Dayr Al-Baramus



This monastery is farthest to the northwest in the monastic colony of Wadi al-Natrun (ancient Scetis). The topographic allusions in ancient literature lend some credence to the statement by the author of the Coptic Life of Saint Macarius (probably of the eighth century; cf. Guillaumont, 1968-1969, pp. 182-83) that Dayr al-Baramus evolved from the earliest monastic settlement in Scetis. If so, the original settlement was formed at, or near, the site of the present monastery between 330 and 340 by admirers gathering around MACARIUS THE EGYPTIAN, although his name has remained associated with another monastery, DAYR ANBA MAQAR. The latter monastery grew from a second settlement of admirers of Macarius near the place toward the eastern end of Scetis to which he moved later in his life.

The monastery’s name, al-Baramus, is an Arabized form of the Coptic paromeos, which can mean either “the one of the Roman” or “the one of the Romans.” It is conceivable that around the middle of the fifth century the monastery was called Paromeos from association with one eminent Roman, ARSENIUS, who had been tutor of the two sons of the emperor Theodosius I, the future emperors Arcadius and Honorius. This can be true only if Arsenius, who went to Scetis around 394 and left around 434, is the Romaeus of the APOPHTHEGMATA PATRUM, who lived for many years near al-Baramus.

However, in the Coptic Life of Maximus and Domitius, which was composed as the monastery’s foundation legend, probably in the late fifth century or the early sixth century, the Romans are not one but two. In the Coptic legend, MAXIMUS AND DOMITIUS are presented as sons of the Roman emperor of the West, Valentinian I, both of whom went to Scetis in the days of Macarius the Egyptian, lived there in a monastic cell, died, and were buried nearby. After their deaths, Macarius, according to the legend, had the church built that became the center of the monastic settlement and that, at Macarius’ own bidding, was to be called the “Cell of the Romans” in their memory.

Although Valentinian had no known sons, and he certainly had no legitimate sons, Maximus and Domitius may have been historical persons, but of a somewhat later period. In the Coptic Life, they seem to have been identified with the two unidentified foreigners in Macarius’ time. The story of the life and death of these foreigners in Scetis is found in the Apophthegmata Patrum (Macarius, sec. 33) and is essentially similar to that of Maximus and Domitius in the later Coptic legend, except for the absence of any mention of a church built or a place named in their memory.

The Coptic Life of Maximus and Domitius shows an etiological concern with providing a reason for the monastery’s being called Paromeos. This may reflect a vague historical memory of the monastery’s association with a Roman (Arsenius) and of his close association earlier with two Roman princes. If so, confusion of the two Roman princes in vaguely remembered stories about Arsenius with the two foreigners in Scetis in Macarius’ time is the product of imaginative speculation, and their further confusion with Maximus and Domitius is, then, historically inaccurate. In any case, the Coptic legend agrees with the Coptic Life of Saint Macarius in making Macarius himself the central figure in the origin of the settlement from which Dayr al- Baramus evolved.

The history of Dayr al-Baramus through the centuries is almost entirely undocumented in historical records, but the known details of the general history of Scetis are certainly valid for the history of Dayr al-Baramus. Like the other monastic establishments in Scetis, it suffered times of destruction by barbarians, followed sooner or later by periods of reconstruction.

In the Christological controversy that divided the Egyptian Monophysites into a party adhering to the views of SEVERUS OF ANTIOCH, led by the patriarch THEODOSIUS I, and a party adhering to the views of JULIAN OF HALICARNASSUS, led by GAIANUS, Dayr al-Baramus, like other monasteries of the valley, came under the control of the Gaianite faction among the monks. The Severan followers of Theodosius, who had to leave their monastery sometime between 535 and 580, proceeded to establish a monastery dedicated to the Virgin as a counterpart to their original monastery.

Although the monastery is mentioned in the occasional itineraries of Wadi al-Natrun (known in the Middle Ages as Wadi Habib) that have come down from the medieval and early modern periods, little is said of its condition, and nothing is said of events in its history. With its twenty monks in 1088 it was, except for the somewhat elusive “Cave of Moses,” the smallest of the autonomous communities enumerated in a list of the monasteries of Wadi al- Natrun drawn up that year.

Both the original monastery and its counterpart, the Monastery of the Virgin of Baramus, founded by the dispossessed Theodosians in the sixth century, existed when al- MAQRIZI wrote his History of the Copts around 1440, but the question rises whether the monastery that has survived to the present day is the original monastery or its counterpart.

While the once great Dayr Anba Maqar suffered particularly in the general eclipse of the ancient monasteries of Scetis after the first half of the fourteenth century, Dayr al-Baramus maintained its numbers better than did some of the other three monasteries that ultimately survived. When Jean de Thévenot visited in 1657, he found that Dayr al-Baramus had more monks than the other monasteries, and he attributed that to the monastery’s better revenues.

Robert Huntington found a superior and twenty-five monks there in 1678 or 1679, and Claude Sicard in 1712 found between twelve and fifteen monks there and in Dayr al-Suryan, but only three or four in each of the other two monasteries. In the case of Dayr al-Baramus, that number seems to have been maintained as an average, despite rises and falls, through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

In the last two decades of the nineteenth century, the monastery became better known among the Coptic faithful through the popular theological and apologetical publications of the Syrian Afram ‘Adad, who had become a monk there and who regularly signed his published works with the pseudonym “The Monk of Baramus.” From Dayr al-Baramus have come the Coptic patriarchs CHRISTODOULUS, MATTHEW III, MATTHEW IV, CYRIL V, JOHN XIX, and CYRIL VI.

In 1976 there were thirty-five monks at Dayr al-Baramus, of whom twenty lived in the monastery itself and fifteen were at its dependent estate in the Nile Delta or elsewhere in the service of the church. In recent years the monastery has been known for the quality of the calligraphy and manuscript copying done by some of its monks.


  • Amélineau, E. Histoire des monastères de la Basse-Egypte, pp. 46-117 (life of Macarius), 262-315 (lives of Maximus and Domitius). Annales du Musée Guimet 25. Paris, 1984.
  • Evelyn-White, H. G. The Monasteries of the Wadin Natrun, pt. 2, The History of the Monasteries of Nitria and Scetis. New York, 1932.
  • Guillaumont, A. Annuaire de l’Ecole pratique des Hautes Etudes, Section de Sciences religieuses 76 (1968-1969):182-83.
  • Meinardus, O. Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Deserts, pp. 150-56 (for the recent period not covered by Evelyn-White). Cairo, 1961.
  • . “Zur monastischen Erneuerung in der koptischen Kirche.” Oriens Christianus 61 (1977):59-70.



Like the other Egyptian monasteries, the monastery of Baramus is surrounded by a high wall that prescribes a rectangle stretching out in a east-west direction. The wall has also preserved the upper ambulatory. The main entrance lies on the north side, although the monastery today is normally entered through a small side door on the west side. In contrast to the other monasteries in Egypt, its inner area is hardly spoiled by new building and has, as a consequence, best preserved its earlier character. Courtyards and gardens are in evidence.

The visitor is welcomed in a friendly guesthouse. The cells of the monks are distributed in a number of rows along the walls and courtyards. The main church, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the oldest preserved church in Wadi al-Natrun, is located in the eastern half of the monastery. A second, modern church is situated next to the west entrance. Between the al-‘Adhra’ church and the northern main gate is the keep (jawsaq) to the southwest of the church, the oil press, and the two refectories, neither of which is in use today.

The al-‘Adhra’ Church, the chief church of the monastery, today heavily built up, goes back in its origins presumably to the seventh century and is thus the oldest remaining church in Wadi al-Natrun. In the course of the excavations, which were carried out in March 1979, the ground plan of the first basilica could be determined more precisely. It consisted of a three-room sanctuary the central main room of which extended east beyond the rest of the rooms.

In the eighth or early ninth century, in accordance with the practice at that time, the church was provided with a khurus (room between the naos and the sanctuary). The reconstruction of the sanctuary was carried out, to judge from the forms of the cupolas, in the late twelfth century. Finally, at an even later period, the width of the originally wood-covered nave was reduced, in order to accommodate a barrel vault over it. The original single columns were replaced by a series of oblong pillars given the form of double columns.

The Church of Saint John the Baptist was first built at the end of the nineteenth century, being a simple structure with four pillars, in line with the appearance of most church buildings from this period. As usual, the church contains three altars. At the west end it has an epiphany tank, the only one in Wadi al-Natrun.

As is customary, the tower may be entered from the south over a retractable drawbridge on the first upper floor. Passing through its entire length is a corridor on both sides of which, right up to the stairs in the front southwest corner, a number of similar rooms are attached. Deserving of notice is the subterranean spring—found to the west outside the tower—that enabled the monks to withstand a long siege. It is difficult to make a decision on the date of the tower. At all events, it is older than the other towers still standing in Wadi al-Natrun, although it is later than the very simple towers in KELLIA.

Contemporary visitors are told that a very long room on the south side of the al-‘Adhra’ Church is the old refectory of the monastery. The room is divided up into three domed bays by two pointed transverse arches. A brick table about 3 feet (90 cm) high occupied the entire length of the room. Parallel to it on both sides are likewise brick benches. At the east end of the room there is a lectern also built of brick.

A second, appreciably older refectory is found on the west wall of the monastery and is used today as a storeroom. It consists of a square room with a central oblong pillar from which arches spring on all four sides and divide the room up into four domed bays approximately the same in size. The monks sat in this refectory on benches arranged in a circle, a practice that seems to have been common up to the end of the Fatimid period.


  • Grossmann, P. Mittelalterliche Langhauskuppelkirchen, pp. 122-23, fig. 51. Glückstadt, 1982.


Church Paintings

In 1986 by chance huge fragments of wall paintings in the al-‘Adhra’ Church were discovered by the monks of Dayr al-Baramus. In 1988 a French-Netherlands Mission started to work on these paintings, and this work was resumed in 1989.

Three layers of paint have been discovered, the oldest of which has been best preserved and seems, furthermore, of the best quality. The decoration of the central apse, however, dates from a second master, for whom we unfortunately have no date. This apse gives the usual double theme: below is an enthroned Virgin between two archangels and above is an enthroned Christ between fragments of the four living creatures and other angels.

At both sides of this apse we see huge fragments of apostles, obviously painted by the first master and belonging to an earlier apse composition of the same type as described above. Above the three apostles at the northern side, fragments of a sacrifice of Isaac were found, while at the southern side an impressive scene showing Melchizedek giving a spoon from his chalice to Abraham had been discovered. No other traces of paint have been discovered in this central sanctuary.

In the southern sanctuary, two rows of male saints have been uncovered: on the east wall, from left to right, Saint Paul the Hermit, Saint Antony the Great, covered by a great veil, Saint Macarius the Great, accompanied by a cherub, a certain Saint John, Saint Maximus, and Saint Domitius. Inscriptions give their names.

On the southern wall we see, from left to right, the lower parts of Saint Pachomius, a monk with a dark skin (Moses the Black?), Saint Barsum the Syrian, Saint Paphnutius (?), and Saint Onophrius; for some we have their names in inscriptions. From the first master (perhaps assisted by a second painter) we find huge parts of a Christological cycle in the central nave.

On the southern wall of the nave, we see from left (east) to right (west): the annunciation by Gabriel to the Holy Virgin, the Holy Virgin embracing Elizabeth, fragments of both a Nativity scene and a wedding of Cana (?), and a great composition of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. The discoveries on the northern wall are very poor, except for important fragments of a scene of Pentecost at the right side. From that we may conclude that in fact once a complete cycle must have been painted here.

In one of the intercolumnia at the southern part of this nave a huge Archangel Michael can be made out and, not far from there, a huge cross, painted on different layers.

For the first master we have no other date than a post quem, given by the supposed reconstruction of the sanctuaries around 1300. The work of the third painter, on the upper layer, is of much less importance. In the murals of the first master, Dayr al-Baramus has given us work of great quality, while the presence of huge parts of a Christological cycle has to be considered as rather exceptional for medieval Egypt.


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