A niche is a recess in a wall. It may hold useful objects or decorative objects, such as statues, or may itself be a decorative element.
Practical niches inside buildings serve as cupboards. Intended to store objects that might be lost or broken if left on the floor, they are usually at a convenient height. They may be divided into several compartments by the insertion of horizontal boards and provided with doors so that they can be closed. Some may have a high parapet in front to hold loose goods. Sometimes a large main niche will be flanked by two smaller, shallower side niches, as in ancient Roman houses in the Fayyum, a symmetrical arrangement for the display of images of gods and ancestors. Similar arrangements can be found in several hermitages at Kellia. There are also very small niches, usually beside a staircase, to hold an oil lamp.
When cupboard niches are built into the wall during the construction of a building, they are rectangular and usually topped by a small arch or, less commonly, a lintel. When they are cut into a wall after it is built, possible in principle only with crude brick constructions, they are generally shapeless and have a rounded interior. Not infrequently they even go around the corner of a room. In rooms that have frequently been altered, such niches result in very irregular wall structure.
Niches constructed for decorative reasons or religious purposes are more elaborate. Since the deep, shadowed area of a niche forms a strong visual contrast with the otherwise flat wall, niches were used as decorative elements. In Roman temples and other public buildings, alternating rectangular and semicircular niches, holding statues of the gods or emperors, occur in regular sequence. Since churches in the Nile Valley generally had few other decorative elements, they were often provided, especially in Upper Egypt, with a close succession of niches in the sidewalls and the apse.
In most examples, these probably had only a decorative significance. While in the early monastery churches in Wadi al-Natrun only simple rectangular niches occur in sequence (Grossmann, 1982, figs. 47, 51), the churches of Dayr Anba Shinudah and Dayr Anba Bishoi present in the naos and especially in the apse an alternation of rectangular and semicircular niches strongly reminiscent of those in Roman buildings. In the church of Dayr Abu Fanah, deep and shallow niches alternate with one another in the apse (Grossmann, 1982, p. 78, fig. 25). Wide but relatively shallow niches are employed in the altar chambers of some Upper Egyptian churches. Further, there are several symmetrically arranged small niches in the apses of the churches in the area of Akhmim, for the most part deriving from the Ottoman period (after the fifteenth century).
A special role is played by the niche in the east wall of rectangular altar chambers of Egyptian churches (shaqq al-haykal or sharqiyyah, “the eastern”). These niches apparently represent the apse and are copied from the prayer niches in anchorite cells. Although they were known since the early Middle Ages, it was only in the Mamluk period that they took on any significance.
- Grossmann, P. Mittelalterliche Langhauskuppelkirchen und verwandte Typen in Oberägypten. Glückstadt, 1982.
- Hornborstel-Hüttner, G. Studien zur römischen Nischenarchitektur. Leiden, 1979.
- Husson, G. “Un Sens méconnu de et de fenestra.” Proceedings of the 15th International Congress of Papyrologists. Oxford, 1974. Monneret de Villard, U. Les Couvents près de Sohag, 2 vols. Milan, 1925-1926.