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January 13, 2012

Plan of Church of St. Antony at the Monastery of St. Antony, at the Red Sea, Egypt[i]

There are a few churches in the Monastery of Saint Antony: Church of Saint Antony, Church of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, the Church of Saint Mark, the Church of the Holy Virgin, the Chapel of Saint Michael (which is as in almost all Coptic monasteries is located at the top floor of the keep), and the new Church of Saints Antony and Paul (which was built by Patriarch Cyril IV in the 1850s). The church of Saint Antony is the oldest and tradition ascribes its construction to Saint Antony himself.[ii]

This church is the jewel of the monastery, and almost all the magnificent wall paintings that have recently been revealed at the monastery are from that church which is held as one of the most sacred places in the whole of Coptia.[iii]

In 1927 two Copts, Labib Habashi and Zaki Tawd’ros, visited the Red Sea monasteries: that of Saint Antony and that of Saint Paul. They published a book, On the Arabian Desert and Eastern Monasteries,[iv] in 1929 and described their visits. I take this description from it, which I don’t find in any other book.[v] It is important not just to learn about the early designs of monastic churches but also to know the location of the various 13th century wall paintings that have recently been revealed.

The Church is about 20 m. long and 10 m. wide, and is divided internally into four parts: the outer most part (western) is the narthex; the next part is the nave; then next the choir;[vi] and inner most to its eastern side the haikal which is made of three chapels.[vii] It appears that the first two sections were specified for praying people, including monks, while the third section was for the elders and clergy. Above each of the first three sections is a dome, while each of the three chapels in the haikal had a dome. The chapels are dedicated to Saint Mark (north), Saint Athanasius (south), while the central chapel is dedicated to Saint Antony.

The main door of the church opens at the northern side of the narthex rather than at its western side as is usual. It is not clear why that is.[viii] This door is so low that a person needs most probably to bend his back down to enter the church.

The narthex is the largest and lowest of the four sections. To the south of the narthex there is a small chapel dedicated to the Four Beasts.[ix] The narthex is separated from the nave by a 1 ½ m. high stone wall, at which the monks usually stand when reciting the morning and evening prayers.

The choir is higher than the nave by two steps. The two sections are separated by a wooden partition which carries several icons. Hanging from the ceiling of the choir are several antique oil lamps, of coloured glass, and a few ostrich eggs.[x]

At the Monastery of Saint Antony, the Divine Liturgy is celebrated at different churches throughout the year. It is celebrated at the Church of Saint Antony between November and April, when the Liturgy is celebrated three times a week, on Sunday, Wednesday and Friday mornings.

The Church’s walls as we know are covered with beautiful paintings from the 13th century and earlier. Otto Meinardus gives this list of the paintings in each of five locations:[xi]

The haikal:

  • Christ as Pantocrator
  • The Angels
  • The Enthroned Christ
  • The Sacrifice of Abraham
  • Abraham and Melchisedek
  • Jeremiah
  • Elijah
  • Isaiah
  • Moses
  • David
  • Daniel
  • St. Mark
  • St. Athanasius
  • St. Severus of Antioch
  • St. Dioscorus
  • St. Peter of Alexandria
  • St. Theophilus

The choir:[xii]

  •  The myrrh-bearing women (namely: Mary Magdalene; Mary, mother of James; and Salome)
  • Christ and two women saints
  • St. Mercurius
  • Jacob
  • Isaac
  • Abraham
  • Three unidentified saints
  • Nebuchadnezzar
  • St. George
  • St. Michael
  • St. Gabriel

The nave: (mostly monks)

  • St. Isaac
  • St. Paul the simple
  • St. Samuel
  • St. Bishoi
  • Four unidentified monks
  • A bishop
  • Anba Moses
  • Two monks blessed by Christ
  • A monk with an angel
  • Four unidentified monks and one unidentified female saint
  • Two unidentified monks

The narthex:

  • St. Arsophonius
  • St. Thuan
  • Two monks blessed by Christ
  • A warrior –saint
  • St. Claudius
  • St. Victor
  • St. Menas
  • St. Theodore
  • Three warrior-saints and (?) St. George

About the seven warrior-saints in the wall-painting in the narthex, Otto Meinardus says they have attracted the attention of many visitors. The saints are portrayed with their respective martyria.[xiii] He adds here the names of Saints Sergius and Bacchus to the list.[xiv]

The chapel of the four beasts

  • Two angels
  • Christ between the virgin and St. John the Baptist,
  • The Cross adored by the angels

[i] From daleel al-kana’is wal ad’ura fi masr by Anba Samuel and Badi’a Habib Georgi (2002); p. 220.

[ii] Alfred J. Butler, The Ancient Coptic Churches of Egypt (Oxford; the Clarendon Press; 1884); Vol. 1; p. 345.

[iii] Coptia means the Coptic communities, Coptic nation or Coptic patrie. Here, I mean by it the Patrie (where Copts dwell).

[iv] في صحراء العرب والاديرة الشرقية. The book has been republished by Madboli Bookshop, in Cairo, in 1996.

[v] Pages 83-90. In this article, I have also used Otto Meinardus, Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert (Cairo; AUC; 1961); pp. 5-32. I have also used Alfred J. Butler, The Ancient Coptic Churches of Egypt (Oxford; the Clarendon Press; 1884); pp. 344-346.

[vi] Otto Meinardus in his Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert (p. 28) does not call it choir but “the passage in front of the haikal”.

[vii] Or you could say there are three haikals as haikal is the Arabic for chapel.

[viii] Labib Habashi and Zaki Tawd’ros say the reason is that the western wall is so short that it is no suitable for opening a door in it. They say this situation is similar to the Church of Saint Mina in Famm al-Khalij and the Church of the Virgin in the Syrian Monastery (p. 86).

[ix] For the Four Beasts read the Book of Revelation 4: 6-11.

[x] Labib Habashi and Zaki Tawd’ros say give two reasons as to why Copts hang ostrich eggs in front of church haikals, and the prefer the latter: ostrich takes care of its eggs until they hatch and keep its vision fixed on the eggs all the time (as a Christian should be focused on his religious teachings and instructions); the ostrich egg above an oil lamp prevents rats from reaching the oil (apparently be giving the rat the slip).

[xi] Otto Meinardus, Monks and Monasteries of the Egyptian Desert; pp. 27-8.

[xii] Which he calls, “the passage in front of the haikal”.

[xiii] Plural of martyrium (a church or other edifice built at a site, especially a tomb, associated with a Christian martyr or saint).

[xiv] Page 28.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 13, 2012 2:45 am

    Could it be that the door was build so that you had to bow to enter?

    In worship we declare God’s greatness. He alone is worthy of glory, honor, and praise. One day all created beings will bow before Him and acknowledge that He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Phil. 2:9-10).

  2. Dioscorus Boles permalink
    January 13, 2012 10:11 am

    Thanks, Will. You have explained it right. That is the reason, I think, why Copts, in so many churches, have built doors very low.



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