The Monasteries of Naqada (NAQADA)
SIX MONASTIC SETTLEMENTS SURVIVE TO THE SOUTHWEST OF NAQADA at the edge of the cultivated land and the desert. They trace their roots to the sixth century, when the area, known as the Mountain of Benhadab or Tsenti, was populated with hermits and small monasteries. Traditionally, St. Pisentius (569-632) is associated with this region. This popular bishop of Qift (Coptos, about 15 kilometers north of Naqada, on the east bank of the Nile) was famous as a preacher and wonder-worker, but was also a good organizer. Many of his writings and correspondence are preserved. St. Pisentius’s influence on monastic life in the region is widely attested to.
Unfortunately, the ancient structures of existing monasteries have rarely survived. The majority of the churches date to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries or even later. For most of the twentieth century, travelers and scholars visiting the deserted monasteries in the Naqada region found nearly all churches, old and new, neglected or in ruins. However, during the past twenty-five years, the monasteries have been extensively rebuilt, restored, and reoccupied by monks or nuns.
The Monastery of the Cross
The Monastery of the Cross (Dayr al-Salib) has an uncommon dedication. Churches and monasteries in Egypt were (and are) usually dedicated to the Virgin Mary or saints. The provenance of the name is not clear and the history of the monastery is virtually unknown. In the seventh century, Apa Andreas, a friend of Bishop Pisentius, was most probably one of the abbots. By 1668 the Capuchin fathers Protais and Frangois reported that this was the only inhabited monastery in the region.103
The architect Somers Clarke described and measured the Church of the Cross in 1901. At that time, it had already fallen into ruin. He noted hieroglyphs on the columns, which were taken from a pharaonic building. The two churches of the monastery were completely pulled down in 1917 and new churches were built shortly afterward. A thorough renovation of the Church of St. Shenute and the Church of the Cross has just been completed. In the latter church, remains of late antique building elements and pharaonic columns were found. These photographs were taken during the restoration.
The Monastery of St. Andrew
The Monastery of St. Andrew (Dayr Andra’us) is also called Dayr Abu al-Lif, the Monastery of the Father of the Beard. Whether Andrew was the abbot of the Monastery of the Cross and a friend of St. Pisentius is not certain. The old churches of the monastery have not survived. A modern, almost square church building with sixteen domes contains the three-aisled Church of St. Andrew and, in the southern bay, a small Church of the Virgin, separated from the main church by a wooden screen.
The Monastery of St. George
The Monastery of St. George (Dayr Mar Girgis) is also known as Dayr al-Magma’. The name al-Magma’ might be interpreted as ‘of the assembly.’ In local tradition, however, it means ‘place of provisioning,’ the place where supplies for monasteries in the neighborhood were kept. Little is known about the history of the monastery that was once the largest and most important of the Christian settlements in the Naqada area.
The History of the Churches and Monasteries of Egypt (ca. twelfth century) appears to refer to this monastery as the Monastery of St. Pisentius and says that the tomb of the bishop was “outside the monastery.” However, the author also claims that St. Pisentius’s tomb was near the Monastery of the Archangel Michael.104 The Capuchin fathers Protais and Francois (1668) reported that St. Pisentius was buried near the Monastery of St. George.105
The History of the Churches and Monasteries of Egypt continues, “and to the west of it, there is a well of water which was visited by our Lady and the Lord Christ with the righteous old man Joseph.”’04 A Holy Family tradition this far south of the Monastery of al-Muharraq, customarily their most southern resting place, has not been attested elsewhere. There is a well to the west of the monastery. In local tradition, it is called “the well of the mud.” The mud is believed have miraculous powers and villagers mark their houses with crosses of mud to assure divine protection.
Originally, the monastery possessed four churches. One of these was rebuilt in the 1920s: the Church of St. George. Part of the ruined Church of St. John is still visible. It has undergone several building phases. The original building date is hard to ascertain but a rebuilding with domes probably took place in the twelfth century.
The Monastery of St. Pisentius
The monastery dedicated to the famous St. Pisentius, Bishop of Qift, is situated about 400 meters to the south of the Monastery of St. George. It seems that originally, only the tomb of St. Pisentius existed at this site. At the beginning of the twentieth century, a church and enclosing walls were built around the burial place of the bishop.
St. Pisentius, domes of the church.
The Monastery of St. Victor
The Church of St. Victor (Mar Buqtur) is the only early building that is still in use in the Naqada monasteries. The outer walls of the church most likely belong to an eighth-century basilica, while the interior and sanctuary area were renovated and restored several times.
St. Victor was (and still is) a popular equestrian saint, martyred under the Emperor Diocletian (late third to early fourth century). It is said that Bishop Pisentius revived his cult in this monastery.
103 Sauneron 1969,137.
104 Evetts and Butler 1895, 233-34 (with corrections by Coquin, Martin, and Grossmann 1991b, 819-20) and 284.
105 Sauneron 1969, p. 137.