A synthronon is the bench for the clergy against the east wall of the apse of a church. Since the apse is usually semicircular, it is usually semicircular. It is made up of an elevated bishop’s throne in the center between subsellia (low seats) for other clergy. Thus it is the mark of a cathedral church or other church in which the bishop is regularly present at the liturgy. Since monastic churches that have a synthronon, for example, the main church of Dayr Anba Maqar in Wadi al-Natrun, have a rectangular plan, the synthronon on the rear wall of the sanctuary is not curved but straight.
A curved synthronon was usual in Coptic churches until the high Middle Ages. As a rule it consisted of a stone or wood construction several steps high, of which the topmost step, usually built somewhat higher and broader, served as a bench for sitting. The bishop’s throne at the apex of the curve was provided with a back and arm rests. In some very rich communities, as in Cairo, the synthronon was adorned with a marble incrustation or sometimes polychrome paint. It is, however, unusual that in several Cairo churches the synthronon is set into a wall niche; it appears that here two different traditions have been blended.
The synthronon in the Great Basilica of Abu Mina, built in at a later date, is unique. Since the space on the inside of the apse had been claimed by subterranean grave structures, the synthronon was erected not in but in front of the apse, and in addition, it had only a shallow curve. The steps on the rear wall of the sanctuaries of many modern Coptic churches are a degenerate form of the synthronon belonging only to modern times. A sequence of steps no longer suitable for sitting, they frequently serve for the display of icons.
- Burmester, O. H. E. The Egyptian or Coptic Church, p. 20. Cairo, 1967.
- Butler, A. J. The Ancient Coptic Churches of Egypt, Vol. 1, pp. 35- 37. Oxford, 1884; repr. 1970.
- Graf, G. Verzeichnis arabischer kirchlicher Termini, p. 58. Louvain, 1954.
- Orlandos, A. K. Basilik», pp. 489-501. Athens, 1952.