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Dayr Apa Jeremiah (Saqqara) - Coptic Wiki



We do not know if was the founder of the monastery that bears his name, or if he succeeded someone else. According to JOHN OF NIKIOU (Chronicle, chap. 89, pp. 4-14), Anastasius, the future emperor of Byzantium (491-518), visited Saint in his lifetime, when he himself was exiled in Egypt by his predecessor ZENO (474-491).

In the first half of the sixth century the monk Theodosius in his Itinerary mentioned this monastery (Quibell, 1912, p. 3).

Two Arabic authors, Safi al-Din ‘Abd al Mu’min (739) and Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam (870-871), mention the Dayr Harmis (Quibell, pp. 3-4). The name Abu Harmis is mentioned by ABU SALIH THE ARMENIAN at the beginning of the thirteenth century. The last author to speak of it is al-MAQRIZI in the fifteenth century.

The excavations carried out at the site have shown that the monastery disappeared in the middle of the tenth century (Cauwenbergh, 1914, p. 131).

The name of was venerated not only at this site, as the inscriptions prove, but is also among the saints invoked in the litanies of BAWIT and the monasteries depending on it ( et al., 1972, Vol. 4, p. 60).

An important number of papyri have been found, and were published by E. Revillout (1876, p. 1-111); publication was completed by J. Krall (pp. 63-79).

[See also: Abu al-Makarim.]


  • Cauwenbergh, P. van. Etude sur les d’Egypte. Paris, 1914.
  • Chronicle of John, bishop of Nikiou, The, trans. R. H. Charles, Text and Translation Society 3. London, 1916.
  • Krall, J. “Neue koptische und Papyrus.” Recueil des Travaux 6 (1885):63-79.
  • Maspero, G. “Note sur les objets recueillis sous la pyramide de Ounas.” Annales du Service des Antiquités 3 (1902):185-90. Quibell, J. E. Excavations at Saqqara (1905-1910), 4 vols. Cairo, 1907-1913.
  • Revillout, E. Actes et contrats des musées égyptiens de Boulaq et du Louvre, pp. 1-111. Paris, 1876.
  • Sauneron, S., and J. Jacquet. Les Ermitages chrétiens du désert d’Esna. 4 vols. Fouilles de l’Institut français d’Archéologie orientale 29, pt. 4. Cairo, 1972.




Dayr Apa is situated at the western edge of the site of the ruins of Saqqara, the old necropolis of Memphis, which continued to serve as a burial ground to the inhabitants of Memphis into the late Roman period. The northern confines of the monastery lie approximately at the causeway of the pyramid of Unas. From there it stretches about 325 yards (300 meters) to the south. The eastern boundary may be discerned in the hill of the temple of Nesitahuti. The extension of the monastery to the west has so far not been established. The monastery was not exclusively a male monastery; inscriptions, pictorial representations (Rassart-Debergh, 1981, pp. 214-18), and burials show that it existed in close contact with a convent for nuns.

Since the monastery was already in existence at the time of the exile of the later emperor Anastasius (491-518), the foundation of the monastery has conventionally been set at around 470 (Quibell, 1908-1912, 3. iii).

Archaeologically, however, none of the extant remains have been shown to be older than the middle of the sixth century. Also John of Nikiou’s report (Chronicle 89.15) concerning the foundation of a large church by Anastasius has not been confirmed. The earliest members of the monastery presumably established themselves in the still intact, but otherwise disused mausoleums of the necropolis of Saqqara, and the decision to set up new buildings was made only later. The old church, which doubtless belonged to the first of these buildings, is scarcely to be dated before the middle of the sixth century.

A change took place with the reconstruction of the church in the seventh century. Only at this time did the monastery appear to have developed fully and a rich building activity sprang up. Most of the edifices date from the late seventh and eighth centuries. The monastery was certainly in full operation until the middle of the eighth century. The great majority of the dated tombstones belong to the second half of the eighth century. A decline seems, nevertheless, to have set in toward the end of the eighth century. The floor of the southern porch of the main church was repaired with tombstones dating from the middle of the eighth century. After 750 all coins disappeared as well. Evidently the repercussions of the revolts of the Copts against Arab supremacy in the eighth and ninth centuries did not pass the monastery by without leaving traces.

To the last building activity belongs the addition of large buttresses onto the most important structures in the area surrounding the church. Quibell dates these to the time of Musa ibn ‘Isa (c. 791). Inside the church itself an attempt was made to save the roof of the nave from falling in by propping it up with a few very crudely raised pillars. Evidence of this kind shows clearly that the monastery was coming to its end. It was abandoned probably around the middle of the ninth century.

The monastery of Apa is so far one of the few archaeologically available examples of a monastery of cenobitic monks. They did not live, as in the KELLIA, as hermits, alone or with only very few disciples in independent habitations separated by wide distances, but were densely drawn together in large communal buildings. Each monk possessed in these buildings only one cell, which was entered from a common antechamber. No one prepared his own meals; these were taken in the common dining halls, the refectories. In accordance with the requirements of a large community, the monastery was provided with all kinds of economic establishments, a bread bakery, an oil press, and the accompanying storerooms. In several places small cisterns were dug. To the southwest a couple of workshops—for example, a laundry—may also be discerned; doubtless a joiner’s shop and a dyer’s establishment were also to be found. To protect against attacks, the monastery was encircled by a wall. The remains of such a wall, as well as of a gate, have been ascertained to the south, near the southern building. The existence of a western gate is known from an inscription.

The main church today is still situated in the center of the monastery, and is doubtless the most important building of the establishment. The recent excavations identified two main building phases. The evolution taking place during the first phase clearly reflects the gradual growth of the monastery. Originally the church stood as a quite small and simple chapel built of sun-dried mud bricks on a square plan and probably possessing only a simple niche in the east wall. As the building was enlarged, this chapel was integrated into the first church as a vestibule (narthex). This first church was already constructed as a columned basilica, and should be dated to the second half of the sixth century. It possessed five pairs of columns, as well as a fully developed sanctuary with a central apse flanked by lateral chambers on each side.

As far as its method of construction is concerned, the church was already provided with an outer facing socket of stone, consisting of reused but in no way reworked ashlars. An ashlar building in the real sense, with horizontal joints adjusted permanently during the process of building, came into being only when the church was extended by a further pair of columns toward the east, and a new sanctuary was added here at the same time. In this new building the lateral chamber south of the apse was constructed, peculiarly, as a basement room. For the construction of the stairs a fine pottery vessel was used, datable around 600. Consequently, this extension took place about a quarter century later.

During the change in the political situation in Egypt caused by the Arab invasion in 639-641, the number of monks seems to have increased considerably. The existing church was then no longer sufficient, and thus the main church that can be seen today came into being. It is substantially larger than its predecessor, and possesses a typically Egyptian basilican plan, with narthex, return aisle, and a sanctuary divided into a central apse and two side chambers. In front of the sanctuary there is a rather narrow space out of which the khurus, an important feature of early medieval monastic church architecture in Egypt, was developed. A peculiarity of the side chambers of the sanctuary is that they are on a lower floor level. The sole access to them is by short stairs from inside the apse. On the southern side of the church in front of the south portal there once was a small protruding terrace reached by stairs to overcome the difference in level. This terrace was subsequently replaced by an external portico with an L-shaped plan.

The building materials of the church, including the majority of its columns, derive exclusively from demolished late Roman— presumably in some cases still pagan—mausoleums, which explains the variety of types and the fact that they often occur in pairs. The original owners of those mausoleums were the rich landowners of Memphis, who left the country after the Arab invasion (Ibn ‘Abd al- Hakam, 1924, p. 231).

Building 1823, designated “ church” by Quibell, has emerged from the recent excavations as a nonecclesiastical edifice. The similarity with a three-aisled church, including the accentuation of its eastern termination by a triumphal arch, is purely external. It is, moreover, sunk halfway into the ground. Its furnishings suggest that it is the upper structure of presumably a still pagan hypogeum (underground chamber) of the late fourth or early fifth century. The shaft descending to the underground burial chambers was located along the southern row of columns. Nothing remains, however, from its original use. The tombs built into the upper chamber that can be seen today are at least two centuries later, and caused all kinds of damage to the building. The floor likewise belongs to this later use of the building. The original floor was presumably removed along with the remnants of its original use.

The Southern Building, discovered at the southern edge of the monastery, is not a church either. The arrangement of the columns brings to mind rather an atrium with a roofless center. The column rows were only subsequently made closer through the insertion of intermediate columns. To the same complex belongs a two-aisled hall that branches northward at the end of the north wall. The other buildings are mud-brick structures that were in part added subsequently, having in some instances a quite irregular character. Of more recent date is the external portico on the south side of the southern building. The entire arrangement suggests that this was a less important section of the monastery. Perhaps the guest quarters were situated here, an suggested at least by the proximity to the monastery’s south wall and the south gate discovered there.

The original refectory, belonging to the predecessor of the main church, was discovered in 1979. It was probably a two-aisled mud brick building north of the church. In the interior the remains of circular benches set against the side walls may be discerned.

The new refectory constructed after the enlargement of the monastery was recognized by Quibell as the three-aisled hall situated in a north-south orientation about 95 feet (30 m) north of the main church. The nave is unaccentuated. It was evidently intended that all the aisles should offer the same amount of space. However, the circular benches found elsewhere in the refectories of Egyptian monasteries, and also in the old refectory of this monastery, are absent. Instead the room is furnished with benches that run continuously along the walls. A large kitchen establishment adjoins the northeast corner of the hall, and this fits in with the of the hall as a refectory.

At the south end of the east wall, the hall opens into a small lateral chapel designed as a four-columned structure, the refectory chapel. It is provided with a complete sanctuary with three rooms and is thus fully functional for liturgical use.

Further to the northeast is a two-aisled hall (Room 726), which Quibell gave the provisional designation of infirmary. This building is probably a refectory as well, the more so since a monastery of this size could certainly have use for two refectories. In the present case, the fact should also be taken into account that the monastery included a section for nuns, who doubtless took their meals in a separate refectory. An infirmary, however, probably did not form part of the ancient convents. The sick stayed in their cells and were attended to by those in charge of the sick.


  • Grossmann, P. “Reinigungsarbeiten im Jeremiaskloster von Saqqara,” I-III. Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Abteilung Kairo 27 (1971):173-80; 28 (1972):145-52; 36 (1980):193-202.
  • Grossmann, P., and H.-G. Severin. “Reinigungsarbeiten im Jeremiaskloster von Saqqara,” IV. Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Abteilung Kairo 38 (1982):155-93.
  • Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam. Futuh Misr, trans. O. Toussoun. Bulletin de la Société archéologique d’Alexandrie 5 (1924):231.
  • Quibell, J. E. Excavations at Saqqara, Vols. 2-4. Cairo, 1908-1912. Rassart-Debergh, M. “Quelques remarques iconographiques sur la peinture chretienne à Saqqara.” Acta ad archaeologiam et artium historiam pertinentia 9 (1981):207-220.



The rich finds of sculpture from the area of Dayr Apa Jeremiah, almost exclusively architectural sculpture and reliefs, are now for the most part in the Coptic Museum, Cairo, and at the place of excavation. There is a small collection in the British Museum, London. Since the excavations by J. E. Quibell, the sculptures have been considered as original elements of the monastery architecture and are dated to the sixth century, corresponding to the supposed period when the monastery was in full flower. Only since 1978-1979 have new investigations of the whole stock laid the basis for a different and more discriminating judgment (Severin, 1982, pp. 170ff.).

The only building from late antiquity with original sculpture in the area of the later monastery may be the great mausoleum lying to the west (Building 1823, called a -church by Quibell), probably the family tomb of rich citizens from Memphis. Of its architectural decoration, capitals of columns and pilasters and bases of pilasters of various orders have in particular survived (catalog by Severin 1982, pp. 171-79). They convey the impression of an architectural decoration full of character, well executed, and with a strong local stamp; on the one hand, the decoration carries on traditions of a variegated decorative profusion, but on the other it shows considerable reduction in motifs and is unable to conceal irregularities in the detailed execution, particularly in the capitals. The building and its homogeneous decoration are to be dated to the fifth century.

In all the other buildings with sculpture in the area of the monastery, and above all in the great church of the seventh century, the building material and almost the entire architectural decoration may have been reused. The dating of the sculptures already points to this (chiefly fifth century and first half of the sixth). But reemployment can be demonstrated in technical matters also. There are only a few decorated pieces, such as stands for water-basins, which are relatively late (end of the sixth century to the beginning of the seventh century) and were probably made for buildings of the monastery.

In contrast all the remaining architectural sculptures from Saqqara South were scarcely produced for church or monastic architecture. More likely products of local workshops were employed in the necropolis architecture of late antiquity in Saqqara South, the sculptures of a pretentious private funerary architecture. In addition, peculiarities of certain sculpture groups point a priori to this type of architecture, for example, standardized pieces with a couple of corner pilaster capitals and bases and the small quantity both in decoration and in dimensions of homogeneous column capitals.

Through their reuse in the monastery, the original wholes were destroyed, so that we can now assess them only as isolated individual pieces. From the surviving stock, a continuous production in these workshops can be reconstructed, which, with its center of gravity in the fifth century, extended as far as about the middle of the sixth. Scarcely any architectural sculpture from the third and fourth centuries is known from Saqqara South. Probably the necropolises of that period lay in other territory and have not yet been discovered. A notable peculiarity is that contemporary creations of the Constantinople workshops were also known and imitated, in particular impost capitals in the form of basket-shaped capitals or impost capitals of fold-type from the second quarter of the sixth century. Further, Saqqara South offers the only example known to me in Egypt of a column capital with windblown acanthus in a local reproduction that, however, comes closer to the original than the nearest provincial imitation, in the church of the Monastery of Saint Catherine in Sinai.

In terms of date, motif, and technique, there are noteworthy agreements with the architectural sculpture of BAWIT; these two complexes stand apart from the architectural decoration of Bahnasa (OXYRHYNCHUS).


  • Quibell, J. E. Excavations at Saqqara, 1907-1908. Cairo, 1909. . Excavations at Saqqara 1908-9, 1909-10. Cairo, 1912.
  • Severin, H. G. “Zur spätantiken Bauskulptur im Jeremiaskloster.” Mitteilungen des deutschen archäologischen Instituts— Abteilung Kairo 38 (1982):170-93.



The central element of the group around which the cells of Dayr Apa were assembled was the “Main Church,” a building of three naves with an inscribed apse on the east, a narthex on the west, and a gallery on the south. Since J. E. Quibell’s excavations, it has lost the painted decor that, according to this archaeologist, adorned the walls. The columns—as photographs of the period show—also served to support scenes with figures: personages on foot surmount medallions enclosing ducks, all above draperies. Quibell identified two other halls as being churches: Room 1952 (numbering according to Quibell’s system), called the “Southern Church,” which possessed a painted decoration, entirely lost at present, and the “ Church,” whose walls were covered with marble slabs, a rare occurrence.

Like every monastery, Dayr Apa contained all the halls used for holy services plus a refectory, kitchens, storage rooms, wine press, hospital, et cetera. However, most of the rooms served as living quarters for the monks. Most often these cells were square or slightly rectangular, with an entrance on the south. In many cases, a semicircular apse was hollowed out in the center of the eastern wall, vaulted in a cul de four (quarter of a sphere) resting on a table of marble or other less precious stone. Such an arrangement, added to the fact that these niches contained the cell’s principal decoration, led Quibell to refer to them as altar tables. Two rectangular cavities on each side of the niche held the monk’s personal effects, liturgical objects, and lamp.

Much has disappeared from the cells since the work of Quibell. Some paintings were removed and placed in the Coptic Museum, Cairo, among which were several niches. The rough brick walls were covered with one or several superimposed layers of upon which the paintings were displayed. When there was only one thick layer of stucco, it is assumed that it crumbled at the touch and that the colored pigments fell away or faded in the air and light; this would explain the high percentage of decoration and scenes that could not be saved from destruction.

All the walls doubtlessly had paintings covering their entire height; but being less well protected by the sand, the upper part has disappeared, or only meager traces thereof remain. At times there was a monochrome background of Pompeian red, but in general the decoration was more elaborate, consisting of geometric or floral patterns. These patterns were frequently lozenges or Us decorated with leaves that covered entire wall-panels like draperies, or they were arranged in a simple uniform row that separated the upper and lower decorations. These rows may have comprised a succession of geometric panels, whose design and arrangement evoked marble slabs. Lines of local saints no doubt surmounted these panels as they also did in some cells and in the Court of Octagons.

The central niche of the eastern wall was completely decorated, on the inside with Christological themes, and on the outside with an architectonic frame where painting and sculpture were combined. In some places, the small columns, their capitals, and the vault were sculpted in stone (Cell 728); elsewhere, the ensemble was worked in brick, stuccoed, and then covered with paintings in imitation of marble, prophyry, or other precious stones (this is the case for most of the niches). The two techniques may be used simultaneously, as in Cell A, where columns and capitals, whose relief is simply suggested by painting, support the sculpted archivolt.

It is logical to suppose that here as at Bawit the paintings could have surmounted the niche, again as in Cell A, where there are still traces of feet and lower parts of clothing above the principal niche.

Too few of the paintings uncovered at the time of excavations have survived to permit a true stylistic study. At the most, only a detailed description of some scenes can be given along with a determination of the scale of colors used. Further, given the state of present knowledge and in the absence of detailed research on the techniques of the preserved paintings, it is impossible to attempt to establish a precise dating. In general, they may be placed between the sixth and eighth centuries. On the other hand, the themes employed can easily be listed.

The niche of the eastern wall is decorated with a Christ Enthroned and with Mary holding Jesus on her lap, framed by archangels, Jeremiah, and Enoch. Sometimes one theme or the other is depicted separately; sometimes they appear together. Christ, seated upon a jeweled throne, gives a benediction with one hand and holds the Holy Book in the other; a mandorla, which is supported by a tetramorph, forms a casket around him. This maiestas Domini adorns the conch of the niche, while on the walls is portrayed seated and holding the Child, who is worshiped by the archangels Michael and Gabriel and saints. Sometimes Christ in majesty, giving a benediction, and the archangels surrounding Him fill the entire niche. The maiestas Domini is sometimes the only motif. Other niches are decorated only with Mary and Joseph surrounded by the archangels, as well as Enoch and Jeremiah. Sometimes is simply the THEOTOKOS; elsewhere, in a theme particularly loved by the Copts, she offers her bare breast to the hungry mouth of the Child.

The archangels are always associated with the theme of Christ in glory or with and Child, as are and Enoch, the patrons and protectors of the monastery. These are the only personages to adorn the eastern niche with the exception of Cell F, where, on the left of the Virgin, an archangel is pictured as a silentiarius (an official in Byzantine court), along with Peter the monk, Enoch, and another monk (doubtless Paniseu). The right section, which has not been identified either by Quibell or later scholars, shows in succession an archangel, a bearded man, a woman, and a second bearded man.

Little is known about the holy personages. Among the monks depicted at Saqqara, there is a certain Peter holding a codex; he is said to be “from the Southern House,” which presupposes the existence of a monastery dependent upon the main one. Another monk, Panesneu, is pictured praying, or holding a book. Two other saints or monks depicted in the niche of Cell F also appear to clasp a book to their hearts. A woman, clothed like the monks in a long tunic and cloak, her head covered with a maphorion (shawl edged with fringe) and carrying a codex, is pictured among the saints in the eastern niche of Cell F, and upon a column of the Main Church as well as in two other cells. However, there is no inscription to identify her. Little more is known about the cavalier saints mentioned several times by Quibell since he left neither description nor photograph.

Several saints are depicted seated or standing in the Refectory and Court of Octagons; but again there is no inscription and no special item in the traits, clothing, or attributes to identify them precisely. However, an exception to this rule exists for the saints of the northern wall of Cell A, where there are inscriptions naming and Macarius; a third saint on the left of Macarius may very probably be Onophrius; at his feet there was a sixth person (mentioned but not photographed by Quibell) who can be tentatively identified as Paphnutius, the disciple of Onophrius; at Apollo’s side, Phib, his companion, may be recognized. The identity of the personages crouching at their feet remains an open question.

Biblical themes do not seem to be as numerous here as at Bawit and in the paintings of the necropolises. The sacrifice of Isaac appears in the center of a group decorating the north wall of the Refectory; the other scenes have not been identified, and the paintings have disappeared. In cell F, on the eastern wall to the right of the central niche, the Three Children in the Furnace, protected by the angel of God, are standing in the midst of the flames. In this same cell there may have been another painting of this biblical theme, but it was neither conserved nor even photographed at the time of the excavation.

The cross appears either as an ornament or it takes on a religious function. In Cell 709 it plays a particularly important role, since it is repeated three times, studded with gems, adorned with garlands, and resting upon a platform. Here it is associated with allegorical pictures of the virtues—half-angels, half-women—holding a disk in their hands.

There are also some scenes of daily life depicted on the walls: boats and monks standing watch, a man holding a crocodile, waving a cane, and cutting palms. However, the majority of these merit no more than a brief mention.

This painting—richer and more varied than the extant works would lead one to believe—illustrates, by its very repetition of similar motifs in similar location, the existence of definite iconographical programs, all of which constitutes a major contribution to Coptic studies.


  • Moorsel, P. van, and M. Huybers. “Repertory of the Preserved Wallpaintings from the Monastery of Apa Jeremias.” Miscellanea Coptica/Acta ad archaeologiam et artium historiam pertinentia 9 (1981):125-86.
  • Quibell, J.E. Excavations at Saqqara, 1906-1907. Cairo, 1908. . Excavations at Saqqara, 1907-1908. Cairo, 1909. . Excavations at Saqqara, 1908-1909. Cairo, 1912.
  • Rassart-Debergh, M. M. “La Décoration picturale du monastère de Saqqara. de reconstitution.” Miscellanea Coptica/Acta ad archaeologiam et artium historiam pertinentia 9 (1981):9-124.
  • . “Quelques remarques iconographiques sur la peinture chrétienne à Saqqara.” Miscellanea Coptica/Acta ad archaeologiam et artium historiam pertinentia 9 (1981):207-220.
  • Rassart-Debergh, M. M., and Debergh, J. “A propos de trois peintures de Saqqara.” Miscellanea Coptica/Acta ad Archaeologiam et artium historiam pertinentia 9 (1981):187-205.