The Monastery of St. Hadra / Hatre (ASWAN)

The Monastery of St. Hadra / Hatre (ASWAN)

SAINT HATRE (ANBA HADRA) WAS THE SON of Christian parents who lived as a hermit in a cave near the city. His reputation as a healer of mental and physical illness grew quickly and he was ordained bishop of Aswan under Patriarch Theophilus (385-412).

Where St. Hatre’s cave was situated is not clear. The monastery that bears his name (called St. Simeon by later travelers) was built on the west bank of the Nile at Aswan. It might already have existed in the fifth century, and it was deserted in the thirteenth century. The layout of the monastery consists of two levels connected by a staircase. The two areas follow the natural terraces of the site, dividing the monastery into a public part and a private part. An enclosure wall with towers once surrounded the whole complex and each section had its own entrance. The lower terrace includes the church with a baptistery and guest houses while the upper terrace was reserved for the monks. A huge keep (eleventh to twelfth century), which contained permanent living quarters, a refectory, and a kitchen, dominates this area, supplemented by utility and workrooms, a bakery, an oil press, and pottery kilns.

The church was built in the eleventh century, following a domed oblong plan: the nave consists of two domed sections. Side aisles were elongated to flank the sanctuary where a khurus and a rectangular altar room make up a trefoil. In the altar room, the semi-dome contains remains of paintings showing an enthroned Christ in mandorla, carried by two angels. To the right is a standing person with a rectangular nimbus, a type seldom used in Christian art in Egypt. As a rule, saints and biblical persons have a round nimbus.

A rectangular nimbus might have been used when the person depicted was still alive when the painting was made. Below, on the upper part of the walls, fragments of a frieze of the Twenty-Four Priests are still visible. The Virgin Mary and Child are painted between angels in the niche in the west wall. Traditionally, the murals are dated to the eleventh to the twelfth century. However, at the beginning of the twentieth century, the painted program was better preserved and scholars visiting the monastery observed two layers of painting in the church. The murals have not been studied properly so far.

At the western end of the church is an entrance to a cave in the rock (most probably created by quarry activities) that served as an anchorite’s cell. It belongs to an earlier period and still has paintings dating to the sixth to the eighth century. The walls were decorated with a row of saints while the ceiling has a geometrical pattern, filled with busts of saints. It is possible that this cave is the former cell of St. Hatre.

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