Dayr Anba Bula (RED SEA) (The Monastery of St. Paul)



The Monastery of Saint Paul (Anba Bula) is situated 26 miles (39 km) southwest of the Red Sea lighthouse station of Ras Za‘faranah. It marks the site to which Saint PAUL OF THEBES, at the age of sixteen, fled to escape the Decian persecution in the middle of the third century. Prior to his death in 343, he was visited by Saint ANTONY, upon whom he bestowed his tunic of palm leaves. The monastery was founded in memory of the first hermit (Saint JEROME) in the latter part of the fourth or the fifth century. Antoninus Martyr visited it between 560 and 570.

According to an Ethiopian reference, GABRIEL II Ibn Turayk, the seventieth patriarch, was banished for three years to this monastery. ABU AL- MAKARIM stated that the monastery was totally dependent upon the Monastery of Saint Antony. In 1395 Ogier de Saint-Chéron counted sixty monks at the monastery being “of the same habit, rite, and piety as the brotherhood of Saint Antony.” In the first half of the fifteenth century, al-MAQRIZI included the Monastery of Saint Paul as the seventh monastery in his list of eighty-six monasteries and called it the Dayr al-Numurah, or Monastery of the Tigers.

Reports about the monastery and its monks were given by the following travelers: Ogier de Saint Chéron (1395), Ghillebert de Lannoy (1421), Coppin (1638), Gerard (1639), De Maillet (1692), C. SICARD and J. S. Assemani (1716), Granger (1730), R. Pococke (1737), N. Savary (1777), P. Bruns (1791), A. Norov (1834), G. Wilkinson (1837), H. Tattam (1839), J. Bonomi (1840), P. Uspensky (1847), G. Schweinfurth (1878), M. JULLIEN (1883), A. S. Lewis (1904), F. Vignozzi da Seano (1908), Johann Georg, Duke of Saxony (1930), J. Doresse (1951), G. Giamberardini (1956), V. Taeckholm (1956), and J. Leroy (1957). For several centuries, the administration of the monastery was entrusted to the abbot of the Monastery of Saint Antony (DAYR ANBA ANTUNIYUS), a situation that prevailed until the nineteenth century.

The monastery has four churches, of which three are situated in the ancient part. The Church of Saint Paul of Thebes is the spiritual center and occupies the cave in which Saint Paul is believed to have lived. Here, his relics are venerated. The inscription on the tomb reads: “Born in Alexandria in A.D. 228, died in the year A.D. 343.” The walls are adorned with eighteenth-century paintings executed by a monk of the monastery and several fifteenth-century Gothic graffiti.

The three altars are dedicated to the Twenty-four Elders (north), Saint Antony the Great (center), Saint Paul of Thebes (south). The divine liturgy is celebrated here during the months of January, February, and March. Close to the Church of Saint Paul, almost above it, is the Church of Abu Sayfayn (Saint Mercurius), built in the latter part of the eighteenth century. This church is used once a year during the week prior to Lent. The Church of the Holy Virgin Mary is situated on the third floor of the keep. The Church of Saint Michael, situated southwest of the Church of Saint Paul, is the largest and the main church of the monastery.

The church has two sanctuaries; the northern altar is dedicated to the Archangel Michael, and the southern altar, to Saint John the Baptist. According to tradition, the icon of the Holy Virgin is attributed to Saint Luke the Evangelist, who painted it in A.D. 40. The sanctuary screen decoration shows the Twelve Apostles in robes of Coptic desert fathers. The library occupies a small room on the north side of this church. There are altogether thirty-two cells in the monastery. The water is supplied by two sources, the Spring of Saint Paul in the western part of the monastery and the Pool of Miriam, about 300 feet south of the monastery.


  • Antoninus Placentinus.  Itinerarium, ed. P. Geyer. Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum 39. Vienna, 1898.
  • Coppin, J. Relation des voyages faits dans la Turquie, la Thébaide . . . , p. 313. Lyons, 1720.
  • Granger, Sieur. Relation du voyage fait en Egypte, p. 115. Paris, 1745.
  • Johann Georg, Duke of Saxony. Neueste Streifzüge durch die Kirchen und Klöster Ägyptens, p. 17. Berlin, 1930.
  • Jullien, M. Voyage dans le désert de la Basse-Thébaïde aux couvents de St. Antoine et de St. Paul, p. 61. Lyons, 1884.
  • Keimer, L. “Les Prosternations pénitentiaires des moines du couvent de St. Paul dans le désert de l’Est.” Les Cahiers coptes 11 (1956):21.
  • Meinardus, O. “The Eighteenth-Century Wall-Paintings in the Church of St. Paul the Theban, Dair Anba Bula.” Bulletin de la Société d’archéologie copte 19 (1967-1968):181-97.
  • . “The Monastery of St. Paul in the Eastern Desert.” Bulletin de la Société de géographie d’Egypte 34 (1961):81-109.
  • Tattam, Mrs. Henry. Journal of a Tour Through Egypt, the Peninsula of Sinai, and the Holy Land, Vol. 2, pp. 97-98. London, 1841.
  • Schweinfurth, G. Auf unbetretenen Wegen in Ägypten, p. 198. Hamburg, 1922.
  • Sicard, C. Lettres édifiantes et curieuses, Vol. 3, p. 300. Paris, 1845. Strothmann, R. Die koptische Kirche in der Neuzeit, p. 4. Tubingen, 1932.


Historical Landmarks

If Paul of Thebes is a historical personage very different from the one presented by Saint Jerome (Delehaye, 1926, pp. 64-65), the origins of his monastery remain obscure. The first mention of the site appears to have been that of Postumian: “Ad eum etiam locum in quo beatissimus Paulus primus eremita est diversatus, accessi” (I was also going to the place in which the blessed hermit Paul dwelt) (Sulpicius Severus, Dialogues 1.17). Hence, at this period (401), in contrast with its neighbor, the Monastery of Saint Paul did not yet exist.

In 570 the anonymous pilgrim from Placentia noted only the spring (1898, p. 151).

In 1235 or 1245, the Monastery of Saint Paul was laid claim to by Syrian monks (Evelyn-White, 1932, pp. 317, n. 4, and 389-90).

In 1393 a Syrian monk copied a manuscript in Karshuni, the colophon of which is reproduced in the Syriac manuscript (National Library, Paris, 191; cf. Sauget, 1983, p. 488).

In 1484 the monastery was pillaged by the bedouin; it remained in ruins for 119 years. It seems that the patriarch GABRIEL VII restored the monastery, but the bedouin plundered it a second time (Coquin and Laferrière, 1978, pp. 278, n. 2, and 279).

In 1638-1639 Coppin (1971, pp. 233ff.) paid a visit to the monastery and stated that the Monastery of Saint Paul was in ruins and uninhabited. In 1665 Gonzales (1977, Vol. 1, pt. 2, pp. 33, 654) confirmed that the monastery was still uninhabited.

In 1701 the patriarch JOHN XVI restored the monastery and repopulated it with the aid of Mark, hegumenos of the Monastery of Saint Antony.

  1. Sicard (1982, Vol. 1, pp. 24-28) visited the monastery in
  2. In 1718 the hegumenos of Saint Paul was elected patriarch of Alexandria under the name of PETER VI. In 1726 his successor, JOHN XVII, was a monk of Saint Paul. In 1745 his successor, a monk of Saint Paul, became patriarch under the name of MARK VII.

The library, which is less important than that of the Monastery of Saint Antony, is described by Simaykah (1930, Vol. 2, p. 122) as containing the following classes and numbers of manuscripts: biblical (122), theological (99), historical (123), ecclesiastical sciences (411), and miscellaneous (9). These total 764 manuscripts, most dating from the fourteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries.


  • Antoninus Placentinus. Itinerarium, ed. P. Geyer. CSEL 39. Vienna, 1898.
  • Coppin, J. Les Voyages faits en Egypte, ed. S. Sauneron. Cairo, 1971.
  • Coquin, R.-G., and J. H. Laferrière. “Les Inscriptions pariétales de l’ancienne église du monastère de St. Antoine dans le désert oriental.” Bulletin de l’Institut français d’Archéologie orientale 78 (1978):267-321.
  • Delehaye, H. “La Personnalité historique de St. Paul.” Analecta Bollandiana 44 (1926):64-69.
  • Evelyn-White, H. G. The Monasteries of the Wadi’n Natrun, Pt. 2, The History of the Monasteries of Nitria and Scetis. New York, 1932.
  • Gonzales, A. Le Voyage en Egypte, 2 vols. Institut français d’Archéologie orientale. Cairo, 1977.
  • Nakhlah, Kamil Salih. Silsilat Tarikh al Babawat Batarikat al-Kursi al-Iskandari, Pt. 4. Dayr al-Suryan, 1954.
  • Sauget, J. M. “Trois recueils de discours de Grégoire de Nazianze en traduction arabe: Simples Réflexions sur leur structure.” Augustinianum 23 (1983):487-515.
  • Sicard, C. Oeuvres, Vol. 1, ed. M. Martin. Bibliothèque d’étude 83. Cairo, 1982.
  • Simaykah, M. Guide du Musée copte, Vol. 2. Cairo, 1930 (in Arabic).
  • Sulpicius Severus. Dialogues, ed. C. Halm. CSEL 1. Vienna, 1886.



The Old Church

Although the history of this church is still to be written, the hypothesis could be put forward that the room in which the relics of the saint are preserved belongs to the older parts. Unfortunately neither there nor in the adjoining haykal (sanctuary) have paintings been preserved. Visiting these parts must have been facilitated by a staircase with a narrow adjoining subterranean corridor. Nowadays this staircase descends from the Church of Saint Mercurius, which has been built over the relics of Saint Paul’s. These four parts (the room for the relics, the adjoining sanctuary, the old staircase, and its corridor) have been cut into the rock and provide a kind of subterranean complex, as is the northern extension of this complex, being a large room with a flat roof. Before 1333-1334 at the northern side of the sanctuary adjoining the room with the saint’s relics, a second sanctuary has been cut into the rock. From outside, domes indicate the existence of these older sanctuaries. Later, but before 1713-1714, the actual northernmost sanctuary must have been built, together with an adjoining room on its west side and with the actual narthex with the new staircase as the westernmost part, perhaps replacing older structures. These three rooms are covered with domes.

For the wall paintings, two dates have already been referred to in the hypothetical lines on the history of the church. The first one is A.M. 1050 (A.D. 1333-1334), given in an inscription near the enthroned Christ on the east wall from the central sanctuary. To this master, one may attribute as well the two archangels and the two cherubim or seraphim painted on the same level in the same sanctuary and the not well-preserved Christ between angels and stars above the entrance to the same sanctuary.

The murals on the ground level—the Annunciation, the remains of an enthroned Virgin between two angels and of a standing John the Evangelist–are products of another medieval master. One of the two old masters must have been responsible for the portraits of monks like Arsenius, Shenute, and John in the old subterranean corridor leading to the old staircase. One of them must also have worked above the northern entrance to the room with Saint Paul’s relics. According to inscriptions, the three Magi and probably Herod must have been there. The second date given by an inscription is that in the dome above the actual narthex, referring to the construction of this church by Pope John XVI of the Holy See of Saint Mark’s, A.M. 1429 (A.D. 1713-1714). In those days a monk from Saint Paul’s painted in all parts of the church more or less where the old paintings had disappeared or where new structures required new murals.

By 1716, Sicard could give quite a negative judgment of this work, and unfortunately, it is these paintings that are considered indicative of the quality of the murals in Saint Paul’s. The monk-painter of 1713-1714 often worked without preparing any background and without designing important parts of his figures, like the faces, with compasses, forgetting the ears, sometimes working in the sgraffito technique. His favorite colors were yellow, red, and green. This artist made a new row of saints in the old subterranean corridor near the old staircase (Saints John, Arsenius, Abib, Apollo, Samuel), the Holy Virgin between seraphim above the northern entrance to this corridor, three archangels and the scene of the Fiery Furnace nearby on the western wall of the room with the flat roof, and some portraits of monks in the same room.

He also decorated the northernmost sanctuary of the Twenty-four Priests with a disputable figure of an enthroned Christ in Majesty, the dome and walls of the adjoining room on its west side (with four archangels and with Saints Marina, Irene, Kuriakos, Julietta, Paul, Anthony, and an unknown bishop), and the new narthex with the well-known horseback-riding martyrs. Although he was certainly not the best painter, this monk worked in a good Coptic tradition, being aware of iconographical rules. Unfortunately, the many expeditions that have traveled to Saint Paul’s Monastery (J. G. zu Sachsen, T. Whittemore, and J. Leroy) have not yet revealed all its art treasures.


  • Adli, S. “Several Churches in Upper Egypt.” Mitteilungen des deutschen archäologischen Instituts 16 (1980):7-8.
  • Butler, A. J. The Ancient Coptic Churches of Egypt, Vol. 1, pp. 346-47. Oxford, 1884; repr., 1970.
  • Leroy, J. “Le Programme décoratif de l’église de Saint-Paul du désert de la Mer rouge.” Bulletin de l’Institut français d’Archéologie orientale 78 (1978):323-37.
  • Meinardus, O. Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Deserts, pp. 91-116. Cairo, 1961.
  • Schweinfürth, G. Auf unbetretenen Wegen in Ägypten, pp. 190-209. Hamburg, 1922.


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