Saint Samu’il Of Qalamun (C. 597-695)


Samu’il was born in the village of Tkello near the city of Pelhip in the northwest Delta. The SYNAXARION records that he came from the diocese of Masil. Coptic-Arabic geographical lists give Masil as Fuwwah. His parents were Silas, a presbyter, and Kosmiane. At the age of twelve Samu’il became a subdeacon. In spite of his parents’ wish that he should marry, he insisted on becoming a monk. Shortly after the death of Kosmiane, when Samu’il was eighteen, Silas had a vision in which it was revealed to him that his son would one day be a great monk. Silas therefore built a beautiful church and made Samu’il a deacon of it.

Four years later Silas died, and Samu’il went to SCETIS to become a monk at the age of twenty-two. In a synopsis given toward the end of his Life, it is recorded that Samul became a monk when he was eighteen. This probably refers to his age when his father had his vision.

On his arrival at Scetis, Samu’il became the disciple of Agathon, whose cave was situated “on a high peak” between those of Apa MACARIUS and Apa John. H. G. Evelyn-White (1922, p. 252, n. 5) thinks it was probably “one of two or three conical knolls” in this area that do not exceed 48-65 feet (15-20 m) in height.

He stayed there until Agathon died three years later, and he was expelled by order of the agent (magistrianus) of Cyrus, the Melchite patriarch of Alexandria appointed by Emperor Heraclius in 631. Cyrus had been sent to Egypt with a recently formulated Christological doctrine, which the emperor hoped would prove acceptable to the Monophysite Egyptians. It laid stress on the “one energy” and the “one will” of Christ.

Heraclius was not the first emperor since the Council of CHALCEDON to try to reconcile the dissident Egyptians to official doctrine and, having driven the Persians out of Egypt only two years before, he must have been acutely aware of the need for unity within the empire. But Cyrus, who had been invested with civil and ecclesiastical authority, was not particularly subtle in his methods of winning the Egyptians over. He sent his rather brutal agent to Scetis with the new doctrine (referred to anachronistically in the Life of Samu’il as the “Tome of Leo”). When the monks, led by Samu’il, refused to accept it, and Samu’il actually tore up the document, the magistrianus flogged him mercilessly, stopping only when the whip dislodged Samu’il’s eye. The description of this incident is very similar to what one might find in a martyrology. In fact Samu’il is referred to several times as a “martyr who does not lose his life.”

After his expulsion from Scetis, Samu’il made his way south to Neklone (al-Naqlun) in the Fayyum, accompanied by four monks. Within three and a half years he had established a community of 200 kosmikoi (an uncertain term, perhaps meaning “lay brothers”) and 120 monks. About this time Cyrus came to the Fayyum, where he was warmly received by Bishop Victor, who was clearly regarded as a traitor by the Monophysites.

Mueller (1968, p. 84) describes him as the “bishop who bears the sins of his city.” He was also reviled in the Life and elsewhere in Coptic literature as a traitor. Samu’il told his community to leave Neklone to avoid meeting Cyrus. For this “crime” Samu’il was arrested and brought before Cyrus. The exchange between them resembles a typical martyrological interview between a Christian martyr and a pagan governor. Once again Samu’il was beaten severely; he was rescued from death only by the timely intervention of local magistrates.

Driven out of Neklone, Samu’il went south to Takinash, where he spent six months. From there he went into the desert “like Abraham” until he came upon a small church covered in sand, which had been abandoned “for a long time,” at al-Qalamun. It had probably been built by the Christian community known to have existed there in the fifth century. Here Samu’il was twice captured by Berber raiders. The first captivity was brief, for the camel on which he was placed refused to move.

The second captivity lasted three years. He was taken to the oasis of Siwa where he met John the Hegumenos of Scetis, who had fled from Cyrus. Samu’il was released by his captors after performing several miracles, including two for the benefit of the wife of one of them, thereby acquiring the reputation of a powerful magician. In gratitude they presented him with some handsome camels and escorted him back to Qalamun.

Soon after his return to Qalamun, Samu’il was joined by monks from Neklone and Takinash. Qalamun began to prosper, both from the labors of the monks and from donations by generous benefactors. One such was Gregory, bishop of Kois (al-Qays), an ill- tempered prelate whom Samu’il had cured of an illness according to Ziadeh. He gave Samu’il a hundred solidi, twenty measures of oil, thirty artabas of wheat, and a hundred jars of wine.

Gradually Samu’il began to hand over the administration of the monastery, which was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, to his deacon, Apollo, who appears to have been responsible for collecting the donations for the construction of a new church at al-Qalamun. A large benefactor to the church was Mena, eparch of Pelhip and a relative of Samu’il. With the monastery in such a thriving condition, Samu’il felt able to spend more time in solitude in the desert or marshes. He visited the monastery only once every three months. Once during his absence there was a shortage of grain because all the camels belonging to the monastery had been requisitioned to transport grain to Clysma (Suez). This may be the only reference in the Life to the ARAB CONQUEST OF EGYPT.

It is known from the Arab historian Baladhuri that in A.H. 21/A.D. 643/644 the caliph ‘Umar sent a letter to ‘Amr, his general in Egypt, saying that there was a food shortage in Medina and that he should gather all the grain he had collected as KHARAJ (tax) and transport it by sea to the Arabian capital. Suez is an obvious point of departure for traveling to Arabia. Whether the event in the Life is the same as that in Baladhuri or a subsequent one cannot be determined.

It is recorded that Stephen the Presbyter, an extremely ascetic disciple of Samu’il, was consecrated bishop of OXYRHYNCHUS, but the date is uncertain. In a fragment of a homily on Samu’il the author speaks of “. . . the orthodox bishops which came out of the holy monastery. . . .” Stephen may have been the first of these. In the life (p. 117) he is said to have spent eighteen years in ascetic practices. Assuming he spent all these years at Qalamun and that he was one of the first monks there, one might estimate the date of his transfer to the see of Oxyrhynchus to have occurred in the late 650s or early 660s.

Samu’il spent fifty-seven years at Qalamun and died at the age of ninety-eight.


  • There are four versions of the life: three in Coptic, one in Ethiopic.
  1. The only complete Coptic version, in Pierpont Morgan Library MS 578, is Sahidic with traces of Fayyumic dialect (probably 9th/10th century). A facsimile edition of the original has been published by H. Hyvernat in Bibliothecae Pierpont Morgan codices coptici. . . . 31. Rome, 1922.
  1. Nine fragments of a pure Sahidic version were published by E. Amélineau in Monuments pour servir à la histoire de l’Egypte chrétienne. Paris, 1895.
  2. Two fragments of a Bohairic version: one published by W. E. Crum in Catalogue of Coptic MSS in the British Museum (London, 1905), no. 917, the other an unpublished text in the Staatsbibliothek, Hamburg.
  3. A complete Ethiopic version, published (with translation) by F. M. Esteves Pereira: Vida do Abba Samuel do mosteiro do Kalamon. Lisbon, 1894. Jean Simon has discussed the origin of the Ethiopic version in “Saint Samuel de Kalmon et son monastère dans la litterature ethiopienne.” Aethiopica 1 (1933):36-40. Ethiopic translations are often made from Arabic versions, but no Arabic text of the life has survived.
  • Ahmad ibn Yahya Al Baladhuri. Kitab Futuh al Buldan, trans.
  • Philip Khuri Hitti. New York, 1916.
  • Alcock, A. ed. and trans. The Life of Samuel of Kalamun by Isaac the Presbyter. Warminster, England, 1983.
  • Evelyn-White, H. G. The Monasteries of the Wadi’n Natrun. Pt. 2, The History of the Monasteries of Nitria and Scetis. New York, 1932.
  • Müller, C. D. G. Die Homilie über die Hochzeit zu Kana . . . . Heidelberg, 1968.
  • Munier, H. “La géographie de l’Egypte d’après les listes coptes- arabes.” Bulletin de la Société d’archéologie copte 5 (1939):201-243.
  • Simon, J. “Fragment d’une homélie copte en l’honneur de Samuel de Kalamon.” Miscellanea biblica 2 (1934).
  • Ziadeh, J. “Apocalypse of Samuel.” Revue del’Orient chrétien 10 (1915-1917):374-407.


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