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Two Witnesses of Christian Life in the area of Balyana: The Church of the Virgin and the Monastery of Anba Moses - Coptic Wiki

Two Witnesses of Christian Life in the area of Balyana: The Church of the Virgin and the Monastery of Anba Moses[1]

The town of Balyana stands on the west bank of the Nile in the Sohag governorate. I have had many opportunities to be in touch with Christian life in this area of Upper Egypt through my acquaintance with the local bishop, Anba Wissa. In this study I shall deal mainly with two buildings that have played an important part in the lives of Christians here: the old church of the Virgin, which has not yet been studied sufficiently, and the Monastery of Anba Moses of Abydos, two kilometers north of the famous temple of Pharaoh Seti I. We will describe their present state and give a catalogue of the icons kept there.

In his general study, Stefan Timm[2] sums up the known points of the his­tory of Balyana as follows:

Balyana is attested as an episcopal center as early as in the eleventh cen­tury, because of a controversy in which the Bishop of Balyana opposed the Patriarch Shenoute I (850-880). This event is reported in both the Synaxarium and History of the Patriarchs.

From the tenth century we have two inscriptions on gravestones men­tioning Balyana and quoted in the Coptic Encyclopedia: from the year 932 comes the of Kyra Susinne, whose father Psate was from Balyana;[3] the second tombstone, dated 939, is that of Theodorarus, son of Moses, a presbyter from Balyana.I. * * [4] This is also witnessing to the fact that the name ‘Moses’ was still used in the area of Balyana in the tenth century, probably as it had been famous in previous centuries because of Moses of Abydos. It is presumed to have derived from the ancient suffix ‘messes,’ which was added to create, for example, the name ‘Ra-messes.’ Another inscription, undated, mentions a deacon from Balyana.[5]

In the eleventh century Bishop Mark of Balyana (who died in 1092) took part in an attempt to dismiss the patriarch Christodoulos (1047-1077); the plot had been organized by John, Bishop of Sakha (West of the Delta). We also know that the said Bishop of Balyana was an elector of Christodoulos’s successor, and that at the synod held in Old in 1086 he was himself elected dean of Egyptian bishops.

The History of the Patriarchs also mentions that the Patriarch Christodoulos ordained Poimen, who was originally from Balyana, as Bishop of Armant.

In the twelfth century a man from Balyana became bishop of his home city. After that we have no mention of Balyana as a bishopric until the beginning of the twentieth century.

Stefan Timm mentions two other modern churches in Balyana and con­cludes by stressing the fact that the church of the Virgin was never studied. However, Bishop Samuel published in 1990, among many other plans, the plan of this church,[6] as well as that of the Dayr Anba Moses.

The two monuments we present here are of interest both for their archi­tecture and history, as they bear witness to Christianity past and present in this area. We visited them several times, the last time being in November 2005, and we shall try to give as detailed an account as possible of their present state.

[1]     The Church of the Virgin in Balyana

Mentions of the Church by Travelers

The church of the Virgin in Balyana is mentioned by several travelers :

  • In 1668, the French priests Protais and Charles-Franfois visited the city and the church “under the earth.” “Le jour n’y entre que par la porte et encore peu, d’autant que la cour est toute ombragee d’un arbre, qui la couvre fort proprement.”[7]
  • Wansleben also mentions the church.
  • Claude Sicard, travelling at the beginning of the eighteenth century, mentioned this city, which in his time was famous for its date palms. He says, “We visited in this burg a very deep church, called Our Virgin, which the Nile invades and floods for two or three or months each year. The nave is encumbered by a sidr or nabqa, very old and full of branches.”[8]

Description of the Church

The church is situated within the precinct of the parish of the Virgin, which also includes a modern church.

A flight of about fifteen steps leads down to the church that was exca­vated in the rock at about three meters below ground level, which explains why it is flooded for part of the year. The steps have been modernized. The entrance is through a heavy, carved wooden door situated on the left side of the stairs on the northwest corner of the church.

From the entrance, the church appears to be lying on the right-hand side for a length of 20 meters and 13 meters in depth; it is composed of two naves separated by pillars and a sanctuary separated from the second nave by wooden panels. The church is covered by nine rounded domes; the at the center of the second nave is of wood, from which a light is hanging. The highest point of the vaults is six meters; the height of the roof is four meters. The church is in quite a good state of conservation, and not modified by remodeling. The plaster of the walls and vaults is falling apart in some places, and floods have damaged the sanctuary.

The First Nave
The First Nave
The Tunnel Entrance Door
The Tunnel Entrance Door
The Tunnel
The Tunnel
The Second Nave and Altars
The Second Nave and Altars
The Spire
The Spire

The first nave is separated from the second by four enormous pillars; which have square angles in the first nave and are rounded in the second nave. The circumference of each pillar is 4.70 meters, and they are 1.35 meters thick. The pillars are separated by carved wooden panels.

on the west wall are three large niches, each 1.30 meters deep. They end with arches about half a meter deep, enclosed by a wall. Ancient icons are stored within the two first niches; some of them documented by the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) and bearing a file number (see appendix). The third niche contains old, abandoned corsi with icons dating from the twentieth century.

The Priest Abuna Pola Sitting on the Steps Leading to the Main Altar
The Priest Pola Sitting on the Steps Leading to the Main Altar

A beautiful old wooden lectern is stored at the south end of this nave.

On the north wall is an old niche of about one square meter, with small columns on each side.

On the north wall of the second nave is a small, deep niche.

On the wall in the northeast angle a small door about 60 cm above the ground opens on to a grotto that is accessible through a tunnel about one meter high. This tunnel, which is beautifully dressed in raw brick, runs behind the sanctuary toward the east.

According to tradition, this was where the liturgical vessels were hidden in case of attack. We suggest it may have been a storing place during the inundation. In any case, there is no doubt this was a hiding place where even a man could take refuge.

Three domes crown this second nave, the central spire of which is of carved wood.

his nave opens on to four altars.

The sanctuary is composed of four altar chapels, all of them arched and vaulted.

The left altar is dedicated to St. Michael.

The central altar is dedicated to the Holy Virgin. This is the largest cha­pel; its wall juts into the adjacent street and we were told that it floods each time a water pipe in the street bursts, which happens often enough.

The third altar is dedicated to St. George, and the one on the right-hand side to St. Bishoi. This altar is situated in the wooden part of the church.

After this fourth altar is a wall in which is carved the font, a round bowl 53 cm in diameter and 60 cm deep.

Catalogue of the Icons

Eight icons are kept in this church, and one in the modern church above. Seven icons have been registered by the SCA, two of which bear the signa­ture of Anastasi al-Rumi.

1. The Entry into Jerusalem

File No./159/2000

Dated: 1912

Dimensions: H: 0.93 m/W: 0.85 m

Conservation: very good

Style: Syrian

Inscriptions in Arabic:

– “Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

-“The Mount of Olives.”

-“City of Jerusalem.”

-“Remember, O Lord, your servant Thomas Abdel-Malik, who offered you this icon.”

2. St. George

File No.3/159/2000

No signature

No date

Dimensions: H: 0.70 m/W: 0.50 m

Conservation : very poor

Style: Coptic

3. Virgin of Perpetual Help (Italian icon type)

File No.8/159/2000

No signature

No date

Dimensions: H: 0.92 m/W: 0.70 m

Conservation: good

Style: Italian

4. Crowned Virgin (with John the Baptist as a child kissing the feet of Jesus) File No.4/159/200

Signed: Anastasi al-Rumi

Date: 1580

Dimensions: H: 1.10 m/W: 0.60 m

Conservation: good

Style: Coptic

Inscription in Arabic: “Reward, O Lord, in the Kingdom of Heaven he who works.”

5. Large Virgin with Child

No number

No signature

Dimensions: H: 1.25 m/W: 1.05 m

Painted on gazelle skin

Conservation: good

Style: Italian

Inscriptions in Arabic: Jesus Christ/Our Lady Mary the Virgin/(right:) the Sun—the Angel Gabriel/(left:) the Moon—the Angel Michael. “Reward, O Lord, in the Kingdom of Heaven he who works”

6. Nativity (with scenes of Jesus’s life: the Adoration of the Magi, the killing of the Innocents, the Flight to Egypt.)

No number

No signature

No date

Dimensions: H: 0.95 m/W: 0.68 m

Conservation: very good

Style: Greek (compare with an eighteenth-century Greek icon in Beirut, in Icons arabes, p. A 35, n 6.)

7. Diptych: Right panel: an archangel; left panel: a mosque (the rest is damaged)

No number

No signature

No date

Dimensions of the right panel: H: 0.90 m/W: 0.64 m

Dimensions of left panel: H: 0.90 m/W: 0.44 m Conservation: badly damaged

Style: Unknown

8. St. Demiana

No number

No signature

No date

Dimensions: H: 0.90 m/W: 0.60 m

Conservation: Very poor, broken in two parts

Style: Coptic

9. Triptych of the Passion of Christ (this icon is in the new church)

File No.5/159/2002

Signed: Anastasi al-Rumi

No date

Dimensions: H: 0.80 m/W: (central panel) 0.40 m; (left and right panels) 0.20 m

Conservation: good; this is the masterpiece of the collection

(Compare with the icon of the same type in the Museum fur Spatantike und Byzantinische Kunst, Berlin, published in Georgiennes, ed., Icones arabes, art Chretien du Levant,” Meolans-Revel, 2003, A. 74, N 43)

The Monastery of Anba Moses (or Mosios)

Moses of Abydos

The life of Moses of Abydos is well known through various documents, The Synaxarium mentions him only on 7 Barmudah (in the Coptic calendar) as “Moses of Balyana” and spiritual father of St. Macrobius.[9] In the White Monastery his feast is celebrated on 25 as “Moses, archimandrite of Ebot (Abydos or Afud).” Fragments have been preserved of three codices detailing his life and of an encomium published in part by E. Amelineau, W. Till, and H. Munier.1[10] He is also mentioned in the Life of his disciple Macrobius, founder of a community at Lycopolis to the south of Assiut, pre­served in a Coptic fragment in the Museum of Antiquities in Leiden and in an Arabic version, and in the Life of of Farshout, archimandrite of Pbow, who was deposed by Justinian.[11]

The life of Moses has been studied by both R-G. Coquin in 1986[12] and Peter Grossman in 1999.[13] They point out a few elements worth mentioning in this study. First, Moses of Abydos was born a short time after Shenoute’s death in 466 and lived through the first half of the sixth century. Second, there is an important link between St. Shenoute and Moses of Abydos: Shenoute, before his death, had a vision of the birth of Moses, and he knew that Moses would destroy the temples and contribute to the conversion of pagans. Fourth, it is attested that Moses founded a monastery for men and one for women.

The latter is located in the temple of Seti I as is shown by the graffiti in one of the chapels. Many elements prove that the monastery of Abydos was of the Pachomian style, organized in ‘houses.’ In his let­ters, Moses often quotes Shenoute. Indeed, Moses was involved in various struggles with the temples. Moses also played a part in the discussions with Justinian about monophysitism and it seems that Severius of Antioch took refuge for some time in the monastery Abydos.

The Monastery of Moses of Abydos

The monastery at Abydos was famous, since it was mentioned in several records including this thirteenth-century reference by Abu al-Makarim:[14]

City of Bulyana. This lies to the west bank of the Nile, in Upper Egypt. Here is the monastery known as the Monastery of Bani Musa, which was restored at the expense of As-Safi, who was his Abbot; it lies to the west of the city and its correct name with that of his church is said to be St. Moses.[15] The construction plan of this monastery is unlike any that can be seen else­where. It is enclosed within a wall. Its gate is plated with iron and studded with nails. It contains a water-wheel, which irrigates a plot of vegetables. The pure body (of the saint) is buried in the monastery. The biography of Anba Christodoulos, the sixty-sixth patriarch, relates that the pillars of this monastery all transpired, until the drops ran down like water . . . .

The fifteenth-century Arab historian al-Maqrizi also mentions this mon­astery, as does Claude Sicard, who refers to the monastery of St. Moses, which he visited in 1718: “an old monastery of Moses the Abbot, made of bad bricks, situated at the west of the village at the foot of mount Afodos.” Here again, the notes made by Serge Sauneron and Maurice Martin mention some confusion concerning St. Moses, whom they thought was different from Moses of Balyana.[16]

The monastery is situated eleven kilometers west of Balyana, two kilo­meters after the temples of Seti I in Abydos. The road runs to the right of the temple and climbs a hill; on the left can be seen the temple of Ramesses II. Then the road goes on through desert belonging to the Supreme Council of Antiquities and arrives at the small village of Bani-Mansur (formerly Arrabah al-Madfuna).

On the left hand side lies a Christian cemetery in which the bishopric is building a new church.

The village is surrounded by the remains of the ancient wall made of bricks. We enter the precinct through a first door, then a second. The residents lived in this first precinct in small houses. We are told that the monastery accommodated about a million monks in the fifth century.

Church entrance

The western wall of the monastery church has been renewed by the local church team of the bishopric. The wall is covered with brown limestone. A small door (1.70 m/0.90 m) of carved wood opens in this wall; it is enclosed within a made of red and black placed in geo­metrical patterns.

The wall is 5.30 m high. About 4 meters above the ground it is pierced by four ogive-shaped windows, each about 0.80 cm high.

FIG. 34 (font)

At the left angle of the wall an old baptistery is lying upside down on the ground. Its shape is slightly conical.


0.85 m high; 0.45 m diameter in its lowest part; 0.65 m diameter at its highest part.

On the left of this wall, in the yard, is the wall of the nave precinct, with a small door equally decorated with colored in geometrical patterns.

On entering through the main door, one finds oneself in a church whose shape is very similar to that of St. Mary’s Church at Balyana, only much bigger. However, this church is being restored, which is not the case the old church of the Virgin in Balyana.

The priest, Bola, says that until the sixteenth century there was not one but two churches placed side by side. The one on the left was dedicated to St. Moses; the one on the right to St. Demiana. According to archaeological reports, this church is older than the other.[17] Bishop Samuel noticed a similarity between the seven altars of the nearby temple of Seti and the seven altars of the church of the monastery. The two churches are currently separated by an enormous pillar.

St. Moses’s Church measures 18 meters and St. Demiana’s 14 meters in length, so the church now appears to measure 32 meters in length.

Like St. Mary’s, this church is composed of two naves and a sanctuary, separated from one another by carved wooden and each measuring 4.50 meters in width.

on both the northwest and the southwest sides rooms function as ‘pre­naves.’ The font was probably in one of these. The naves and the sanctuary are covered by domes. Arches and niches are scattered throughout.

We are told that the old haikal was destroyed by insects. During the res­toration, a new iconostasis was made from the remains of the St. Shenoute’s Church in Balyana, which has been totally destroyed. Thus the wooden of the church date back to the Middle Ages, except for the panel introduced into the main sanctuary of St. Moses, which is original.

There are altogether seven for the iconostasis.

Catalogue of Icons

Only one icon is kept in the church; it represents Moses holding Macrobius. It has been repainted and offers no interest except for the identification of Moses of Abydos with Moses of Balyana, the spiritual father of Macrobius, as told in the Synaxarium.

The remaining icons are kept in a room high up in a building near the enclosure wall. None of these icons has a file number, but one is signed by Anastasi al-Rumi. Two more icons represent St. Moses and St. Macrobius.

Moses holding Macrobius

One icon is of the same type as the one kept in the church; St. Moses holding St. Macrobius, who is represented as a very small figure.

Dimensions : 0.80m/0.52

Crowned Moses, and Macrobius

The second is different: St. Moses is crowned while St. Macrobius is standing by himself as a small child;.

No signature

No date

Dimensions: W: 0.82 m/W: 0.60 m

Style: unknown

Conservation: good

Inscription in Arabic: St. Mosios

Two icons represent St. Demiana.

Demiana Seated

The first is a badly restored icon showing Demiana seated, her head bent, and surrounded by the forty virgins.

No signature

No date

Dimensions: H: 0.78 m/W: 0.55 m

Conservation: badly repainted

Style: unknown


The second is a beautiful triptych showing Demiana in the center, Abu on the right and St, George on the left.

Signature : Anastasi al-Rumi

Date: 1581 of the era of Martyrs

Dimensions: H: 1 m/W: 1.4 m

Conservation: very good

Style: Coptic

Inscriptions: St. George the Martyr/Abu the Martyr/The Great Saint and Martyr Demiana


No signature

No date

Dimensions: H: 0.82 m/W: 0.70 m

Conservation: badly repainted

Style: originally Coptic

Inscriptions in Arabic: “Christ’s Cross/Lord have mercy on your ser­vant Aoud Tadros . . . . Reward, O Lord, in your Kingdom, he who has worked.”

Deposition of Christ

No signature

No date

Dimensions: H: 0.38 m/W: 0.55 m

Conservation: probably, and unfortunately, repainted.

Style: unknown


No signature

No date

Dimensions : H: 0.70 m/W: 0.4 2m

Conservation: badly repainted

Style: originally Coptic

Archangel Michael “psychopump”

No signature

No date

Dimensions: H: 1.0 m/W: 0.75 m

Conservation: good

Style: naive; Italian background


Concerning the two monuments described here, I would like to draw atten­tion to two points. First, renovation is necessary, both for the old church of Balyana, which still suffers from flooding in spite of the fact that the flow of the Nile is now stabilized, and for some icons that are unprotected or stored in dirty or unsafe places; some are not even registered by the SCA; these icons bear witness to and quite a few are very valuable and deserve to be protected. It is essential to provide local people with the means to have them restored and kept in a safe place.

Second, uncontrolled restoration is still in process; at least seven icons we have seen have been repainted by unskilled people; the restoration of the pieces also should be performed under the control of competent people to avoid new paints or varnishes as can be seen in St. Moses’s Monastery, or the destruction of valuable objects such as haikals.

Some concluding remarks about Christianity in the region of Balyana:

FIG. 49

The Balyana area is deeply marked by Christian monasticism, and it is clear that the history of the monastery of Abydos was influenced both by the proximity of the temples of Abydos and by the prox­imity of the White Monastery about fifty kilometers away.

There is currently evidence of increasing activity. The monastery of Abydos is being restored and renewed, and a very active Christian popula­tion is living within its precincts. We admired the nursery school located at the entrance, the new church building in the cemetery, and other facilities.

Christian life in Balyana has received a boost; the bishopric is creating schools for Christian children who find no place in public schools. Strolling through the streets of Balyana with a priest, we noticed how respectful toward him the people, both Christian and Muslim, seemed to be.

The Coptic Orthodox Diocese of Balyana currently has twenty-nine churches, sixty-three priests and one bishop.

The present situation, however, presents difficulties for church members. The memories of the terrible events of al-Kosheh in 1998 and 2000 are still vivid, and our last pictures reveal the way we felt, when looking from the small church precinct toward the street, about the church being surrounded by enormous mosques—a feeling of insecurity, or of the confrontation between David and Goliath.

Ashraf Alexandre Sadek

[1] I wish to thank my colleague and friend Adel Sidarus who encouraged me to do this study, and Rami Sawiris for helping with the computer.

[2] Timm 1984-1992: 312-15.[volume number?]

[3] Stern 1878: 9-28, esp. 26ff.

[4] Crum 1904: 38-43.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Al-Suriani and Habib 1990: 65-66.

[7] Quoted in Timm 1984-1992. [volume number as note 2 above]

[8] Sicard, Claude, Oeuvres, III Parallele geographique de I’Ancienne Egypte et de I’Egypte moderne, IFAO, 175563/85, 97-98.[This full reference has now been added to the bibliography but the date of publication is needed. Is this ‘P. Sicard’ or a different Sicard?]

[9] Synaxarium, 7 Barmudah.

[10] All references can be found in the Coptic Encyclopaedia, 1679.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Coquin1986: 1-14.

[13] Grossman 1999: 51-64.

[14] Abu Saleh the Armenian 1895, fol. 81: 231-32.[Place of publication?]

[15] Here a footnote shows that this Moses was confused with Moses the Black ; in fact, the Synaxarium mentions this St. Moses as being the abbot of this monastery and the spiritual father of St. Macrobius; however it is confirmed by iconography, and this Moses is certainly not Moses the Black.

[16] Sicard, op. cit., 66-68. [need date; based on answer to note 8 above.]

[17] Cf. al-Suriani and Habib 1990: 64.