A rampart or defensive wall. The word is also used in this sense for the fortification walls of towns. In the Egyptian cenobite monasteries the hisn has the significance of a protective wall and is equally important as a defense against hostile assaults and to prevent uncontrolled intercourse between the inhabitants of the monastery and the outside world (Palladius Historia lausiaca 59).
In the Coptic monasteries of today, the hisn is as a rule very high and is also always provided with a high parapet in which various lookout holes have been let in. The walk on the crown of the wall is accessible by several staircases, but is itself so narrow that any large number of men cannot move along it. To increase stability, there are frequently towers at the corners and in the middle of the curtain walls.
Despite these consolidation measures, apart from a few exceptions, the value of these monastery walls as fortifications is small. They were not suited to active defense against a hostile attack. Indeed, such an active defense was no part of the customary behavior of the monks. Determined attackers could easily surmount the hisn. In case of a strong assault, it offered only the possibility of gaining time, in order that all the inhabitants might promptly withdraw with their possessions and the church’s objects of value into the keep.
The circumvallation of cenobite monasteries came into practice at an early date. By the fourth century PACHOMIUS provided for the walling of the different monasteries of his society. In this, he certainly had in view not only the securing of the cohesion of his monastic communities and their shielding from the outside world but also defense against hostile attacks. During the inroads of the Blemmyes into Upper Egypt, thousands of the families living round about withdrew behind the hisn of Dayr Anba Shinudah at Suhaj. There is, however, no information as to whether the monastery walls had to sustain an actual attack.
The lauras of the anchorites followed later. The first of these was a monastery precinct surrounded by a strong defensive wall, the present monastery of Saint Catherine, built for the monks on Sinai by the emperor Justinian. It was intended only for cases of danger, and down to the tenth century was never permanently inhabited. The walling of the monastery DAYR ANBA MAQAR in Wadi al-Natrun was first taken in hand by SHENUTE I (858-880).
The monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai has two entrances of different sizes. Dayr Anba Hadra at Aswan also has two gates on different sides. According to the excavation finds, each of the small hermitages in the Kellia had an approach at ground level in the fifth and sixth centuries. Later, however, they were closed up and access was by surmounting the wall. The provision of transport baskets is quite modern. These were in use until the mid-twentieth century at Saint Catherine’s monastery on Mount Sinai, in the monastery of Saint Antony (DAYR ANBA ANTUNIYUS), and in some monasteries of Wadi al-Natrun. In them, visitors were drawn up individually in baskets to the top of the wall.
- Evelyn-White, H. G. The Monasteries of the Wadi ‘n Natrun, Vol. 3. New York, 1933. Repr. 1973.
- Forsyth, G. H. “The Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers (1968):3-19.
- Kasser, R. Survey archéologique des Kellia. Rapport de la campagne 1981, Vols. 1, 2. Leuven, 1983.
- Leipoldt, J. Schenute von Atripe. Leipzig, 1903.
- . “Berichte Schenutes über Einfälle des Nubiens in Ägypten.” Zeitschrift für Ägyptische Sprache und Altertumskunde 40 (1902-1903):126-40.
- Monneret de Villard, U. Il monastero di S. Simeone presso Aswan I, 81. 13-26, 80-81. Milan, 1927.