The “Monastery of the Potter” (it is not known whence this appellation comes) is situated on the edge of the desert, about 6 miles (9 km) north of Isna, near the ancient Asphynis (present-day Asfun al-Mata‘nah). The monastery also bears the name of “Matthew the Poor.” This personage, whose Life survives (or rather Coptic fragments of it), appears to have lived at the end of the Byzantine period. According to his Coptic Life, he founded a monastery in the name of Saint PACHOMIUS, near Isna and no doubt at Asfun, but he had a cell in the desert.
The HISTORY OF THE PATRIARCHS OF THE COPTIC CHURCH speaks in the notice of the patriarch ALEXANDER II (705-730) of the personages celebrated in his time and mentions a native of Isfant (no doubt a copyist’s error for Asfun), a monk—also called a fisherman or hunter, for the Arabic word is ambiguous—who founded a monastery in the nome of Isna and was famous for his miracles. It relates the miracle of the woman pregnant from two brothers, which we also read in the Coptic Life of Matthew. It must be noted that the Hamburg manuscript speaks not of Matthew, but of one Timothy (Seyboldt, 1912, p. 147).
The SYNAXARION from Lower Egypt, as a result of a confusion in writing, speaks not of Asfun but of Aswan, and ABU SALIH THE ARMENIAN at the beginning of the thirteenth century seems indeed to have placed this monastery at Antinoë, or ANTINOOPOLIS (confusion between Ansina and Isna). He also quoted the History of the Patriarchs, a proof that he knew that text, but still made the same error (p. 230). The monastery was known by al-MAQRIZI in the fifteenth century as a large monastery formerly well populated but in his time destroyed and abandoned.
However, from the seventeenth century on, European travelers mention it. The first seem to have been the fathers Protais and François (Sauneron, 1983, pp. 79ff.). J. M. VANSLEB copied their text (1677, p. 406; 1678, p. 243). C. Sicard mentioned it in passing, while he dwelt at length on the temple, now disappeared, of the fish- god Latus (1982, Vol. 3, pp. 7-9). In the nineteenth century, W. de Bock took note of it (1901, pp. 72-73). Other noteworthy authors are M. Jullien (1903, pp. 250-52, 283), S. Clarke (1912, p. 216, no. 8), Johann Georg (1914, pp. 56-59), and L. T. Lefort (1939, pp. 404-407).
O. Meinardus gives a fairly detailed description of it (1965, pp. 323-25; 1977, pp. 438-41). Published simultaneously were J. Leroy (1975) and R.-G. Coquin (1975, pp. 240-84). Walters (1974) studied it for various subjects. One may note that Saint Pachomius founded a monastery at Phnoum, in the nome (not, as Lefort incorrectly translates, mountain) of Isna, of which he was a native. But we do not know where this Phnoum was situated (Halkin, 1932, sec. 83; Lefort, 1939, pp. 404-406, and 1943, p. 120).
- Bock, V. de. Matériaux pour l’archéologie chrétienne d’Egypte. St. Petersburg, 1901.
- Clarke, S. Christian Antiquities in the Nile Valley. Oxford, 1912. Coquin, R.-G. “Les Inscriptions pariétales des monastères d’Esna: Dayr al-Shuhada’, Dayr al-Fakhuri.” Bulletin de l’Institut français d’Archéologie orientale 75 (1975):240-84.
- Halkin, F. Sancti Pachomii vitae graecae. Subsidia Hagiographica 19. Brussels, 1932.
- Johann, Georg, Duke of Saxony. Streifzüge durch die Kirchen und Klöster Ägyptens. Leipzig and Berlin, 1914.
- Jullien, M. “Quelques anciens couvents de l’Egypte.” Missions catholiques 35 (1903):188-90, 198-202, 212-14, 237-40, 250-52, 257-58, 274-76, 283-84.
- Lefort, L. T. “Les Premiers monastères pachomiens, exploration topographique.” Le Muséon 52 (1939):379-407.
- . Les Vies coptes de saint Pachôme. Bibliothèque Muséon 16. Louvain, 1943.
- Leroy, J. Les Peintures des couvents du désert d’Esna, Vol. 1: La Peinture murale chex les Coptes. Mémoires de l’Institut français d’Archéologie orientale 94. Cairo, 1975.
- Meinardus, O. Christian Egypt, Ancient and Modern. Cairo, 1965; 2nd ed., 1977.
- Sauneron, S. Villes et légendes d’Egypte. Bibliothèque d’étude 90. Cairo, 1983.
- Seyboldt, C. Severus ibn al-Muqaffa’: Alexandrinische Patriarchen Geschichte. Hamburg, 1912.
- Sicard, C. Oeuvres, ed. S. Sauneron and M. Martin. Bibliothèque d’étude 83-85. Cairo, 1982.
- Vansleb, J. M. Relation en forme de journal d’un voyage fait en Egypte en 1672 et 1673. Paris, 1677. Translated as The Present State of Egypt. London, 1678.
- Walters, C. C. Monastic Archaeology in Egypt. Warminster, 1974.
MAURICE MARTIN, S.J.
The monastery is a vast complex of unbaked brick surrounded by an enclosing wall. Only the eastern part of this wall is still partially visible, with an entrance gate and two or perhaps three semicircular towers on the outside, the staircases of which are backed to the right-hand side of the interior. Of the south part of the wall, traces of a rectangular tower can be seen. The interior structures of the monastery consist of two groups of buildings of different orientation, separated by a large circulation area: to the north are the church, the keep (jawsaq), and their annexes; to the south are the monks’ dwellings and the refectory.
The northern complex is served by a single entrance located on its south side. The church is situated to the east of this entrance. In the center, it includes a square hall covered by a dome. This hall is surrounded by the narthex, the aisles, and the khurus, which thus form a sort of ambulatory. To the east, three sanctuaries open on the khurus. To the west of the entrance, two domed chambers serve for the secondary functions of the church. In the north aisle of the church, a door allows access to the keep. The antechamber before this door contains the tomb of a saintly person.
The keep has three stories. It is built on a square plan, and each story is subdivided into four rooms. The staircase occupies the chambers in the southeast corner. In ancient times the entrance to the keep was on the second story, on the south face of the staircase well. The exterior wall is crowned by a cavetto of pharaonic type. Auxiliary halls are found in the northwest corner of the complex. These form a suite of three vaulted halls (with thick walls) surrounded by secondary rooms.
The southern complex is comprised of three buildings. The principal block of cells is to the west. It consists of a wide vaulted corridor flanked by cells, and its principal entrance is situated to the north, in the axis of the corridor. To the west of this entrance a staircase allowed access to the cells on the upper floor. Each cell contains a series of niches.
The central niche, located in the exterior wall, is equipped with a shaft for ventilation; the others served the needs of the monks. The number of these niches provides information about the number of monks for each cell. To the south of the corridor a door gave access to the refectory, which occupied the whole of the southern part of the complex. This door was equipped with a shaft for ventilation and for light.
The refectory is a square hall with four pillars. Arcades springing from the pillars and the surrounding walls subdivided the whole area into nine bays, all square and covered by domes. To the west of the refectory, some halls now in ruins served as annexes (perhaps kitchens). The outer face of the east wall of the refectory is unusual: five arcades in baked brick form a series of buttresses in the interior of the wall. To the east, a row of secondary cells is built against the principal block. These cells open onto the exterior of the complex.
Remains of paintings are extant in the central hall of the church. They represent Saint John, apostle and evangelist; Saint Matthew, priest and anchorite; Christ and the twelve apostles; and Christ himself. Prophets portrayed include Moses, Ezekiel, Habakkuk, Joel, Jeremiah, Aaron, Joshua, Malachi, Isaiah, and Daniel. Saint Ardellittes the ascetic, Saint John of the Golden Gospel, Saint John the Baptist, and Apa Psate are also portrayed.
Some paintings bear names and dates. The name of the painter is effaced near the painting of the cherubim in the north arch, but it is dated A.M. 1148, or A.D. 1431-1432.
Named painters include Mercurius of DAYR ANBA SHINUDAH (Suhaj), A.D. 1315-1316; Isaac of Panopolis, graffiti dated A.D. 1272-1273; and Pakire, monk of the Mountain of the Blessings (a site north of Isna), graffiti dated A.D. 1368-1369.
The oldest parts of the church are the central hall, built of baked brick, the side walls of the khurus, and the north exterior wall, all belonging to the first quarter of the eighth century. The restorations roughly around the end of the twelfth century affected the principal sanctuary, the northern sanctuary, and the northwest part of the church.
- Coquin, R.-G. “Les Inscriptions pariétales des monastères d’Esne: Dayr al-Shuhada’ et Dayr al-Fakhuri.” Bulletin de l’Institut français d’Archéologie orientale 75 (1975):261-84.
- Grossmann, P. Mittelalterliche Langhauskuppelkirchen un verwandte Typen in Oberägypten, pp. 31-36. Glückstadt, 1982.
- Johann George, Duke of Saxony. Streifzüge durch die Kirchen und Klöster Ägyptens, pp. 58-60. Leipzig and Berlin, 1914.
- Leroy, J. Les Peintures des couvents du désert d’Esna. Mémoires de l’Institut français d’Archéologie orientale 94. Cairo, 1972.
- Sauneron, S. “Les Neuvième et Dixième Campagnes archéologiques a Esna.” Bulletin de l’Institut français d’Archéologie orientale 67 (1969):101-110.