A narthex is a vestibule of a church, corresponding to the pronaos (porch) of a classical temple. The Greek word means literally “a reedlike plant.” In the sixth century, Procopius of Caesarea, evidently for the first time, described the antechamber of a church as a narthex because it was small (Procopius De aedificiis 1.4.7, 5.6.23). In the West the word “narthex” was not used in antiquity, but the late medieval term ardica (artica) evidently comes for the same root (Grossmann, 1973, p. 1). The Arabic word nartiks is apparently used only by the Melchites (Graf, 1954, p. 112). The modern Arabic term for narthex is mamarr al-madkhal (“vestibule”).
The narthex, which was the place for penitents and others not admitted to the church itself, is usually on the western end of the church. In early Christian churches, including those in Egypt, it took two forms—an exterior porch and an interior hall. The exterior form, familiar in the West, was a colonnaded porch distinguished from a portico by corresponding exactly to the breadth of the building. Occasionally the designation exonarthex is also used for this form (Orlandos, 1952, Vol. 1, pp. 136-37).
According to F. E. Brightman, it was called the proaulion and was the result of a reduced atrium that lacked the other three sides, an opinion with which one can scarcely agree (Brightmann, 1896, p. 571). An Egyptian example is the great basilica of Faw al-Qibli (Pbow). Presumably the stoa mentioned in “Apa Claudius and the Thieves” (Drescher, 1942, pp. 63ff.) was also an external narthex.
The interior form of the narthex, predominant in the East, is a more compact area inside the church. It opens to the outside through a door or a single arch and opens into the naos through several doors or occasionally a larger opening in connection with a tribelon (passage divided by two columns, see below). The designation esonarthex was introduced for this form, especially since Hagia Sophia seemed to have had two narthexes. In the most recent investigations, however, the outer narthex has been shown to be the eastern portico of the atrium (Strube, 1973, pp. 33ff.). As a result the church has only one narthex, which consequently does not require any separate designation. Most Egyptian narthexes are of this second form, consisting of a compact room entered from outside by an ordinary door and connected by a second, not very imposing door with the naos.
Examples are to be found in the church of Dayr Anba Shinudah (Monneret de Villard, 1926, p. 111ff.) and the main church (second half of the seventh century) of Dayr Apa Jeremiah, where the narthex is connected by a tribelon with the naos (Grossmann, 1982b, pp. 159-62). In the latter church, the adjoining return aisle, which is connected along its entire width with the nave and aisles, belongs entirely to the naos and has nothing to do with the narthex. In the small aisleless church in the area of ruins west of Dayr Abu Hinnis, a western section is separated from the naos by a transverse row of columns (Grossmann, 1982, pp. 128ff., ill. 54), an instance not of a narthex but of a return aisle reduced to the width of the aisleless naos.
While the narthex continued to play a prominent role in middle and late Byzantine architecture, its importance in Egypt declined. Even in the early Christian period it was employed only in important buildings, such as at Dayr Abu Fanah and those at Kellia, and was altogether lacking in provincial churches. In the main church of Dayr al-Suryan it was misunderstood as an antechamber to the staircase and was originally accessible only from the interior of the church (Grossmann, 1982 a, p. 114, fig. 47).
In the Middle Ages the narthex fell completely out of use. Instead, there was used, at least in some monastery churches, a kind of propylon, called duksar (“porch”) in Arabic (see below), which corresponds at least remotely to the narthex. The entrance hall at the Mu’allaqah church in Babylon, Cairo, consisting of a portico stretched between two projecting stair towers, such as is common in Syrian architecture, is not historical (Simaykah, 1937, pp. 55ff.).
- Brightman, F. E., and C. E. Hammond, eds. Liturgies Eastern and Western, Vol. 1. Oxford, 1896. Repr. 1962.
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