The Monastery of the Holy Virgin Mary at al-Muharraq, Mount Qusqam: History and Heritage (Reflections of Its Monks)
The history of the Coptic Orthodox Church makes no mention of any information about the monastic community or the Holy Virgin Church in the Qusqam region until the fourteenth-century ad. The name Qusqam (al-Muharraq Monastery) is mentioned for the first time in the History of the Patriarchs, when the Lord selected a monk from the monastery to be the eighty-sixth patriarch of the Coptic Church, Pope Gabriel IV (ad 1370—78) (Burmester and Khater 1970: 234). However, manuscripts and documentation preserved in the monastery prove that there were both activity and continuity of life in the Church of the Holy Virgin Mary in Qusqam before this. Accordingly, a group of the monastery monks was formed in 1986 to study the history, archeology, and monastic life in the Qusqam region from the time of the dwelling of the Holy Family there to the present day.
‘Qusqam’ is an ancient Egyptian name, referring to the entire desert region where the monastery is located. Its root is a combination of two Coptic words:
- Qos (KIDC or KOC):‘to bury’ (Crum 1939:120;Vycichl 1983: 88b)
- Qam (KAM):‘reed, rush’ (Crum 1939:108a;Vycichl 1983: 80b).
The popular name is ‘esparto grass’ (alpha grass), which is used in making burial shrouds. In religious terms it signified ‘infinity’ or ‘forever.’ The origin of the name of al-Muharraq Monastery lies in the fact that it was near to an area where harmful plants and weeds were burned, and so the whole region was known as the ‘burnt’ area.
However, the Church of Our Lady the Virgin Mary at Mount Qusqam, together with its monastic community, originally had the name of Our Lady Church at Mount Qusqam, and this was used in preference to referring to it as a ‘monastery’ at that time. But, with the spread of the Arabic language, the monastery’s name changed gradually from Abu Mahruqa to al-Maharraqa Monastery (which means ‘burnt area’), and finally it became known as al- Muharraq. The other titles continued to be used for a period of time in the Middle Ages until the name al-Muharraq became used exclusively.
Initially, the history of the monastery’s location goes back to shortly after the birth of Christ when the area of al-Muharraq Monastery, which is located at Mount Qusqam, was a barren desert except for an abandoned house and an adjacent water well. The Holy Family, the Child Jesus and His mother St. Mary, St. Joseph the carpenter, and Salome, who was their helper, settled in that modest house, which St. Joseph renovated. They remained in Qusqam for a period of over six months or about 185 days.
It was here, at this very spot, that the angel of the Lord appeared to St. Joseph in a dream, saying, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the young Child’s life are dead” (Matthew 2:20—21). As Christianity spread in Egypt, through the preaching of St. Mark the Apostle and Evangelist, churches were built throughout the land. Among these was the church built on the site of the house where the Holy Family had lived, as recorded in Coptic tradition. It later became a church dedicated to the name of the Holy Virgin Mary. It is believed to have been the first church in Upper Egypt; so hallowed are its associations that many named it ‘The Second Jerusalem.’
The Church of the Holy Virgin Mary at Mount Qusqam became an attraction to visitors through the ages. For the needy and the sick, it was their shelter and comfort in times of distress through the intercessions of the Mother of God, St. Mary the Virgin. Each year, multitudes of pilgrims from every district flocked to visit the monastery, as the site was well known for its signs, wonders, and healing of many diseases.
It is worth mentioning the prophecy of Isaiah that said: “In that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the Lord at its border” (Isaiah 19:19). Despite some biblical scholars’ attempts to interpret this prophecy either allegorically or symbolically, the handed-down monastery tradition interprets this verse literally and refers to the altar of the Holy Virgin Mary’s church in the monastery as the altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt. This is considered a historical fact and a prophecy for all generations.
Early Christianity and Monastic Life in Qusqam
The site of the Holy Virgin Mary’s church in the wilderness of Qusqam played an important role in attracting people to dwell and to worship God nearby due to its simplicity and humble conditions. The site had a unique privilege: it was a safe and a fairly comfortable shelter for the Holy Family, away from the urbanization, where they led a humble life; and they blessed the place by their presence. So it is said that those who come to lead a life of purity and sanctity to worship God, as the Holy Family did, will enjoy the same blessings the Lord of Glory has bestowed on the place. They will also earn the crown of eternal life.
According to Rene-Georges Coquin and Maurice Martin, “nothing is known for certain about the date of the foundation of this monastery” (Coquin and Martin 199Id). It is, however, widely believed by the monks in the monastery that it follows the Pachomian cenobitic system. The monastery is known for welcoming all visitors seeking the water of the well, blessed by the Lord Jesus, for healing. They also come to ask for the prayers and intercession of the Lord’s Mother, the Holy Virgin Mary.
In the late fourth century, the twenty-third pope of Alexandria, Theophilus (ad 385—412), visited the monastic community of about three hundred monks at the time at Qusqam church, and he took care of them and provided funds for the establishment of some necessary facilities and to help the poor and the sick. During this visit, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to him in a vision and told him that she had come with her beloved Son, Joseph, and Salome to the abandoned house in the Mount Qusqam wilderness. The Ethiopian manuscripts indicate many miracles that came to light at the time of the reconstruction of the monastery during the visit of Pope Theophilus. There is a clear reference to the presence of Ethiopian monks at Qusqam, in The Paradise of the Holy Fathers: The Triumph of the Blessed Apollo and Ammon. It states: “And we saw also there Ethiopians who lived with the monks, and they excelled to such a degree in the ascetic life that in them were fulfilled the words which are said in the Book, ‘Kush [Ethiopia] shall deliver the hand unto God’” (Psalm 68:31) (Budge 1907:347).The Blessed Apollo was in the Bawit area, nearly twenty kilometers north of Qusqam.
Documentary Evidence and Historical Events
(Sixth—Twelfth Centuries ad)
There are several confirmed pieces of evidence to show that there was life and activity in the Church of the Holy Virgin in Qusqam during the sixth to twelfth centuries. The most notable are as follows:
- Coptic tradition of the biography of St.John of Heraclia, attributed to Constantine (Constantinios), bishop of Asyut (sixth—seventh century ad). It states that he visited the Church of Our Lady at Qusqam for three days, a few days after his ordination.
- Coptic tradition of the martyrdom of St. Theodore Stratelates (the General), attributed to Pope Benjamin, thirty-eighth patriarch of Alexandria (ad 623—62). It states that Pope Benjamin took refuge in the Church of the Lady, the pure Virgin Mary, on Qusqam Mountain for a period of time. Subsequently, he moved to other churches. This occurred during his thirteen-year flight from Alexandria due to the installation of Cyrus, the imperially ordained patriarch by decree of the Byzantine emperor, Heraclius. Cyrus ordained many new bishops for Egyptian provinces and persecuted the people who adhered to the non-Chalcedonian faith.
- During the twelfth to thirteenth centuries ad, Abu al-Makarim wrote an Arabic manuscript, titled by its publisher The Churches and Monasteries of Egypt and Some Neighbouring Countries. The information found in the manuscript about Qusqam Monastery at that time is of great value. Some of this is as follows:
– “Pilgrimages have been made by many multitudes from all districts to this church from ancient times, because it has been celebrated on account of signs and wonders and the healing of various diseases; and the time of pilgrimage is at Easter, every year” (Evetts and Butler 1893—95: 227).
– “Adjacent to this church there is a large and ancient keep, which had fallen into decay, but was renewed and restored to its original condition by the Shaikh Abu Zakari ibn Bu Nasr, the administrator of Al-Ushmunain; may God have mercy on him and grant rest to his soul! This was in the caliphate of al-Hafiz (ad 1130—49)” (Evetts and Butler 1893—95: 227).
- On the surface of the altar of the ancient Church of the Holy Virgin Mary, there is a piece of marble with a semicircular edge where there is engraved a Greek inscription. It reads, “O Lord, give rest to the blessed Colluthos,” dated 15 Kiyahk am 463 (11 December ad 746).The semicircle of marble is considered a peculiarity that distinguishes ancient Coptic altars in Egypt. The idea of the semicircular shape is an ancient Coptic convention and appears in ancient icons of the Last Supper, where the table is a semicircle. The Greek inscription was published by Gustave Lefebvre (Lefebvre 1915:138-39).
- In the History of the Patriarchs, the biography of Pope Cyril II (sixtyseventh patriarch, ad 1078—92) mentions the presence of the tomb of the martyr St. Elias (Helias) at Qusqam (Atiya and ‘Abd al-Masih 1959:228 [text], 362 [trans.]).
The Age of Revival (Thirteenth—Fifteenth Centuries ad)
When viewed on a map, it can clearly be seen that the Nile Valley in Upper Egypt is very narrow in the area where the monastery is located, right on the boundary between agricultural land and the desert. The distance between the Nile and the monastery does not exceed ten kilometers when measured perpendicularly. Due to the proximity of the monastery to the agricultural and populated areas (especially in the Middle Ages), the monastery was affected by the situation of the country and the people s standard of living. During those days, active monasticism ceased to exist in many monasteries all over the country due to monks abandoning them. Despite these hard times, one finds our monastery, by the grace of the Lord of Glory, kept from destruction, epidemics, and famines. The monastery was always full of visitors who came to pray to the Lord for help during these difficult times, and to ask for the intercession of the Holy Virgin Mary to help them and their children. It is also worth mentioning that the fourteenth-century manuscripts in the monastery and in some libraries abroad confirm these ongoing visits to the monastery. In addition, the Ethiopian manuscripts record many miracles performed by the Holy Virgin Mary for people who asked for her intercession. The importance of the monastery at that time is confirmed by the testimonies written by the following
- The historian ‘Abdallah Yaqut ibn ‘Abdallah al-Rumi al-Hamawi, who resided in Hamah and Baghdad and is also known as Shihab al-Din (ah 575-626, ad 1179/80-1228/29), says in his book Kitab mu’jam al-buldan (The Dictionary of Countries) that the monastery had magnificent architecture and one could not miss the beauty of these buildings. He states that the Christians magnified it, and it is alleged that Jesus Christ settled there during His visit to Egypt.
- Al-Maqrizi (ad 1364-1441) mentions that the Christians alleged that Christ had settled in this place (al-Muharraq Monastery) for six months and many days, and that many people gathered there for a great feast known as the feast of al-Zaytuna and the feast of Pentecost and a great multitude gather in it” (Wiistenfeld: 41 [text] 101 [translation]).
The patriarch fathers
The Lord of Glory granted His grace to the monastery by choosing some of its monks to be popes of Alexandria and the See of St. Mark:
- Pope Gabriel IV (eighty-sixth patriarch, ad 1370-78)
- Pope Matthew (the Great) I (eighty-seventh patriarch ad 1378-1409)
- Pope Matthew II (ninetieth patriarch, ad 1452-65)
- Pope John XII (ninety-third patriarch, ad 1479-82)
Sixteenth—Eighteenth Centuries AD
These were gloomy times for the Christians in Egypt, following the Ottoman conquest. But the Lord wished to preserve the monastery through the prayers of the saints living there; then a ray of hope appeared on the horizon.
Nineteenth-Twentieth Centuries AD
These times are considered to be reflected in the words of the Psalm: “The Lord renews your youth like the eagle’s” (Psalm 103:5).
Tradition and Heritage
The Coptic Language and Manuscript Production in the Monastery The monks cared greatly for the Coptic language, especially when it began to fade away in the Middle Ages, as some of the monks had command of both the Coptic and the Arabic languages. They maintained the Coptic language, but they did not neglect Arabic. Manuscripts show that works such as lectionaries for liturgical readings and biblical books used for their private readings were produced in Coptic only. Other manuscripts had both Coptic and Arabic versions in parallel. Many of these were transcribed in a most perfect script.
Interest in using the Coptic language at the monastery continued tirelessly, as is evident from the manuscripts produced in subsequent centuries. It seems that interest in producing manuscripts in Arabic only began in the nineteenth century when manuscripts, including Acts, St. Paul’s Epistles, and Ecclesiastes, and some other liturgical manuals, were copied for the public to understand the service. There is an indication that the Arabic language was first used around the middle of the eighteenth century ad in church readings for events such as Paskha (Passover) Week, Lakan (Blessing of the Water), and Genuflection services.
It seems that the monastery’s reputation for Coptic language proficiency attracted Michael El-Sabbagh to learn the Coptic language there. He stayed in the monastery, as a visiting scholar, at the end of the eighteenth century until he had command of the language. He was introduced to Mr. Elias Buqtur of Asyut, who was a translator and personal secretary to Napoleon. Michael went to Paris in ad 1801 and worked there as a consultant for various orientalists, including Baron Silvestre de Sacy. He then became the librarian of the National Library at Paris (Graf 1944—53, vol. 3: 249).
Several manuscripts of the lectionary, Psalmody, and the Euchologion were scribed in Coptic only. This provides an indication that Coptic was revived and flourished in the monastery at the time of their production.This is true in the nineteenth century and especially during the tenure of Hegomen ‘Abd al-Malak al-Hory, the monastery abbot, and later. In fact, the liturgical prayers in church were and still are recited in Coptic only. This Coptic revival continued to such a degree that many of the monks of the monastery at the end of the nineteenth century mastered the primary skills of the Coptic language: speaking, reading, and writing.
With regard to the manuscripts, the monastery has assisted multiple scholars and researchers in their academic studies, as they have been granted special permission to discuss and/or inspect a specific manuscript.
Some of the most notable scribes among the monastery’s monks are:
- Hegomen Quzman, fourteenth century ad, who was responsible for the copying of some books of the Holy Bible.
- Hegomen Eqlouda (Pope Gabriel IV’s brother), fourteenth century ad, who copied some of the Coptic lectionaries.
- Hegomen Yohanna, nineteenth century ad, from Etleedem, who copied sixty-four manuscripts in forty-eight years. He was deserving of the title ‘Father of Scribing.’
Some of the monastery manuscripts published from 1908 to the present are as follows:
- “Commentary on the Gospels by al-Meshreqy,” edited by Youssef Manqarious, 1908.
- “al-Sheikh al-Rohani (St.John Saba),” edited by Fr. Boulos (Fouad) Basili. First published in 1947.
- “Commentary on the Psalms,” in three volumes, 1988.
- “al-Hawi (The Theological Encyclopedia) of al-Makin Girgis Ibn al ‘Amid,” volumes 1 and 2 in 1999, and volumes 3 and 4 in 2001.
- “Miamer (Homilies) of St. Gregory the Theologian,” two volumes, 2003.
The Heritage of Church Ritual and Religious Ceremonies at the Monastery
There is a long history of Coptic liturgical tradition at the monastery, such as for daily liturgies and Psalmody prayers, glorification of the saints, and hymns of the feasts. More notably, and unique, is the water prayers tradition during the feast of the Cross on 17 Tut of the Coptic year (11 September). This was observed during the Nile flood period prior to the construction of the High Dam in the 1960s.
It is our sincerest hope that the reader has now gained a better understanding of the long history and tradition of al-Muharraq Monastery or, more correctly, the Monastery of the Virgin Mary at Gebel Qusqam. It is a history that stretches from the time the Holy Family stayed there while the Lord Jesus was a child, and the tradition of His consecration of the ancient church, all the way to our present time. It endured centuries of neglect in the Middle Ages, but because of its divine foundation it emerged better than ever out of these dark years. It is regarded by its monks and pilgrims as the Second Jerusalem.
Fr. Angelos al-Muharraqi
and a group of the monastery’s monks
 For more information on the monastery, consult Timm 1984—92, vol. 2:751—56.
 The names ‘Qusqam/Qosqam’ and ‘al-Muharraq’ are discussed in detail in Dayr al-Muharraq 1996: 184—94.
 For the bishop’s biography, refer to Coquin 1981:154-55.
 Refer to Girgis 1988.
 The manuscript was bought by the traveler J.M.Vansleb in Egypt in the seventeenth century and is deposited at the Bibliotheque Nationale de France (Arabe 307). It was published by Evetts and Butler, but falsely attributed to Abu Salih al-Armani.
 For more information on the keep of the monastery, refer to Fr. Philoxenos’ chapter in this volume.
 For further information, refer to Meinardus 1985.
 St. Elias the martyr was a bishop of al-Qusiya and the Church of Our Lady at Qusqam. He was martyred during the reign of Emperor Diocletian (early fourth century ad), and, after a period of time, his body was transferred from al-Qusiya to Qusqam (Basset 1907:491—94) .There is in the possession of the monastery today a tombstone engraved in the Coptic language that includes the name Elias, dated am
807 (ad 1090/1091).
 For more details about this period, refer to Dayr al-Muharraq 1992: 98—111.
 For more details about this period, refer to Dayr al-Muharraq 1992:112-62.
 There is a valuable manuscripts index, prepared in 1932.
 For more details on these services, refer to Dayr al-Muharraq 1992: 185—99.