Dayr Anba Maqar


Rising on the desert horizon like a great fortress, the Monastery of Saint MACARIUS was originally the most remote and least accessible of the monasteries of Wadi al- Natrun. It came into being around 360 when Saint Macarius the Egyptian moved southward from the valley to escape the overcrowding of hermits. Here, at the age of sixty, he carved for himself a cell with a long subterranean vault in the rocky terrain, where he took refuge to avoid visitors.

However, his followers grew in number and built their own cells of mud-brick roofed with palm leaves around his cave. Dedicated to extreme poverty and silence, those hermits congregated only on Saturday and Sunday to listen to their mentor’s sermon and to receive holy communion. Most of them spent their days reciting the scripture while doing manual labor. At the death of Macarius in 390, the settlement was well established, with some 2,400 monks in the area. The cell containing his remains became a shrine to perpetuate his name through the ages.

During the fifth century the monks sustained three invasions by desert barbarians who plundered everything in sight. Sometime before the third sack (444), the Tower of Palaemon (now disappeared) was constructed as a place of refuge. Also, the Church of Saint Macarius was begun, together with other buildings to serve as refectory, guesthouse, storerooms, and hospital for sick brothers. In 482 the emperor Zeno endowed the monastery and even dispatched two architects to supervise the construction of new buildings.

Marble columns were used, and the discovery of numerous fragments of marble from these columns, their capitals, and some engravings attest to this. Legend says that the emperor’s daughter, HILARIA, disguised as a young monk, joined the hermits and that Zeno made the endowment to commemorate this event and to demonstrate his appreciation for the desert fathers. Historians have it, too, that Zeno wished thereby to reassure himself of the loyalty and support of those holy men for his imperial throne.

During the following century, a new phase in the development of the monastery began by the construction of regular lauras (i.e., conglomerates of adjacent cells to house the monks instead of segregated caves for hermits).

Around 551, during the reign of the Coptic patriarch THEODOSIUS I, who had been exiled to Constantinople for some time, the Monastery of Saint Macarius became the occasional seat of the patriarchal throne as well as the center of church activity for many decades to come. From KHA’IL I to SHENUTE I the monastery monopolized the supply of prelates and also provided the church with many scholars. Its library grew to include a massive collection of manuscripts, now mostly scattered in museums throughout the world.

With the ARAB CONQUEST OF EGYPT (642), the general ‘Amr ibn al-‘As pledged safe conduct to the monks and confirmed their revenues. Anba Yu’annis was head of the monastery at that time, and under his aegis came the development of the manshubiyyas, dwellings for groups of monks under the leadership of a single “father,” or mentor, within a specific part of the building separated by a low wall from the remaining complex of structures.

Notable instances may be traced in the wards of Anba AGATHON THE STYLITE and Saint DOROTHEUS, where Saint JOHN KAMA received his training. In 800 the monk Epiphanius of Jerusalem visited the monastery and stated that it comprised a thousand manshubiyyas.

This prosperous period soon changed when the poll tax imposed by the Muslim rulers was doubled in 704-705, and in 714-715 the monks were even branded. By 866, the financial burdens placed upon the monks became so heavy as to discourage monastic life. Also, marauding bedouins sacked the area repeatedly and thus forced the monks to erect high walls and strongholds to protect themselves.

In fact, the patriarch Shenute I, during a visit in 870, personally supervised the building of these high walls around the church and subsidiary structures. This was the first concentration of buildings to form the nucleus of the present monastery.

During the eleventh century, chapels were being built and rebuilt, but in 1056 a terrible famine raged through Egypt, affecting the monastery greatly, and in 1069, invading Berbers again ravaged the place. Undiscouraged, the monks rebuilt the tower, the refectory, and the churches. According to the census of 1088, there were four hundred monks in the monastery.

But the fourteenth century witnessed the swift decline of this holy place. Beginning in 1346, two major disasters befell the monastery. First, the unprecedented persecution of the Copts by Sultan al-Salih ibn Qalawun of the Bahri Mamluks resulted in the plunder of churches, the confiscation of Coptic properties, and the destruction of monasteries; the Coptic population was massacred or forcibly converted to Islam, bringing it to the edge of extinction. Second, the Black Death, which had scourged Egypt and its monasteries in 1348-1349, broke out again in 1374, and by 1388 the country was almost depopulated.

The few remaining monks sought shelter within their monastery walls for protection from hunger and disease. Thereafter the Monastery of Saint Macarius remained substantially unchanged for centuries.

From the fourteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth, the monastery struggled against the human and natural elements of destruction, particularly ignorance. The gradual extinction of the language of the Copts, in which their early spiritual, liturgical, and theological history had been recorded, made the continuity of their tradition and the survival of their heritage very difficult.

In addition, many manuscript robbers contributed to the depletion of the monastery library. Still worse, many stolen manuscripts were irrevocably lost when ships carrying them abroad foundered on the high seas.

However, toward the beginning of the twentieth century, signs of revival began to appear. Particularly since 1969, there has been an intense period of reconstruction. Today there are more than seventy monks in residence, mostly university graduates in almost all fields from medicine and engineering to the humanities and agronomy.

The monastery has a number of historic churches. The Church of Saint Macarius is noted for its three sanctuaries, those of Saint Macarius, Saint John the Baptist, and the Three Youths. After its destruction in the sixth century by the Persians, the sanctuary of Saint Macarius was restored in 655 during the patriarchate of Saint BENJAMIN I, and for this reason it has sometimes been identified as the sanctuary of Benjamin. It is distinguished by its huge dome, 26 feet (8 m) in diameter, of which the lower part is decorated by portraits of the Twenty-four Priests.

Some of these portraits still retain their bright color and minute detail. Since Saint Macarius maintained that throughout his life he was sustained by the divine power of the cherubim, in the northeast corner of the sanctuary the ancient artist depicted the cherubim supporting the dome.

Dating from the seventh century, it is possibly the oldest known painting of the cherubim with all the characteristic details cited in the books of Ezekiel, Isaiah, and the Revelation of Saint John. The figure is surrounded by the four evangelical emblems of the lion on the left, the bull on the right, the eagle on top, and the human face at the bottom, while the wings are full of eyes.

The sanctuary of Saint John the Baptist was so named because it was said to contain the body of that saint, together with that of the prophet Elijah, which had been transported from Palestine to Alexandria in the fourth century during the patriarchate of Athanasius I. In the tenth century John’s body was removed to the monastery, where the remains and those of some bishops and patriarchs were discovered in April 1976 while the church building was being restored.

Hitherto known as the Sanctuary of Saint Mark on account of the presumption that the head of the evangelist was buried there, it since has been alternately identified as the sanctuary of Saint Mark and of Saint John the Baptist.

Facing its altar was another, smaller one, apparently imposed by technical requirements, though according to ritual in the days of Saint ATHANASIUS a smaller altar was placed in the neighborhood of the main altar for keeping the holy bread before its introduction for sanctification. This smaller altar has been called in the Coptic rites the place of the eucharistic bread. Habitually this is to be found on the south side, never before the main altar, and was designated as the seating position where bishops and deacons received the remainders of the Precious Body and Blood, after the performance of Holy Communion for the monastic community.

The third sanctuary, known in the ancient manuscripts as that of the Three Youths, has been restored on the basis of an older one with its traditional three steps facing east. It is decorated with lively colored designs that represent the Eucharist and Baptism and date from the tenth century. It has a dome similar to that built by Saint Benjamin.

The Church of the Martyr Abiskharun is dedicated to Abiskharun al-Qallini al-Muqtadir. The surname is derived from Qallin, a town in the Delta 22 miles (35 km) east of Damanhur.

Renovations have cleared away the surrounding cells and rubble to reveal more fully the beauty of the building, which consists of a nave, a khurus, (room between naos and sanctuary), and three sanctuaries. As part of the renovations this building was given a traditional facade to blend with the classical style of the rest of the monastery. A remarkable dome surmounts the nave, which has been threatened by severe cracks.

However, it was strengthened, and when a modern wall separating the nave from the khurus was replaced by a light partition, the full splendor of this low quadrilateral dome (27 by 20 feet, or 8.3 by 6 m) was uncovered. It is built of thin baked brick bound with a rather thick layer of mortar and lime; it has been left unplastered, as the builder intended it. On the south side of the dome are two transverse vaults of more ancient origin. This dome has been dated to either the tenth or the thirteenth century.

The khurus has a beautiful door in the north wall with regularly joined rows of red brick on either side, which cleverly bring out the horizontal lines of the door. A star-shaped geometric pattern is engraved in the brick above the door with an overlay of white stucco surrounded by a frieze with an Arabic inscription.

In the central sanctuary, restoration has uncovered basic architectural elements that may help facilitate further research and dating. Of note is its wooden screen, dating from 1866. In the southern sanctuary, which houses the relics of Saint JOHN COLOBOS (the Short), the most prominent feature is a circular white marble basin, intended to contain the sacramental oil for anointing the sick, an ancient Coptic tradition.

The Church of the Forty-nine Martyrs was built to commemorate the forty-nine monks who deliberately chose martyrdom during the third Berber sack of the monastery in 444. A platform in the nave marks the spot where they are thought to be buried.

Architectural features, such as the manner of lighting the interior, and the fact that the Jesuit Claude Sicard, who visited the monastery in 1712, made no mention of the church imply that this edifice was built at the beginning of modern times. This supposition is confirmed by a passage in the biography of the Coptic archon IBRAHIM AL-JAWHARI, who is credited with its construction. However, some sections must date from an earlier period, such as those parts erected on the thick walls that are thought to be the remains of one of the old forts built during the ninth century.

Constructed in the translateral style, it has an entrance to the southwest, a nave, a khurus facing it, and one sanctuary only. A small belfry is connected with the southeast corner of the church.

The keep contains four small chapels, one on the first floor, dedicated to the Virgin, and three on the second floor, the Chapel of the Hermits, the Chapel of Anba Antuniyus (Saint ANTONY), and the Chapel of the Archangel Michael. There are excellent mural paintings in these last three, all being the work of a venerable Abyssinian monk, Thekla al-Habashi. Dating from around the year 1517, these frescoes are notable for their bright reds and yellows and for their larger than life-size portraits of important personalities in the history of the church.

Of these four chapels, that of the archangel Michael appears to be the oldest. On the basis of the inlaid wooden screen, H. G. Evelyn-White (1926-1933) dated it to the fourteenth century. Situated at the end of the corridor on the north side, it once contained a magnificent wooden screen inlaid with ivory and ebony.

This was, however, severely damaged, and what remained has been incorporated in the screens of the Church of Saint Macarius. The portraits in this chapel represent six warrior saints and the archangel Michael.

Situated south of the Chapel of the Archangel Michael is the Chapel of Anba Antuniyus, which is notable for three portraits by Thekla al-Habashi. These represent the earliest founders of Coptic monasticism, Anba Antuniyus, Anba Bula (PAUL OF THEBES), and Saint PACHOMIUS OF TABENNESE. The screen of the chapel is made of cheap wood dating from a late period.

The third chapel on the second floor, resembling that of Anba Antuniyus, is that of the Hermits. Like the other two, it is characterized by certain portraits of another class of saintly hermits, nine in number. Each of them appears in a tunic and a mantle, with arms resting on his chest and his hands clasping either a cross, a book, or a T-shaped monastic staff (the staff of Saint Macarius).

The screen is a simple one belonging to the Ottoman period. These last two chapels were consecrated under the ninety-fourth patriarch JOHN XIII. This event is commemorated in a manuscript preserved in the monastery library from the year 1517.

The Chapel of the Virgin occupies the east side of the corridor on the first floor. The screens of the sanctuary, of delicate workmanship and belonging to different periods, are its most remarkable features. Also notable is the frame of the door in the central screen that is engraved with a continuous pattern of undulating foliage. Surmounting the door is a most exquisite carving of a peacock pecking a grape, symbolic in Byzantine and Coptic art of immortality and renewal of life. Evelyn-White (1926-1933) tended to set the date of this chapel between Greville’s visit in 1875 and Alfred Butler’s in 1884.

Because of the severely dilapidated condition of the keep, there has been much recent restoration. The wooden roof has been replaced by concrete; the churches of the second floor have been made uniform in style; and the antique pieces of marble and wood have been transferred to a museum specially created in the monastery, where they remain safe and available to scholars for study and evaluation.

The revival of the Monastery of Saint Macarius began with the arrival of twelve monks on 12 May 1969 from Wadi al-Rayyan, a desolate spot in the Western Desert where they had lived in solitude for ten years without the shelter of a monastery or financial resources. They met with the head of the monastery, Anba Mikha’il, archbishop of Asyut, and soon afterward, inspired by this meeting, one of the monks made a pencil sketch for a new monastery.

This simple sketch became the guide for the extensive renovations to follow. The entire monastery was planned to be self-sufficient, with the monks’ quarters separate, together with the places of service, in such a way as to allow the monks complete privacy. Through diligence, devotion, and self-denial, they erected the building at nearly half the estimated cost.

The monks’ cells have emerged on three floors that line the contour of the monastery behind its extended new wall. Each cell space comprises a bedroom with a wooden floor to allow the monk to sleep on the ground, should he choose to do so; an office or study; a bathroom; and a kitchenette. Each cell is completely secluded to offer uninterrupted meditation, but adheres to modern health standards. A total of 140 cells of that description have been completed. Forty of them are devoted to novices.

In a modern refectory the monks convene once a day for their communal meal, with the abbot at the head of the table, the senior brother at his right, and the junior monk at his left. Appended to the refectory is a modern kitchen space equipped with up-to-date utensils and refrigeration capable of providing for 150 monks.

A library or modern scriptorium has been included in the planning, as a continuation of the literary tradition of this monastery. Apart from the remaining manuscripts from the monastery’s vast original collection, efforts have been made to build up the present collection with an accumulation of theological and historical works of reference, together with microfilms of rare papyri and manuscripts from distant sources. There are plans for the publication of a catalogue raisonné of the manuscripts and an edition of the monastery’s own manuscripts.

A modern and elaborate printing press within the monastery has facilitated the task of publication of massive works by specialized monastic printers. Appended to the press is a computer and word processor capable of reproducing Arabic, Coptic, Greek, and Latin typefaces. So far the monks have produced more than thirty volumes, of which some are massive tomes, such as the Life of Saint Athanasius in eight hundred pages, as well as a monthly review, Murqus (Mark), in Arabic, English, Coptic, and Greek, full of illustrations and colored plates.

A museum has also been established to house all objects of antiquity discovered in the process of renovating the ancient structure. Marble capitals, pottery, woodwork, icons, and other objects of ecclesiastical significance continue to be assembled in this museum.

A hostelry for visitors and pilgrims was constructed in an area within the walls but far enough from the monastic cells to avoid any disturbance of the monks.

A hospital and an elaborate pharmacy were also developed for the care of the sick brothers and even for the secular workers recruited for the assistance of the monastic community. Here qualified physicians, surgeons, dentists, and pharmacists from among the monks attend to the needs of these establishments.

Outside the walls of the monastery, the monks not only seek the extension of their agricultural activity to ensure self-sufficiency and independence from the outside world but work hard to create an experimental station for the conquest of the desert on a scientific basis for the benefit of the whole country. So successful was the monks’ venture that President Anwar el-Sadat gave them a thousand acres around the monastery for the extension of the work.

They have been able to transform 400 acres of sand into agricultural soil that yields fruit, vegetables, and fodder for their cattle. This has necessitated the creation of workshops under qualified monastic engineers, a farmhouse for the toilers in the desert, and all sorts of establishments to meet the exigencies of modern growth. In a word, there has emerged a community of brothers devoted to the Pachomian rule of both manual and intellectual labor, while retaining the religious character of their daily travail.


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