, who were Melchites, for the fortieth patriarch of the See of Saint Mark, JOHN III (677-686). The work was performed in the name of Saint George.

There is no doubt that this monastery was in a very fine state of in the seventh century. It is known that in the year 692, a plague broke out in Egypt and spread to the al-Fustat (Old Cairo), which was the Umayyad viceroy’s seat. For this reason, ‘Abd-al-‘Aziz ibn Marwan left the capital and went south toward Hilwan and, according to the historians al-Shabushti and Abu al- Makarim, ‘Abd-al-‘Aziz resided as a guest for a while in that monastery. As he seemed to like the area, he ordered the construction of his own palace there for permanent residence, which gave Hilwan royal status. A bath built in that region by ‘Abd-al- ‘Aziz around that date was discovered during the modern restoration of the city in 1872.

This Coptic monastery must have been one of the largest on record in Egypt. Its excavation has revealed the enormous number of sixty-six rooms or monastic cells. The court in the middle of the structure was a vast space, divisible into three sections. In the north part existed an orchard, and still visible are the holes or ditches in the soil that were prepared for filling with Nile silt to fertilize trees.

Portions of the irrigation aqueducts, where the monks used burnt bricks taken from the tombs of the ancient Egyptian cemetery, are still to be seen. In the south part, there was a large reservoir where the monks stored water. Next to that reservoir was a structure of strange design by which earthenware were fitted into holes resembling pigeonholes in the walls. One would tentatively suggest that it may have been a swimming pool, which is hardly conceivable in a monastery of hermits and ascetic recluses.

Throughout the floors of the monastery buildings, we may witness traces of piping and drainage canals. In the south also is to be found the remains of a moderately sized church. Beyond the still farther south was situated a cemetery where thirty-six graves were excavated and found to contain skeletons in a bad state of preservation. No special items of value were found in these tombs except tomb 1, where the excavator picked up an ivory that showed traces of Coptic letters.

From the nature of pottery and glass fragments found on the site one can establish that the monastery was of Byzantine origin. What is certain is that it was heavily populated with monks at the time of the ARAB OF EGYPT.

The excavation has revealed little in the way of objects of art. However, a Coptic earthenware lamp and a Coptic cross were found in the debris. Also a few bronze and copper coins were recovered, but not identified. the most important objects of historical importance discovered in the whole excavation were four gold dinars, two dated 698, a third dated 699, and a fourth 700. It must be assumed that the monastery remained inhabited until the eighth century. Afterward it fell into decay, and its contents were collected by treasure hunters over the subsequent centuries.

  • Atiya, A. S. “Some Egyptian Monasteries According to the Unpublished Manuscript of al-Shabushti’s al Diyarat.” Bulletin de la Société d’archéologie copte, Vol. 5. Cairo, 1939.
  • Shabushti, Abu-al-Hasan ‘Ali ibn Muhammad al-. Al-Diyarat, ed. Korkis ‘Awwad. Baghdad, 1951.
  • Zaki Yusef Saad. The Excavations at Helwan. Norman, Okla., 1969.