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March 5, 2013

western luxor

 Figure 1: Topographic map of western Luxor, showing the Vally of the Queens and the mountains west to it.

In my studies about Apa Pisentius (548 – 632 AD) I mentioned that he was bishop of Coptos[1] at the time of the Persian occupation of Egypt (619-629 AD). Once Bishop Pisentius got the news of the approaching Persians, he ran away before them as they were targeting Coptic Church leaders, and he, accompanied by his disciple John the Elder, who later wrote his biography,[2] moved from his seat in Coptos southwards to the mountainous area to the west of Luxor. He selected an ancient tomb in one of the recesses of the mountain of Tjîmi (Djîmé or Gemi), which is called Shama شامة in Arabic. There, he retreated for ten years until the end of the Persian occupation when he returned back to his seat, while his disciple stayed at a nearby abode, bringing to Pisentius his meagre provisions on weekly basis. There the saintly bishop spent his time “praying night and day that God would save the people from bondage to those cruel nations.”[3]

The abode in which John the Elder stayed was most probably the Monastery of St. Phoebammon (Abue Fam) the Soldier (his martyrdom is celebrated in the Coptic Synaxarium on 27 Toba), which is some 5 miles (8 kilometres) to the west of the Valley of the Queens.[4] This monastery, which is where Apa Pisentius started his solitary ascetic life, remaining in it for seven years; he then moved to a close by cave, where he stayed for five years; and then sixteen years in a cave in the mountain of Tjîmi before he moved to a northern mountain called in Arabic manuscripts “Al-Assas (الأساس)”, where he stayed for three years until he was ordained bishop in AD 599.[5] It was therefore the right place for him to retreat before the advance of the Persians.

This monastery has been found and excavated a few years ago by the Coptic Archaeological Society. It is built of two floors and has many Coptic writings. Bishop Samuel, in his Directory of Churches and Monasteries of Egypt (2002), that it is difficult to reach this monastery and will need a guide.[6] In it also has been found the original archive of Apa Pisentius’ letters.[7]

I am not sure if these letters have been published. I am also not sure that every thing that could be found has been found. This area is rich with Coptic archaeology and I would not be surprised if we are yet to find more.  It just needs more dedicated Coptologists. There go, young Coptologists! There is a rich gem awaiting you!

Update (7 March 2013):

For the Assas Mountain (جبل الأساس), see Wallis Budge’s note, here. The mountain is called Tsenti in Coptic. In The Life of Bishop Pisentius, Pisentius is called “Anchorite in the Mountain of Tsenti”. We know that he started his ascetic life there before he was ordained bishop at Coptos. He was burried in the Mountain of Tsenti. Budge says the mountain lies to the east of the Nile at Coptos, but he is wrong – it is actually located west of the Nile, and extends with other mountains to join with the Mountain of Tjîmi, to the west of the Nile at Luxor. The whole range of mountains in that area was alive with Coptic monasticism, and is still is but to a lesser degree. It offers to the Coptologist a great field for research.

[1] Qift (قفط).

[2] For more on that, go here and here.

[3] A. Butler: Arab Conquest of Egypt And The last Thirty Years of the Roman Dominion (Oxford, The Clarendon Press, 1902; ed. 1998); p. 85.

[4] تاريخ المسيحية والرهبنة وآثارهما في أبروشيتي نقادة وقوص وإسنا والأقصر وأرمنت (Tārīkh al-Masīḥīyah wa-al-rahbanah wa-āthārihimā fī abrūshīyatay Naqādah wa-Qūṣ, wa-Isnā wa-al-Uqṣur wa-Armant) by Nabīh Kāmil Dāwud and ʻĀdil Fakhrī (Cairo, Institute of St. Mark for Studies in Coptic History, 2008); p.136.

[5] تاريخ المسيحية والرهبنة وآثارهما; pp. 135-136.

[6] Anba Samuel, دليل الكنائس والأديرة فى مصر (Dalil al-Kana’is wal Adyrra fi Masr) (Cairo, 2002); p. 205.

[7] تاريخ المسيحية والرهبنة وآثارهما; 136.

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