SAINT BARSUM THE NAKED
Numerous sources assure us of Barsum’s historicity and give us some details of his life. He was born to a well-to-do family in Cairo at an unstated date. He lost his parents while he was young, and his maternal uncle became his guardian. When the uncle squandered his ward’s inheritance, Barsum refused to take him to court. He became secretary to the regent Shajar al-Durr, widow of the sultan al-Malik al-Salih, in 1250. (Christians were not unusual in the administration.) When he decided to live as a hermit he took up residence in a small, gloomy cave that was inhabited by a serpent.
The cave is still shown today in the Church of Saint Mercurius (ABU SAYFAYN) in Old Cairo. He lived there for twenty years (the Arabic Synaxarion speaks of fifteen years, and the Ethiopian, of thirty-three), but when a period of oppression of Christians came, he climbed to the roof of the church, where he remained, enduring there the cold and the heat. This was reported to the chief of police of Cairo and several Muslim authorities, for it was forbidden for anyone to live night and day in a public building. As a result, he was put in prison, where, according to the Synaxarion, he remained less than a week. When he came out, it was to take refuge in the monastery of DAYR SHAHRAN, to the south of Cairo, a monastery that was dedicated to Saint Mercurius and received his name after his death.
According to the testimony of Ibn al-Suqa‘i, Barsum remained there for seventeen years, from 1300, living in a courtyard on a heap of dust and ashes. Because he wore hardly any garments, he was called “the Naked.” He died on 5 Nasi A.M. 1033/28 August A.D. 1317. He was buried in front of the door of the church of the monastery. Numerous miracles were attributed to him, as the Arabic life recounts.
- Budge, E. A. W. The Book of the Saints of the Ethiopian Church, 4 vols. Cambridge, 1928.
- Crum, W. E. “Barsauma the Naked.” Proceedings of the Society of Biblical Archeology 29 (1907):135-49, 187-206.
- Troupeau, G. “Compte-rendu d’Ibn al-Suqa‘i.” Arabica 33 (1976):330-31.