MONASTERY OF ST. APOLLO AT BAWIT
The archaeological site of Bawit is located about 300 kilometers south of Cairo on the west bank of the Nile. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, the site was known to dealers in antiquities as a source of monuments and beautiful artifacts. Between 1901 and 1904 and again in 1913, archaeologists explored only a small part of the site, identifying two constructions that were called the North and South Churches. In addition, several small buildings were found scattered over the site.
The monastery flourished from the sixth to the 10th century. The Monastery of Bawit consisted of many small monasteries with cells and a little church along with several other building complexes that were encircled by an enclosure wall. The majority of scholars agree that the large monastic community in Bawit was led by St. Apollo, who was mentioned in the Historia monachorum in Aegypto as a man who was more than 80 years old around 395 a.d. The architectural sculptures of some of the Bawit structures, such as engaged columns and the capitals, friezes, door jambs, and lintels, were brought from older buildings.
However, the reuse of beautifully carved pieces cannot be shown to account for all the Bawit sculptures. A considerable number of the Bawit sculptures date from the sixth and the seventh centuries. The excavations yielded a large number of murals that represent one of the largest collections of Coptic paintings. The most common scenes show Christ and the Virgin Mary. They feature the Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, the Massacre of the Innocents, Christ’s Baptism, and the Last Supper, as well as Christ in the Majesty and Virgin and Child flanked by Apostles. Angels, Apostles, and saints occur in the murals.
Old Testament scenes such as the three Hebrews in the fiery furnace and David’s exploits are also represented there. Secular themes such as hunting lions or gazelles do not lack at Bawit. Dating of the wall paintings is based only on a stylistic analysis; they are assigned by scholars to the period between the sixth and the eighth centuries.
The monuments of the Monastery of St. Apollo are now preserved in the Coptic Museum, the Louvre in Paris, and in the Museum of Late Antique and Byzantine Art of Berlin. They represent a major source for the study of Coptic art. Beginning in 2003, a joint mission of the Louvre and the French Archaeological Institute in Cairo started new excavations at Bawit. See also MONASTICISM, EGYPTIAN.