IN AROUND THE YEAR 285, St. Antony set out for a mountain near the Nile called Pispir, where he lived twenty years before going into isolation near the Red Sea. The present-day Dayr al-Maymun, which is situated on the east bank of the Nile about thirteen miles north of Beni Suef and seven miles south of al-Kuaymat, is a modem village on the site of an early monastery that was used as a supply station of the Monastery of St. Antony at the Red Sea. Pispir, the site of the old monastery, has disappeared.
Two churches at Dayr al-Maymun, which probably derive only from the Ottoman period, recall the old tradition about St. Antony and Pispir. Dayr al-Maymun was known to the church historian Abu al-Makarim/ Abu Salih (early thirteenth century) and to the Arab historian al-Maqrizi (1364-1442) as ‘Dayr al-Gumayza’ (the Monastery of the Sycamore).
The two churches are situated beside each other. The smaller church, which is dedicated to St. Mercurius, is older and has an entrance along its southern wall. It features a domed nave with two columns, and a three-part sanctuary that is flanked by two side rooms. The larger church is dedicated to St. Antony. The many granite columns in its walls suggest that it was originally built in the basilican style. GJ. Chester and J.L. Petit visited the church in the middle of the nineteenth century and described its naos with a dome supported by four columns. The central and northern sanctuaries have been enlarged, while the southern sanctuary retained its original form of a small side room with an apse.
The Coptic inhabitants of the village in the site of Dayr al-Maymun take pride in the oral tradition that St. Antony lived in the cave which opens from the floor of the church’s nave. The cave measures about 1.95 m in depth, 1.75 m in length, and 80 cm in width. The wooden screen of the sanctuary bears the date AM 1264 (AD 1529/1530).