Two Ancient Sites in the Asyut Region: Dayr al-Gabrawi and Dayr al-‘lzam

Asyut/Lykopolis in Late Antiquity

There can be little doubt about the importance of the city of Asyut in the Christian history of Egypt. Even if it is unlikely that Alexander of Lykopolis, the fourth-century author of a witty treatise against the Manichaeans, was really a bishop of that city—as is still occasionally maintained—Melitius, the originator of the Melitian schism, also in the fourth century, certainly was. In the early seventh century, Constantine of Asyut, a contemporary of Patriarch Damian, was one of the prominent bishops of the nascent Severan (‘miaphysite’) Church, the precursor of the present-day Coptic Orthodox Church. In the period of the persecutions, it was the scene of many martyrdoms, and in the fourth, fifth centuries it was a renowned center of monasticism with which the names of Paul of Tamma and John of Lykopolis remain associated. Still, in the early seventh century, John Mos-chos’s Spiritual Meadow bears witness to the reputation of its monasteries.

Asyut was a major Christian center, as it still is today, and in late antique and early medieval times, its hinterland was covered with monastic settle­ments and sanctuaries devoted to the cult of the martyrs, many of them centers of pilgrimage. Indeed, historical maps of the region show a remark­able density and concentration of Christian sites, stretching from the region of Abnub on the east bank, via the ancient necropolises of Asyut itself, mainly on the west bank, to the region of Shotb, south of the city (see, for instance, Wipszycka 2009:142) .

Yet all these ancient sites left surprisingly few traces in the modern scholarly record. Thus, when one consults the Brussels database of Coptic documentary papyri, the turnout for Asyut is almost nil (see Delattre 2012a, under “Provenance: Assiout”). And even though several of the ancient monasteries around Asyut are honored by an article in The Coptic Encyclopedia, they appear to have little to contribute to our knowledge of Coptic Egypt. Hence, while Melitius, Constantine, and John of Lykopolis continue to attract scholarly attention, our picture of the broader Christian landscape of Asyut in premodern times remains hazy and patchy.

The background of this somewhat sad state of affairs is to be sought in the ruthless exploitation of the region by the would-be archaeologists who, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, plundered the sites around Asyut, in particular the rich necropolises of the Old and Middle Kingdoms. These dilettanti and treasure hunters were exclusively interested in phara­onic antiquities and hardly ever in more recent material. For the Christian antiquities of the region, the loss was disastrous. Architectural remains were destroyed and poorly recorded, if at all. Other evidence, apart from some inscriptions, was sold on the antiquities market to join the mass of objects and documents for which no certain provenance is known and which—as a result—became virtually worthless for historical research.

In the following pages I intend to illustrate these points by briefly evok­ing the example of two sites that in recent decades have received a certain amount of scholarly interest: Dayr al-Gabrawi (north of Asyut, near Abnub) and Dayr al-‘Izam (west of Asyut).

Dayr al-Gabrawi: The Martyrium of St. Victor the General?

Dayr al-Gabrawi is famous mostly for its Old Kingdom rock-cut tombs dating from the Sixth Dynasty.[1] These were published in 1902 by Norman de Garis Davies, whose team also copied some of the Coptic inscriptions that are witness to the monastic reuse of the tombs (summarily edited by WE. Crum in Davies 1902, vol. 2: 45-46).

The tombs were republished in more recent years (Kanawati 2005—13), but this new publication is exclu­sively focused on the Old Kingdom reliefs. In addition to the tombs, there is a Christian village, sometimes called Dayr Abu Buqtur al-Gabrawi, after the patron of its church, St. Victor, a martyr from the era of Diocletian.[2] The pres­ent village church appears to be a fairly recent building, but in the immediate neighborhood, various remains of a presumably late-antique date have been identified. Among these are a structure described as a Roman basilica and sites locally known as the ‘Chapel of Sitt Barbara’ and the ‘Monastery of Sitt Barbara,’ designations that appear to have a very little historical foundation.

The various ancient and medieval remains of Dayr al-Gabrawi were the object of a German survey in the early 1980s. This resulted in an inventory of archaeological sites and an archaeological map of sorts (D. Kurth in Kurth and RoBler-Kohler 1987: 186—94, with maps 1 and 3, plans 6—7). Regret­tably the architectural remains recorded for Dayr al-Gabrawi gave rise to widely divergent interpretations and—as a result—considerable confusion (see the authoritative discussion in Grossmann 199lb).

The site is redeemed by a Latin inscription that—although non-Christian in character—is of great interest for the Christian history of the region. The stone inscription, commonly designated as CIL III 22 (= Mommsen 1873:8, no. 22), has been known since the seventeenth century.[3] According to rumor, the stone was built into the walls of the modern village church as recently as the 1980s, but it has not actually been seen by visitors since the nineteenth century.

The Latin text is dedicatory in nature. It records the construction of the camp (castra) of a Roman military division, the First Cohort of the Lusitani­ans, by the emperors Diocletian and Maximian in ad 288. The establishment of this stronghold was part of the thorough military reorganization of the empire under Diocletian, which for Egypt resulted among other things in the withdrawal of the southern, Nubian frontier to Philae and the building of a chain of fortifications along the Nile (van Berchem 1952: 59—71). The ruins of a so-called ‘basilica’ on the northeast of the modern village of Dayr al-Gabrawi are most likely remains of this Roman camp (Grossmann 1991b: 171-73; Coquin, Martin, and Grossmann 1991b: 811—12).

The official inscription of the year 288 combined with the plausible archae­ological identification of Roman military architecture on-site allows a series of important historical inferences (for which, see primarily Horn 1988: xi—xix; Horn 1992:128—37). A somewhat later Roman source, the Notitia Dignitatum, from the end of the fourth century, situates the camp of the First Cohort of the Lusitanians, mentioned in the Latin inscription, near a place called Theraco, a name that is traditionally amended to Hieracon on the authority of another Roman source, the Antonine Itinerary.[4] The Itinerary, which dates from the time of Diocletian itself, situates the settlement of Hieracon on the east bank of the Nile, south of Antinoopolis, actually at the approximate loca­tion of Dayr al-Gabrawi (cf. Bell 1942:144; Timm 1984—92, vol. 4:1950—51).

In the medieval hagiographical literature about the military martyr St. Victor, the son of Romanus (‘Victor the General’), a kastron (fortified settle­ment) of Hierakion, south of Antinoopolis, is mentioned as the place of his martyrdom and death, most notably in the account of his martyrdom that survives in Sahidic Coptic (Budge 1914: 28; Elanskaya 1969: 47-48). In Jurgen Horn’s view, the hagiographic tradition concerning St. Victor can be traced back to the late fourth century, even if the Sahidic version of the martyrdom, which mentions Hierakion, is definitely of a much later date (see Horn 1988: lxxi-lxxiii). In any case, a presumably Sahidic martyrdom of St. Victor circulated already in seventh- and eighth-century Thebes (Crum 1921: no. 281), and his cult is attested for the city of Asyut itself in the sixth century (Papaconstantinou 2001: 63, citing a document that mentions a chapel of the saint), which presupposes the local existence of a martyrology.

Therefore, in spite of the late date of the manuscripts, which are from the tenth century, it seems probable that the kastron of Hierakion in the Sahidic martyrdom ofVictor preserves the memory of the military camp near Hier-acon, likewise situated south of Antinoopolis, which was home to the First Cohort of the Lusitanians at the time of Diocletian.[5] The implication is clear: Dayr al-Gabrawi, where the Lusitanians were stationed, may have been the very place where the military saint Victor suffered his martyrdom. The loca­tion of Victor’s martyrdom and subsequent cult at Dayr al-Gabrawi would seem to be corroborated by the traditional dedication of the local church to the same St.Victor as well as by other hagiographical traditions.

Thus, the medieval literature on St. Claudius of Antioch, whose cult was centered in the Asyut region, locates a sanctuary of St.Victor on the east bank, south of Antinoopolis and north of Asyut, precisely where Dayr al-Gabrawi is situ­ated (Papaconstantinou 2001: 66). The wealth of its church attracted the three robbers in the well-known story, told in a homily attributed to Con­stantine of Asyut, which relates a predatory foray ending with the arrest and conversion of the thieves by St. Claudius himself (Godron 1970: 640—54; see the reconstruction of their itinerary in Drescher 1942: 77 n. 2, and 85).

Supposing that the various assumptions and identifications proposed above prove to be correct, Dayr al-Gabrawi might have housed a major sanctuary of a famous martyr from the great persecutions, Victor the son of Romanus, and the site might offer an interesting example of the Chris­tian reuse of Roman military architecture. Regrettably, however, too little archaeological work has been done on the various sites of Dayr al-Gabrawi to be firmly positive on any of these points. Tracing the whereabouts of the Latin inscription of emperors Diocletian and Maximian may be a good starting point for any further research.

Dayr al-Tzam: The Hermitage of John of Lykopolis?

Dayr al-‘Izam, or ‘the Monastery of the Bones,’ is situated in the west­ern necropolis of Asyut.[6] The city’s extensive cemeteries are famous as the provenance of many of the Middle Kingdom sarcophagi that bear versions of the so-called Coffin Texts, an important collection of Egyptian funerary rituals. The link with these ancient texts sparked a recent revival of interest in the necropolis as a whole. A German project, directed by Jochem Kahl, not only conducts excavations on site, but also intends to document its history up to modern times (see in particular Kahl 2007a and Kahl 2013). The project also pays due attention to the period of its Christian reuse, and we may hope to be better informed in the near future than we are now.

The monastic site of Dayr al-‘Izam was excavated, or rather plundered, by two local amateur diggers in September 1897. A brief report of their most important finds appeared a few years later (Maspero 1900). A very schematic map (after V. de Bock) was published in 1912 by Somers Clarke in his Christian Antiquities in the Nile Valley (Clarke 1912:179). Later accounts are largely dependent on this scarce information, as the site appears to have suffered destruction later on (Coquin, Martin, and Grossmann 1991a). The finds made in 1897 include the sad remains of a medieval monastic library, comprising twenty-four fragments of parchment and paper codices.

These texts are still unpublished, but they were briefly analyzed by W.E. Crum shortly after their discovery (Crum 1902: nos. 8080—8103).The find con­sists of biblical, apocryphal, homiletic, and liturgical texts, predominantly in Sahidic. In spite of its piteous state, the collection has its importance, in particular since Crum was able to link some of the fragments to manu­scripts kept in the French National Library, presumably originating from the White Monastery near Sohag. The future study of medieval Coptic literature would undoubtedly benefit from a full publication of the find.

Another important find is an amphora inscribed with a long text in Sahidic Coptic from the year 1155/56 (Crum 1902: no. 8104, plate I). As the inscription is of considerable historical significance it will be translated in full below, at the end of this chapter. It identifies the place where the jar was buried and inscribed as the ‘monastery of Apa John of the Desert,’ a name that is also found in some other medieval sources (for which, see Coquin, Martin, and Grossmann 1991a; Timm 1984—92, vol. 2: 830—31).

That this ‘monastery of Apa John of the Desert’ at Dayr al-‘Izam is the same as a ‘monastery of Apa John of the rock (or mountain) of Siout (Asyut),’ known from earlier sources, is possible, but quite uncertain (see Kahle 1954: 24; Timm 1984—92, vol. 2: 829—33). In any case, the Apa John who gave his name to the monastery may well have been—in the opinion of many scholars—none other than John of Lykopolis, a famous monk from the late fourth century, who indeed must have lived at some distance west of Asyut. Hence, Dayr al-‘Izam is generally identified as the historical hermitage of St.John of Lykopolis (for instance, both Doresse 2000:422 and Grossmann 2002: 208 n. 20 find this a likely assumption).

Although the identification is not supported by contemporaneous, late- antique material from the site of Dayr al-‘Izam itself, it served as the basis for an interesting hypothesis, brought forward some twenty years ago by the papyrologist Constantine Zuckerman (1995:188—94). In his view, Dayr al-‘Izam would be the likely provenance of the so-called archive of Apa John, a group of Greek and Coptic papyri from somewhere in Middle Egypt that used to be loosely associated with the Hermopolite nome, as are many other Middle Egyptian papyri.

The bilingual ‘archive’ dates from the late fourth century and consists of letters addressing a monk, Apa John, who apparently was well connected with the higher society of his time and who might very well be the sort of influential person John of Lykopohs was.[7] The papyri had appeared on the antiquities market briefly after the amateur diggings at Dayr al-‘Izam in 1897 and were soon dispersed over various, mainly British, collections. According to Zuckerman’s reconstruc­tion, the amateur excavators of Dayr al-‘Izam would have handed some of their finds over to the Antiquities Service, while keeping the more valuable papyri for themselves to bring them piecemeal on the market.

Zuckerman’s hypothesis is very attractive (for a generally positive discussion, see Wipszycka 2009: 83—85). It would at once confirm the connection of John of Lykopohs with Dayr al-‘Izam and provide us with the social network of an important holy man from late antiquity, known from various literary sources as a major figure in early Egyptian monasti­cism. Yet it is also very fragile. The provenance of the dossier of Apa John in Dayr al-‘Izam is far from proven and—even if it were—John is and was a very common name. There must have been hundreds of‘Apa Johns’ in late antique and early medieval Egypt! Hence, Zuckerman’s thesis was accepted by some, but received critically by others, for instance by Mal­colm Choat, who announced a comprehensive (re-) edition of the archive (see, preliminarily, Choat 2007, in particular, 180—83 for a discussion of Zuckerman’s thesis).

In my opinion, it can at best be accepted as an attrac­tive working hypothesis that can be falsified, not by reflections of a general nature, but only by a prosopographical analysis of the archive of Apa John. Where does the social network of this Apa John fit in topographically: in the Asyut region, or instead more to the north, in the neighborhood of Hermopolis? Another way by which Zuckerman’s thesis could be tested would be fieldwork on the spot. Does the medieval ‘monastery of Apa John of the Desert’ at Dayr al-‘Izam indeed hark back to the fourth century? For the time being, unequivocal evidence to this effect, be it archaeological or papyrological, appears to be lacking.


The monasteries of Asyut tell a sad story of destruction and neglect. Asyut must have been an important Christian center in late antiquity, as it is today, but hardly anything survives that can be used to document its history in this period. The connections that have been postulated between Dayr al- Gabrawi and St. Victor the General, and between Dayr al-‘Izam and St. John of Lykopohs, and which I have briefly discussed here, rest on slender evidence and the arguments in favor of them are extremely fragile. Only a combination of further research in the field and in museum and library collections may help to reconstruct a world that now seems largely lost.

Appendix: The Jar from Dayr al-Tzam

The Sahidic inscription on the amphora mentioned above is historically interesting on various scores. It shows that in the twelfth century Dayr al-‘Izam bore the name of‘monastery of Apa John of the Desert,’ but also that it maintained contacts with the region of Akhmim farther south. In addition, the text presents a rather gloomy picture of the circumstances under which not only Fatimid rule but also many medieval monasteries succumbed. Yet it has never—to the best of my knowledge—been trans­lated into English (for a French translation, see Mallon 1914: 2866).

The following translation is made after the text printed by Maspero (1900:117— 18), but takes into account the important corrections published by V. Loret (1903:104). I furthermore collated Maspero’s readings with the published photograph (Crum 1902: pl. I), which shows only part of the text, however. Later re-editions (such as Hasitzka 1993: no. 299) lack independent value. Crum (1902: no. 8104) provides a detailed description of the jar.

God have mercy on us, me, Papa Basile, and my brother, the deacon Pakire, the sons of the blessed Papa Joseph, from Talmarage (al-Mara- gha) in the province of Shmin (Akhmim), who assumed—beyond our worth—that name of ‘monk’ in this monastery of Apa John of the Desert—may his blessings be with us. Amen.

In the brief and insignificant days that we have consumed, this tiny bit of perfume, which is this myrrh, came in and we stored it for who will come after us. Its amount is nine quarters, of which there are twelve in an oipe.

(We did this in the year of) the Era of the Martyrs 872 (ad 1155/56), when there was famine in the land of Egypt, in particular the city of Siout (Asyut), and violence from the part of the authori­ties in charge and unrest from outside, due to the Arabs and the people who had become infuriated with each other. O Lord, help us!

And we believe in the creed that was established in Nicaea by the 318 bishops, which professes the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one single Godhead—to Him be the glory. Amen.

As an afterword, it may be added that the jar and its contents were found sealed and intact, and that since the days of Basile and Pakire no one had apparently made use of the myrrh.


[1] For the pharaonic antiquities of Dayr al-Gabrawi, see now Moreno Garcia 2012.

[2] For the toponym, see Horn 1992: 65, with n. 172. The designation ‘Dayr’ does not necessarily imply that it was the site of an ancient monastery, as it may refer to any ancient Christian settlement. For general accounts of Christian Dayr al-Gabrawi, see Coquin, Martin, and Grossmann 1991b; Timm 1984—92, vol. 1: 41-44 (under Abnub); vol. 4: 1949—52; Horn 1992: 65—66,128—37.

[3] See Sicard 1982a: 14—15, with the notes by M. Martin, about the place where the stone was located in 1716.

[4] Cf. the apparatus of the latest edition of the Notitia, Neira Faleiro 2005: 254.

[5] Note, however, that the Greco-Latin word kastron, ‘fortified place,’ has a different range of meaning than the Latin castra, ‘army camp’; see, for discussion, Lajtar 1997: 44-45.

[6] For general accounts, see Clarke 1912: 178-79; Coquin, Martin, and Grossmann 1991a; Doresse 2000:418-23, cf. 571-72; Kahl 2007:99-102; Kahl 2013:126-29.s

[7] See, in addition to Zuckerman 1995, van Minnen 1994: 80-85; Choat and Gardner 2006; Choat 2007; Gonis 2008; Wipszycka 2009: 83-85

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