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Sanctuarye – Architectural Elements Of Churches - Coptic Wiki


The sanctuary (Arabic, haykal) is the area around the altar. The term derives from the Hebrew hekal, the main hall in the Temple in Jerusalem, which lay in front of the inaccessible Holy of Holies. The Arabic term is first used in the OF THE PATRIARCHS by Sawirus Ibn al-Muqaffa‘. Older synonyms are askina (Greek, skene) and iradiyun (Greek, hierateion). The term has a functional rather than an architectural significance.

In the fifth and sixth centuries the development of the altar area—at least in Egyptian parish churches—was in accordance with practice outside Egypt. It was an area at the eastern end of the church not in the apse but in front of it, projecting into the nave. It was surrounded at first only by low cancelli and was elevated by one or two steps. It was called, as has been noted, the prestyterium or bema. In Upper Egyptian churches with a triconch sanctuary, the altar seems to have stood not in the east (central) conch but in the center field of the triconch.

The cancelli were brought forward as far as the arch at the front of the apse. The apse itself—in triconch churches, the eastern main conch—was adorned with several decorative niches. In the urban bishop’s churches the apse contained a synthronon, or seating for the bishops and presbyters (see below).

Some early monastery churches, particularly in Kellia, show a somewhat simpler plan. They had a rectangular altar area, which contained the altar in the middle and was connected with the naos through an arched opening that was fairly large but relatively small in proportion to its width. The cancelli were fitted in between the jambs of this arch. There were at first no niches in the east wall of these altar areas. They first appeared in the later churches of this type in the late sixth century and in their formation are roughly reminiscent of the prayer niches in the simple hermitages of anchorites. Possibly this simple style was an older form of building preserved in these small monastery churches, which in the parish churches and in the great churches of the Upper Egyptian cenobite monasteries had already fallen out of use.

When the khurus was introduced in front of the sanctuary in the second half of the seventh century, it did not lead to any immediate change in the altar area. The altar remained in one of two possible places: within a rectangular chamber equipped with a niche in the east wall or in the area in front of the apse. In the latter place, however, it was now within the khurus.

Because the khurus was separated from the naos by a strong, high wall, the surrounding cancelli were unnecessary and were abolished. The term haykal was transferred to the khurus containing the altar. The area developed as the apse is given the architectural term concha or gunka (Greek, konche; Graf, 1954, p. 93), a semicircular, shell-like form, although it was only rarely used in Egypt.

Since the late Middle Ages the haykal has been a largely self- contained room in the middle of which the altar stands. It is closed off on the west from the naos by a high screen (hijab). In some cases, however, the room is open to neighboring haykals on the sides. The oldest example is the old church at Dayr Anba Antunyus, from the early thirteenth century.

Part of the fittings of the rectangular haykal is a small, generally semicircular niche in the east wall, which is called al-haykal or simply sharqiyyah (“the eastern”). Functionally, it represents the apse and accordingly has a significance similar to that of the small prayer niches in the early Christian anchorite cells.

In fact, in the haykal developed in the shape of an apse, such as was usual in the area of Akhmim down to the nineteenth century, there is no particularly prominent niche in the east wall. These first appeared in combination with an apse in quite modern buildings (except in the church in front of the pylon of the Luxor temple, the function of which is not yet determined) or have been inserted in older apses at a later date, which suggests that the relationships were no longer understood. Finally, a flight of steps (daraj al-haykal) is often built in front of the east wall of the main haykal. Very probably it led to the synthronon in the older bishops’ churches. It is no longer used for seating.


  • Burmester, O. H. E. The Egyptian or . Cairo, 1967. Busink, T. A. Der Tempel von , Vol. 1. Leiden, 1970.
  • Butler, A. J. The Ancient Coptic Churches of Egypt, Vol. 1. Oxford, 1884; repr., 1970.
  • Graf, G. Verzeichnis arabischer kirchlicher Termini. Louvain, 1954. Grossmann, P. Mittelalterliche Langhauskuppelkirchen und verwandten Typen in Oberägypten, pp. 213-15. Glückstadt, 1982.
  • Muyser, J. “Des Vases eucharistiques en verre.” de la Société d’archéologie Copte 3 (1937):9-28.
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