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The Enaton - Coptic Wiki


One of the chief monastic centers of Byzantine and medieval Egypt, near Alexandria. It was called in Arabic Dayr al-Zujaj (Monastery of Glass) or Dayr al-Zajjaj (Monastery of the Glass Maker). Although the whole complex of at Enaton was completely ruined at the end of the Middle Ages, numerous Greek and Oriental sources give evidence of the high quality of its monastic life, the profundity of its religious conviction, and the distinction of many of its members.


The Enaton (from the Greek ennea [“nine”]) derives its name from its location near the ninth milestone west of Alexandria on the coastal road to Libya. At the beginning of the twentieth century, archaeologists discovered stelae, on which one of the of the complex appeared, and the remains of a church. As a consequence of those discoveries, the tendency is to locate the Enaton in the neighborhood of the present village of Dikhaylah, on the taenia (coastal strip) separating the sea from the western tongue of Lake Mareotis. But nothing is less certain, and the forceful discussion of the epigraphic data by E. Schwartz in the 1920s shows that Dikhaylah is more likely to be the site of the ancient monastery of the Pempton, and that we must look for the Enaton on the taenia but some miles west of Dikhaylah on Kom al-Zujaj. Like other communities on the taenia, the monastery had at its disposal a sea anchorage and access to the lake. These geographical features were favorable to the vitality of economic and religious relations. We must bear them in mind in the light of human factors when we examine the historical role of the Enaton.

The Mareotis region, and the taenia in particular, was considerably more populated and more prosperous in late antiquity than it was only fifty years ago. Religious establishments abounded. Independently established but intimately linked with the Enaton were the Pempton, the Oktokaidekaton, the Eikoston, and others. Travelers and monks mingled on the coastal road and occasionally made a stop at the Enaton with their beasts. The monastery provided them with appropriate quarters for the night. On crossing the lagoon, travelers arrived in the rich domain of the sanctuary of Saint MENAS (see ABU MINA). The devotees of the great martyr could enhance their pilgrimage with a visit to the Enaton. Farther to the south lay the of Nitria, Kellia, and Scetis, whose relations with the Enaton are well recorded. Close by, to the east was the populous and religious metropolis of Alexandria. Even though the monks of the Enaton did not always have permission to go to town, news as well as local and foreign visitors circulated rapidly between the city and the monastery. Finally, beyond Alexandria there flourished the Metanoia, whose monks in the 480s lent assistance to “sympathizers” of the Enaton on the occasion of an expedition against a clandestine shrine of Isis at Menouthis.


The date and circumstances of the founding of the Enaton are utterly obscure. The Passion of Serapammon, bishop of Nikiou martyred under DIOCLETIAN, says that he embraced the monastic life there (Hyvernat, 1886-1887, pp. 304-333), which would date the first attestation of the monastery at the end of the third century or the beginning of the fourth. But the Passion is unreliable, so one hesitates to accept this testimony. More creditable is the of Longinus, a great figure of the Enaton, the historicity of which is not in doubt. This text presents a picture of a prosperous and celebrated Enaton in the mid-fifth century that has already existed for a long time, since there is reference to monks buried in its cemetery. But this does nothing to clarify the question of its origins.

The Enaton at Its Height

The period from the mid-fifth to the mid-seventh century, in the Byzantine period, was the most animated in the history of the Enaton. During that time its organization and monastic life are best known.

Organization. The fact that the Enaton was called both a laura (a monastery in an Eastern church) and a monasterion (“monastery”) should not mislead one into thinking of it as a single monastery. In fact, the Enaton was a conglomeration of autonomous establishments of varying size and population, sometimes no more than an isolated cell. These establishments also were called monasteria or above all koinobia (Latin, coenobium, or “monastery”). Each koinobion had its own church and holy men, who instructed disciples. The several koinobia of the Enaton were separately identified by a name which might recall that of a particular HEGUMENOS or PROESTOS or “father” or illustrious “cenobiarch,” a personage sometimes confused with the founder himself. There were, for example, the koinobion of the cenobiarch Apa Gaius in the middle of the fifth century and that of Abba Salamah, known in 551 and again at the beginning of the seventh century; the eponymous head of that koinobion is the “great Solomon” mentioned about 482 to 489 in the Life of Severus (PO 2, 15, 24-27, 36 and 39).

A number of other components of the Enaton are known. The Three Cells (end of the fifth century) was the dwelling place of the ascetic Abba Zenon. The Monastery of the Fathers was one of the most celebrated. The Monastery of the Epiphany appears about 567 to 569. The Koinobion of Tougara appears in the beginning of the seventh century. The Monastery of the Antonians appears about 615. There was also the Monastery of Dalmatia.

Information about other monastic foundations at the Enaton is uncertain or confused. The Monastery of the Patrician founded in the reign of Justinian by the patrician lady Anastasia, friend of the theologian SEVERUS OF ANTIOCH, is placed at the Enaton by the Life of this lady and at the Pempton by the Greek versions. It is not improbable, however, that this monastery has been confused with the monastery of the patrician Caesaria, another friend of Severus, the exact location of which we do not know.

There are still more uncertainties with regard to the various koinobia or monai mentioned by epigraphic material from Dikhaylah, such as those of Abba Eustathius, Abba John, or Zaston. Except for the koinobion of Abba Salamah mentioned above, there is nothing to prove that these were attached to the Enaton. Moreover, the koinobion of Maphora is placed by one source near the Oktokaidekaton and the Eikoston.

According to the HISTORY OF THE PATRIARCHS, there were six hundred of these at the Enaton in the late sixth and early seventh centuries, but this figure is difficult to accept. According to the Arab Jacobite Synaxarion and the Ethiopian Synaxarion, this figure more likely refers to the total number of monasteries in the region of Alexandria. However that may be, the many establishments at the Enaton must have given it the appearance of a large town with irregular streets, houses with terraced roofs, and dogs running about.

The Enaton was a sort of federal institution presided over by a hegumenos as the supreme authority and an assembly of the community. From the beginning of the seventh century there was also an oikonomos, or steward, which shows that the separate had common material interests. Nevertheless, we have only a very summary idea of their form and extent. The wealth of the Enaton was in any case considerable enough to have excited the greed of the Persians under archbishop Andronicus in the early seventh century. We can just see the part taken by the offerings in its constitution.

Monastic Life

Life at the Enaton can be reconstructed with the aid of numerous edifying anecdotes. Certain features stand out. One is the large proportion of foreign-born monks. Apa Gaius, the hegumenos of the Enaton in the fifth century, was a Corinthian, and his disciple, the future hegumenos Longinus, came from Lycia (in Asia Minor), like his friend Lucius. Later there is reference to Carians and a Cilician. The strongest contingent, however, was from Syria and Palestine, which is explained by the proximity of these countries to Egypt and above all by a political and religious connection with Egypt.

A second feature is the importance accorded, alongside asceticism and prayer, to manual work. As in many other Egyptian communities, the work was chiefly the production of baskets and rope. This practice gave rise, according to the Life of Longinus, to a regular commerce, notably with the seafarers, from which the monks derived some personal profits, which they could dispense as alms.

A final feature is a high intellectual level. In the 480s the Enaton rivaled the philosophical school of Alexandria. The “great Solomon” taught there “the true philosophy” to an audience of educated disciples like the “sophist” Stephen and many students from Alexandria and elsewhere. These disciples then formed their own schools at the Enaton.

According to John Moschus, the Enaton welcomed the “philosopher” Abba Theodorus. The theological erudition of Archbishop Damian, of Syrian origin and a former monk of the Enaton, is mentioned by several sources. One of the Enaton’s finest claims to glory is to have been the setting in 615-616, at the Monastery of the Antonians, for the philological activity of two Syrians—Thomas of Harkel, bishop of Mabbug, made a collation of a Syriac of the New Testament with Greek manuscripts and Paul of made a translation of the Septuagint after Origen’s Hexapla. By a rare chance we possess several colophons of Syriac biblical manuscripts composed by these two scholars that mention the Enaton.

Religious History

The religious history of the Enaton is marked by a strong hostility to the Council of CHALCEDON (451) in its insistence on the dual nature of Christ. The monks there rallied around the energetic hegumenos Longinus, and took the side of DIOSCORUS, Monophysite patriarch of Alexandria, whom the council had deposed. He sent them a statement of his faith, and Longinus on the spot roused resistance against the emperor Marcian and his representative. The same Longinus played a decisive role in the election of Dioscorus’ “Coptic” successor, TIMOTHY II AELURUS. Later on, at various periods, persecuted “Monophysites,” notably Syro-Palestinians, took refuge or established themselves at the Enaton, either as individuals such as Thomas of Harkel or in a body such as the monastery of which John of Ephesus speaks. Notorious anti-Chalcedonians such as Zacharias Scholasticus or John of Ephesus visited the Enaton or sojourned there. The most illustrious of these guests was certainly Severus after his deposition from the archiepiscopal see of Antioch in 518. After the death of the great Monophysite theologian, his relics were returned to the Enaton and were buried there in a mausoleum.

Miracles followed. Several “Monophysite” bishops came from the ranks of the Enaton, such as John of Hephaestus and Peter of Smyrna. There were also patriarchs of Alexandria: JOHN II, PETER IV, and Saint DAMIAN. Since the emperor forbade access to Alexandria to these last two pontiffs, the Enaton, where they continued to live, became practically the Holy See of the Coptic church. It was in this monastery that, in 616, the between the Jacobite churches of Alexandria and Antioch was sealed.

Nevertheless, this presentation of an Enaton monolithic in its opposition to requires some emendations. At some points, a spirit of compromise seems to have prevailed. In the mid- sixth century the emperor JUSTINIAN, in a dogmatic treatise addressed to the monks, congratulates them on having returned to the communion of the “Melchite” archbishop Zoilus. To replace Zoilus, Justinian chose at the Enaton a docile archbishop, Apollinarius. John Moschus, in the course of his visits to the Enaton, does not appear to have met any “heretics.” In the early seventh century the “Melchite” archbishop John the Almoner (John of Cyprus) entrusted to the steward of the Enaton a mission of confidence in Palestine, then occupied by the Persians, which implies that there was communication between them. Note also that Nicephorus Callistus implies that Theodora of Alexandria, a fifth- century saint recognized by the Greek church, lived at the Enaton.

The Enaton after the Arab Conquest

Sacked, as it seems, by the Persians in 619, the Enaton must have recovered rapidly. It passed safely through the ARAB CONQUEST OF EGYPT in 641, even benefiting on occasion from the favor of the Muslim authorities. It survived thereafter and even prospered for seven or eight centuries, a millennium. But for this period the sources are rare or mediocre. The final phase of the Enaton remains as obscure as that of its origins.

Several features of the earlier period survived for a long time, notably the federal structure of several koinobia presided over by the hegumenos. Nonetheless, one has the impression that from the eleventh century on, the Enaton was no longer more than a single monastery. We know that this kind of evolution is typical in medieval Egypt. The foreign element continued, however, to hold its place; there were Syro-Palestinians such as SIMON I, a former oblate of the mausoleum of Saint Severus who became patriarch of Alexandria, and even “Greeks.” The monks still distinguished themselves by virtue of their “erudition” or the sanctity of their lives, despite a few black sheep.

The most notable change is the exclusive religious domination of the Jacobites, symbolized by the cult of the relics of Saint Severus, which is attested down to the eleventh century. The Enaton is placed at this period under the invocation of Severus, the great doctor. It was thus able to continue to provide the Coptic Church with patriarchs such as Simon I and ALEXANDER II. Other holy men were sounded out for the pontificate, such as the hegumenos Abba John in 689, or his namesake John ibn Tirus in 1066. If every patriarch did not come from the Enaton, a custom attested for the first time under II in the late eighth century that was extinct in the fifteenth century required that a newly elected patriarch should make a visit to or a stay at the Enaton.

Al-MAQRIZI is the last author to treat of the Dayr al-Zujaj, which was then dedicated to Saint George, as if it were still active. It is true that the monastery appears in various Western maps dating from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century, but it was reduced to the status of a place name. It is, however, impossible to fix the date and circumstances of its disappearance. Perhaps it was the victim of an attack by those settled nearby in the time of the patriarchs SHENUTE II and CHRISTODOULUS in the eleventh century. At this period the Enaton numbered scarcely more than forty monks, a figure certainly much lower than that of its population in the late Roman period. Perhaps we should see at work here the most likely cause, in the long term, of its decline: the depopulation and progressive “return to nature” of the Mareotis region, as a consequence of drought and of the insecurity of the coast from the time of the Crusades.


  • Cauwenbergh, P. van. Etude sur les moines d’Egypte depuis le concile de Chalcédoine (451) jusqu’à l’invasion arabe (640). Paris-Louvain, 1914; repr. Milan, 1973. The most exhaustive study.
  • Cosson, A. de. Mareotis. London, 1935.
  • Faivre, J. “Alexandrie,” DHGE 2, 347-48 (valuable collection of sources).
  • Honigmann, E. Evêques et évêchés monophysites d’Asie Mineure au 6e siècle, CSCO 127, pt. 2, p. 144.
  • Maspero, J. des patriarches d’Alexandrie depuis la mort de l’empereur Anastase jusqu’à la réconciliation des églises jacobites (518-616). Paris, 1923.