The Alexandrian Monastery of the Metanoia (Penitence), also called the Monastery of Canopus or of the Tabennesiotes, played a prominent role in the religious history and the administrative life of Byzantine Egypt. One can merely catch a glimpse of this, for sources contain obscurities and contradictions.


No archaeological traces of the Metanoia remain. It is known only that it was situated twelve miles east of Alexandria, in the coastal suburb of Canopus, the present Abu Qir. It is mentioned for the first time under the name Metanoia in 404, by Saint JEROME in his preface to a translation of normative Pachomian writings intended in part for its monks (PL 23, pp. 62-63). The original nucleus of this foundation was a colony of Pachomian monks (see PACHOMIAN MONASTICISM), or Tabennesiotes, from Upper Egypt; it settled at Canopus in 391 by Archbishop THEOPHILUS, on the site of pagan sanctuaries that had just been suppressed. It appears also that Theophilus this colony with the means of existence (Orlandi, 1965-1970, Vol. 2, pp. 61-62, 66-67).

This entailed uprooting the traditional cults and eliminating the influence of the philosophical school of Canopus, which, given its proximity to the city, was particularly offensive to the church of Alexandria. On this score, the foundation of the monastery fits very well into the religious policy of Theophilus, who was violently hostile to paganism. The archbishop, whose good relations with the Pachomians are otherwise well known, would have had difficulty in finding more trusty auxiliaries and better moral exemplars than these monks, who were strongly organized and already enjoyed an excellent reputation throughout the Mediterranean world. And it must be said that the Tabennesiotes did what was expected of them, both by their “asceticism and prayer” and, above all by establishing on the site the cult of the relics and of the martyrs, one of the best weapons of Christian propaganda at that time.

It seems, incidentally, that part of the celebrity of the Tabennesiotes related to the wealth of relics in their church: a shroud of the Holy Face and the cloth with which Jesus girded himself when he washed the feet of his disciples. There was also a “venerable cross” (John of Nikiou, 1883, pp. 515, 574; cf. Butler, 1978, p. 314, n. 2). On a more militant level, the Tabennesiotes took an active part about 482-489, on the orders of the patriarch PETER MONGUS, in the destruction of a clandestine shrine of Isis at Menouthis, quite close to Canopus (Kugener, 1907, pp. 16-35, esp. 27-32).

It seems that the foundation was at first called simply the Monastery of Canopus and only later, between 391 and 404, adopted the name Metanoia. This change, which Jerome judges happy, betrayed a new objective. Canopus was renowned in antiquity for its ribald relaxations: no doubt it seemed necessary to unite the task of reforming morals with that of converting hearts (on the particular vocation of the institutions called Metanoia at Byzantium, see Du Cange, 1688).

Under Theophilus, the monastery appears to have rapidly acquired great prestige. According to Jerome, it attracted “very Latins” (cf. Rémondon, 1971, p. 781, n. 43). The celebrated anchorite ARSENIUS OF SCETIS AND TURAH, of Roman origin, made a stay of three years there before returning to Turah. A woman of senatorial rank came from Rome to visit him. Later on, Archbishop Saint Cyril (PG 77, pp. 1100-101) pronounced two short homilies at the Metanoia in honor of the famous local saints, Cyrus and John.

In the middle of the fifth century the name Metanoia had replaced that of Canopus. It appears that at that time the suburb as a whole benefited, by virtue of an “ancient custom,” from the signal privilege of asylum, guaranteed by the monastery itself and by the archiepiscopal church, but was probably a heritage from the pagan regime. Within the immunity perimeter there was a bathing establishment. This information is drawn from the testimony of a priest at the Council of CHALCEDON (451), who declared that he found refuge there against the of the archbishop DIOSCORUS (Schwartz, 1938, 2.1.217). Hence, the Metanoia was already indirectly involved in the religious quarrels that developed around the council. This is the place to ask about the later Christological choices of the establishment.

The Metanoia after Chalcedon

Some authors see in the Metanoia a “bastion” of Chalcedonianism (cf. Rémondon, 1971, p. 771 and n. 11). Here are the facts that can be adduced for this view. The archbishop Timothy Salofaciolus came originally from the ranks of the house of Canopus, and it was there that he went into hiding upon the arrival of his anti-Chalcedonian rival TIMOTHY AELURUS in 475. On his death, the Tabennesiote John Talaia maintained for three years the line of the Chalcedonian pontiffs. This John had formerly been a member of a delegation sent to the emperor Zeno to bring him a petition. In 482 the Chalcedonians withdrew to Canopus in protest against the HENOTICON of the same emperor.

Between 537 and 539 the Tabennesiotes supplied a third “Melchite” archbishop in the person of their superior Paul. Finally, in September 641, on the eve of the peace negotiations with the Arabs, the Chalcedonian archbishop Cyrus secretly deliberated with the general Theodorus behind the closed doors of the church of the Tabennesiotes. It was no doubt from there that he went in procession to the Alexandrian church of the Caesareum bearing the “venerable cross” of his hosts.

All this is impressive. But some of the facts recounted here take on a “Chalcedonian” sense only according to one’s perspective. In themselves they are not very conclusive. That some Tabennesiote archbishop adhered to the doctrine of Chalcedon does not mean that his monastery followed suit. It is known that when Paul the Tabennesiote was raised to the episcopate, he found himself at Constantinople threatened with an accusation launched by his monks. His religious views may well have played a part in this conflict.

From time to time, traces of anti-Chalcedonianism have been found at Canopus. According to a Coptic source that is of mediocre historical value but must be taken into account because of the spirit which it embodies, PAPHNUTIUS, archimandrite of the Pachomian house of Tabennese in Upper Egypt, a fervent adherent of Dioscorus, stayed for a year at Canopus shortly before the council. He there received another persecuted friend of the archbishop, MACARIUS, BISHOP OF TKOW. On the death of Macarius, the monastery harbored his deacon Pinoution. About 482-489 the monks had no difficulty over obeying the order of Peter Mongus regarding the shrine of Isis at Menouthis.

Hence, they recognized his authority. If in the time of Archbishop Timothy III (517-535), and no doubt at his instigation, their church received precious relics of Jesus Christ, it was evidently because the relations were good. Between 556 and 564, in a period when Justinian was trying to unite the separated churches doctrinally, two “ultra-Chalcedonian” bishops were imprisoned at Canopus, one of them Victor of Tunnuna. Finally, toward 620, the monks, spared by the Persians, welcomed the future archbishop BENJAMIN.

From this, one may conclude that the Christological line of the Tabennesiotes of Alexandria was in a state of flux, which may reflect divergences of opinion, opportunism, or even indifference or passivity.

On the organization of this monastery, there survive, by a rare chance, three papyrological dossiers from the sixth and seventh centuries that show it preoccupied with its material and disciplinary affairs, respectful of the civil authority, and even supportive of the administration in its most vital task, the collection and forwarding of the annonary taxes.

The first of these dossiers (P. Fouad, 86-89) is a total of four letters deriving probably from Middle Egypt of the sixth century, as indicated by the handwriting. The letters were addressed with great deference to George, the superior or PROESTOS of the Metanoia, by monks dependent upon the foundation at Canopus. Some were route to the mother house of the Pachomian order, the Bau (a Greek form of Pbow). This was a case of two monasteries situated in these parts, obviously in some kind of affiliation with the Metanoia.

A letter from the monks of one of these monasteries accuses their old superior of maladministration—no more provisions, no more money, nothing but debts, according to the accounts—and says that a lay authority is busy with the affair. Another letter relates to quarrels with a slanderer. There is fear that he may harm the monasteries in the eyes of the duke of the Thebaid at Antinoopolis. It appears that the superior general of the Pachomians and the superior of the nuns, following the example of Archimandrite Paphnutius, were then resident at Canopus, close to George.

The other two dossiers, collected and brilliantly commented on by Rémondon (1971, pp. 769-81), derive from Aphrodito (Middle Egypt) and Hermopolis. The documents in the first date from between 541 and 550, or even 567, and in the second, from the first years of the seventh century. These two dossiers contain essentially documents. Thus, one learns that the Metanoia, represented by local agents sometimes called diaconites, collected, accounted for, and conveyed in its own boats part of the wheat levied as taxes. Perhaps it even carried it to Constantinople.

In this regard, one must recall that there was among the Pachomians an old tradition of boatmanship, going back to the origins of the order (Chitty, 1966, pp. 25, 37); that sea voyages as far as Constantinople held no terrors for “the brothers of Tabennisi” (Johnson, 1980, p. 81), and that the use of their fleet by the state is also very early attested by Rupprecht (1983, 11972).

This is all that is known for certain about the Metanoia. The sources scarcely go beyond the end of the seventh century. (It may be deduced from John of Nikiou that the church of the Tabennesiotes was then still standing.) What happened thereafter to the monastery remains a mystery.

Pachomian Foundations at Alexandria

Alone among the authors who have dealt with the Metanoia, Van Cauwenbergh (1914, pp. 76-77) distinguished a second Tabennesiote establishment (which he located extra muros) from the house of Canopus, without, it must be said, very convincing reasons. Given the present state of the documentation, however, one might advance some arguments in favor of the existence of a second foundation, but one situated intra muros, although the sources, in view of the confusion, do not allow of any agreement on this issue.

According to Orlandi, the Pachomian colony called to Canopus by Theophilus to drive out the demons of paganism was by him with a garden that had belonged to Saint ATHANASIUS, situated in the south of Alexandria. The monks installed themselves there and built a church on the north flank. Theophilus himself erected close by a martyrium of Saint John the Baptist. Eunapius affirmed that there were in fact two monks’ establishments, one at Canopus and the other on the site of a Serapeum, obviously that of Alexandria, located in the southwest of the city. RUFINUS says that in his time the “sepulcher” of Serapis was razed to the ground. On one side there rose a martyrium of John the Baptist and on the other a church (Orlandi 1970, Vol. 2, pp. 61-62; cf. Orlandi, 1968, Vol. 1, pp. 66-67).

These otherwise incoherent data do agree on some points, notably the existence of an establishment of Pachomians at Alexandria concurrent with that at Canopus, toward the south (Orlandi and Eunapius), and of a church and a martyrium of the Baptist (Orlandi and Rufinus). The latter building will later be found associated twice with the Tabennesiotes, in a manner that might lead one to believe that they were not far from it. It was here that the funeral of Macarius of Tkow, the guest and protégé of the monks, took place (Johnson, 1980, p. 96). The building was dedicated to Elisha and John (Nau, 1903, p. 304).

The archbishop John Talaia the Tabennesiote is said to have been priest and steward there (PG 147, col. 136). One might also identify the church of which Orlandi and Rufinus spoke with the “church of the Tabennesiotes,” the resting place of the relics of Christ, to which Cyrus the Muqawqas retired in September 641 before going to the Alexandrian church of the Caesareum armed with the cross of his hosts. A procession from Canopus to Alexandria takes several hours. In all probability, the point of departure was within the city itself.

The sources are seriously divergent in regard to the site of the foundations, giving a garden (Orlandi) and a Serapeum (Eunapius and Rufinus). Again, the historical tradition varies on the person to whom the building or buildings that replaced the Serapeum were dedicated. Thus, one reads of a church of Arcadius, Theodosius, or Honorius (see Schwartz, 1966, p. 99, n. 3; Orlandi, “Uno soritto …,” 1968, pp. 295-304; Storia … , 1968, Vol. 1, pp. 94-98; Vol. 2, 1970, pp. 95-97, 100-02). Nor is there any more unanimity in regard to the functions of John Talaia before his accession to the episcopate: for some he was general steward of the archiepiscopal church and no longer steward of the martyrium. This is puzzling. As to the other facts, the inferences about the funeral of Macarius of Tkow and the withdrawal and return of the Muqawqas have, on the whole, no firm basis.

It is also permissible to think that if there had been a second Pachomian monastery at Alexandria, Jerome would not have failed to mention it in his preface. Finally, other literary allusions to the Tabennesiotes direct one toward Canopus, or at the very least never absolutely prohibit that interpretation.

What may one finally concede? That one or two religious buildings in Alexandria, one of them dedicated to John the Baptist but both hard to place accurately, are rather obscurely placed by an incoherent historical tradition in the tenure of the Pachomians. Perhaps this martyrium and church were served by Tabennesiotes established nearby, attached to the Metanoia at Canopus. This colony, if it ever existed, seems insignificant in comparison with the house of Canopus, whose historicity is at any rate not in doubt.


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