DAYR AL-MALAK MIKHA’IL (Jirja)
This small monastery, today reduced to its church, was situated on the right bank of the Nile near the village called Naj‘ al-Dayr (village of the monastery), facing the town of Jirja on the opposite bank. Since 1910 this site has been celebrated among archaeologists because the discoveries made there have shed light on the region’s prehistory. In fact, the monastery is near prehistoric cemeteries from ancient empires, and the one that adjoins the church still serves for the burial of the Christians of Jirja.
The first mention of the monastery appears to be that of C. SICARD (1982, Vol. 2, p. 72), who visited it in 1714. He spoke of the place of worship of the Christians of Jirja, but called it a church, not a monastery. R. Pococke (1743-1745, p. 82) also noted that it was the church of the Christians of Jirja, who therefore had to cross the Nile. F. L. Norden also noted it (1795-1798, Vol. 2, p. 76).
At the beginning of the twentieth century, S. Clarke gave the plan of the dayr, and it seems that despite the statements of S. Timm, who confused it with the church of the same name near Akhmim (1984-1986, Vol. 2, p. 734), Clarke also placed it in his list in the appendix, putting it to the east of Jirja (1912, pp. 140-41, 214, no. 29). Finally, O. Meinardus described it (1965, pp. 300-301; 1977, pp. 412-13).
In the small ancient necropolis in the cliff that overhangs the monastery, a chapel (perhaps) and a quarry were occupied by a hermit who has left his name: Samuel Koui (the Small). The Greek and Coptic graffiti were collected by A. H. Sayce (1885-1886, pp. 175-77; 1890, pp. 62-65). One of these inscriptions was discussed again by G. Lefebvre (1907, p. 68).
In the sixteenth century Jean Léon l’Africain related that a Monastery of Saint George situated 6 miles (10 km) south of Munsia (al-Minshah) was in his time one of the largest and richest in Egypt. More than two hundred monks lived there, but it had been depopulated a century earlier by the plague and the bedouin had installed themselves on “the vast cultivated lands and the meadows” of the monastery, which was said to have been the origin of the town of Jirja.
One remains a little skeptical about this story: it seems an etymological fantasy, for it is known that Jirja is very ancient and owes its name not to Saint George but to a pharaonic word (djerdjé or kerkè; establishment or hunting land). For the rest, no monastery or church of Saint George is known near Jirja, and that of Saint Michael is the only one that is close to Jirja. But none of its five altars is dedicated to Saint George, which could have been a vestige of an ancient entitlement of the monastery (Léon l’Africain, 1956, Vol. 2, p. 536).
- Clarke, S. Christian Antiquities in the Nile Valley. Oxford, 1912.
- Jean Léon l’Africain. La Description de l’Afrique, ed. A. Epaullard. Paris, 1956.
- Lefevbre, G. Recueil des inscriptions grecques-chrétiennes d’Egypte. Cairo, 1907.
- Meinardus, O. Christian Egypt, Ancient and Modern. Cairo, 1965; 2nd ed., 1977.
- Norden, F. L. Voyage d’Egypte et de Nubie, 3 vols. Paris, 1795-1798.
- Pococke, R. A Description of the East and Some Other Countries. London, 1743-1745.
- Sayce, A. H. “Coptic and Early Christian Inscriptions in Upper Egypt.” Proceedings of the Society of Biblical Archaeology 8 (1885-1886):175-91.
- . “Gleanings from the Land of Egypt.” Recueil de Travaux 13 (1890):62-67, 20 (1898):111-112, 169-76.
- Sicard, C. Oeuvres, ed. S. Sauneron and M. Martin, 3 vols. Bibliothèque d’étude 83-85. Cairo, 1982.
- Timm, S. Das christlich-koptische Ägypten in arabischer Zeit. Wiesbaden, 1984-1986.
MAURICE MARTIN, S.J.