The Monastery of the Syrians (WADI AL-NATRUN)
The monastery of the MOTHER OF GOD OF THE SYRIANS, as it has become known, was established in the sixth century,
as a double monastery of the Monastery of St. Pshoi. According to tradition, a certain Marutha from Tigrit (Takrit, in present-day Iraq) bought the monastery for his countrymen. Recent scholarship, however, holds the view that an actual purchase did not take place. The monastery was never entirely Syrian but can be seen as a mixed community where Syrian and Coptic monks lived together, each at times constituting a majority or minority. The Monastery of the Syrians is first attested in the ninth century and a strong Syrian presence was evident until the eleventh century. In the seventeenth century it probably became a Coptic monastery again.
The most important person in the history of the monastery is the abbot Moses of Nisibis (first half of the tenth century), who refurbished the Church of the Holy Virgin and enriched the library with a large number of Syriac manuscripts. Syriac of the altar room and the khurus tell that he inscriptions on the wooden folding doors commissioned these doors. The unique stucco decoration in the central altar room and the Chapel of the Martyrs next to the entrance of the church might be attributed to his abbacy, although a ninth-century date also seems possible. The stucco shows close similarities to stuccowork from Samarra (Iraq).
The Church of the Holy Virgin (seventh century) still retains most of its original features, nave, side-aisles with a western return aisle, and a khurus: this is the first example preserved where a khurus was planned from the start. The altar rooms were rebuilt at a later date, but before the stucco decoration.
Until 1988, three wall paintings in the church were visible, executed in three half-domes, two on either end of the khurus and the third on the western end of the nave (dated to the thirteenth century). A fire at the western end of the church caused large parts of the plaster to fall. The older layer below revealed a magnificent Annunciation and initiated a campaign of restoration of the church. Up until now, four layers of painting and inscriptions in Syriac, Coptic, and Arabic have been discovered, dating to the seventh through the thirteenth centuries. These new data have yielded important information on the history of the monastery and the history of wall painting in Egyptian churches. The continuing work in the church will undoubtedly hold new surprises.74
74 See “The Art of Coptic Churches,” in this volume, note 34 and page 32.