The Monastery of al-Zawya (ASYUT)
THE MONASTERY OF AL-ZAWYA, near the village of al-Zawya, resembles a fortress. High walls topped with ornamental brickwork surround houses and a church in an area of about 80×100 meters. The gate is situated in the west wall and narrow streets lead to a church in the center, dedicated to St. Athanasius, the twentieth patriarch (d. 373) and author of the Life of Antony. Fragments of stone sculpture, decorative motifs, funerary stelae, and inscriptions are built into the mud-brick walls of the houses and the enclosure walls. The monastery has become a small village, preserving its original outline completely.
Nothing is known about the history of the site or the church. Medieval sources are silent. Father Vansleb visited the Monastery of St. Athanasius in Zawya (Sauvie) in 1673. He had hoped to see some antiquities but was bitterly disappointed, and he does not mention anything about walls, a church, or the presence of monks.93 In 1901, Father Jullien admired the church (at that time severely damaged) and complained that no one could tell him the real name of the monastery or to whom the church was dedicated. He described the church and draws a parallel with the famous churches near Sohag, dedicated to St. Shenute and St. Pshai.”94
In contrast to these churches, the Church of St. Athanasius has no trilobed sanctuary but an apse with two side chambers, a khurus, a nave, and side aisles, and a narthex. The narthex and khurus are both barrel vaulted. The heavy brick columns in the nave most probably conceal more elegant columns: The upper part of capitals is still visible. When a dome replaced the wooden roof, stronger supports were required and the original columns were encased.
The resemblance to the monasteries near Sohag lies in the system of decorative niches in the apse. Three round-headed niches flanked by pilasters were built in the lower wall and two doorways give access to the side chambers. Above, five smaller niches with broken pediments on half-columns are set on a continuous band of sculpture. Finely sculptured bands accentuate all architectural features.
The architecture and sculpture have never been studied. Undoubtedly, the church has undergone several building phases. The reuse of older building elements in enclosure walls, houses, and the fagade of the church point to an ancient past. Sir Flinders Petrie concluded, “This great Deir or Coptic village must be early, as it is surrounded by a wide stretch of rubbish mounds which go back to Roman times.”95 Only thorough research will cast light on the history of the Monastery of al-Zawya.