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Keep - Coptic Wiki


(Arab., jawsaq), multistoried tower with defensive capabilities.

It has strong walls and in most cases there is no entrance at ground level. The entrance lies at the second-floor level, and is reached by means of a drawbridge that can easily be taken in or drawn up into the keep when danger threatens. This accounts for the fact that a keep of this kind is always connected with a staircase tower, which is physically separated from it. A second staircase was required inside the tower.

In the way, it is built and the purpose it served, this kind of keep is basically different from the so-called watchtower or burg of the late-Roman border defense system, a large number of which are known in the western oases and in which small troop units were stationed. The keeps in civilian settlements were used for passive defense only, and to some extent served as a protective haven of retreat for the when danger threatened. They were particularly advantageous in isolated settlements.

If appropriate precautions were made with regard to provisions and water supply, the of a keep of this kind would be in a position to sustain a long siege. Thus the keep was employed quite early in monastery construction and most notably is a predominant feature of the hermit colonies (lauras). The Greek monasteries on Athos are also provided with corresponding towers.

This kind of keep is first mentioned within the context of a monastic community in the Ammonius narrative (dated between A.D. 373 and 381) that deals with the tower of the lauras at Mount Sinai (Mayerson, 1980, pp. 137-40). Of course, keeps of this kind were in existence at a much earlier period. G. Welter (1954, pp. 87-93) describes several Hellenistic towers similarly on the island of Chios. They differ only in certain details.

Large numbers of keeps, especially from the Roman imperial period, are also known from Syria (Butler, 1919) and Palestine (Negev, 1973), among which the latter show a kind of stairway matching Egyptian examples. Other famous examples are the keeps built by Herod in Jerusalem, the impregnability of which is stressed frequently in Josephus (De bello Judaico 5.4, 3-5; 5.5, 8; 5.18.4).

The oldest keeps at least partially preserved on Egyptian soil were discovered in the great laura of KELLIA on the western edge of the Delta and are to be dated with certainty to the first half of the fifth century. The ground plan is divided by two inner separating walls running at right angles to each other into four large room units of approximately the same size, one of which contained the staircase. In addition to the staircase, smaller keeps generally have only a single room, or besides that only a very small side chamber. A somewhat larger room plan, in which the staircase and three additional rooms are arranged along a central corridor, is contained in the keep of hermitage No. 44 of Qusur ‘Izeila in Kellia (Mission suisse, 1983, Vol. 2, pl. 42), evidently deriving from the sixth or seventh century.

The further development of the keep also belongs to this same form of ground plan. An almost identical disposition of the rooms is still apparent in the much later keep (1130-1149) of DAYR AL-MUHARRAQ (Monneret de Villard, 1929, pp. 28-33). This plan also underlies the large keeps in the Wadi al-Natrun. In the keep of DAYR AL-BARAMUS only the proportions are varied and the inside corridor extended, to make place for extra rooms. The latest towers are the towers of DAYR ANBA BISHOI and DAYR ANBA MAQAR. In the first upper story both towers contain a church with three altars. To accommodate them, the ground plan of the towers had to be extended east of the inner corridor by a depth of two rooms. Neither tower is to be dated before the middle of the thirteenth century (Grossmann, 1982, p. 215).

The water supply in the keep was vitally important in the event of a siege. The oldest examples in the Egyptian lauras evidently did not always have immediate access to a watering place. Apparently, at first an indoor supply of water was not regarded as a matter of urgency. In the Ammonius narrative, attacked on Mount Sinai needed only one day in the shelter of the tower to recuperate (Mayerson, 1980).

Still, in the period of the patriarch SHENUTE I (858-880) the monks in the Kellia had to leave their towers to fetch water (History of the Patriarchs, Vol. 2, pt. 1, p. 60 [English trans.]). On the other hand, the keep of Dayr al-Baramus in the Wadi al-Natrun, which unfortunately has not yet been dated, was already provided with a well that could be reached by an underground passageway (Evelyn-White, 1933, Vol. 3, p. 233). The same arrangement might also have been available in the very old keep of DAYR ANBA SAMU’IL OF QALAMUN. The later keeps in the Wadi al-Natrun even have wells within the keep walls.

There is no uniformity in the question of access to the keep. While in the oldest examples of keeps known to us from the different colonies of hermits, entrance was effected only on the second floor, this detail was in a strange way occasionally disregarded in the keeps found in the cenobite monasteries. Thus the keep found immediately in front of the south door of the church of Dayr Anba Bishoi in Suhaj can be entered at ground-floor level through a wide door (Grossmann, 1974-1977, pp. 323-25). The extensive keeplike lodging complex in DAYR ANBA HADRA in also had an entrance on ground level. Apparently the securing of the keep entrance was not regarded as very important by the large number of monks in the cenobite monasteries. The early keeps of the Nabataeans are also provided with ground floor entrances.


  • Butler, J. C. Syria. Publications of the University/Expedition Division II. Architecture. Leiden, 1919. Evelyn-White, H. G. The Monasteries of the Wadi ‘n Natrun, Vol. 3, The Architecture and Archeology. New York, 1933; repr. 1973. Grossmann, P. “Sohaj.” Archiv für Orientforschung 25 (1974-1977):323-25.
  • . Mittelalterliche Langhauskuppelkirchen und verwandte Typen in Oberägypten, pp. 213-15. Glückstadt, 1982.
  • Ibrahim Hajjaj. “Introduction in Coptic Defence Architecture” (in Arabic). Dissertation, Cairo, 1984.
  • Mayerson, P. “The Ammonius Narrative: Bedouin and Blemmye Attacks in Sinai,” pp. 133-48. In The Bible World, Essays in Honor of H. Gordon, ed. G. Rendsburg. New York, 1980.
  • Mission suisse d’Archéologie copte de l’Universite de Genève, under the direction of R. Kasser. Survey archéologique des Kellia (Basse-Egypte), rapport de la campagne 1981. Louvain, 1983.
  • Monneret de Villard, U. Deyr el-Muharraqah, pp. 28-35. Milan, 1929.
  • Negev, A. “The Staircase Tower in Nabataean Architecture.” Revue biblique 80 (1973):364-83.
  • Orlandos, A. K. Monasthriakh ¢rcitektonik», pp. 134-37. Athens, 1958.
  • Walters, C. C. Monastic Archaeology in Egypt, pp. 86-99. Warminster, 1974.
  • Welter, G. “Von griechischen Inseln.” Archäologischer Anzeiger (1954):48-93.