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THE CONVENT OF THE PULLEY (DEIR EL ADRA OR THE MONASTERY OF THE VIRGIN MARY) AT GABAL AL-TAYR 1: INTRDUCTION

March 12, 2013

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Figure 1: This beautiful watercolour (47.4 cm X 35.9 cm covers), titled “Dayr- El Bukhur – or ‘of the Pulley’ Coptic Convent on Gebel-e-Tayr. Upper Egypt”, is kept in the V&A Museum, London, is by the artist General George de Sausmarez (1814 – 1890) in an album of 45 watercolour views in Egypt and Nubia made during or after a journey on the Nile, upstream then downstream, in 1855. Inscribed with title and signed and dated 18.2.55 G de S.[1]

The Convent (or Monastery) of the Pulley or the Monastery of the Virgin Mary (Deir el Adra,[2] in Arabic) is a famous monastery by which Western travellers in the 19th and early 20th centuries were extremely fascinated in their writings, particularly in regards to its association with what they described as the “naked monks” or “begging monks”.[3] The monastery is encountered by these tourists as they sailed up or down the Nile in a dahabiya[4] or felucca[5] at a location on a cliff on the eastern bank of the Nile called Gabal al-Tayr (or Gebel el-Teir), opposite Samalut (125 miles from Cairo) in the governorate of Minya, Upper Egypt. Gabal al-Tayr is Arabic for Mountain of the Birds, and is known so because of migratory birds that rest on its top; and it is also known as Gabal al-Adra (Mountain of the Virgin) and Gabal al-Kaff (Mountain of the Palm [of the hand]). This place is sacred for the Copts, and believed by them to have been one of the sites visited by the Holy Family in their flight to Egypt. As the Family crossed the Nile from Samalut and was approaching this cliff, believed to have contained a Pharaonic temple, the pagan idols collapsed,[6] infuriating the priests. A piece of the cliff was falling onto their boat, and the infant Jesus reached up and stopped the descent of the rock, leaving his handprint on the rock. [7]

After the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great (306 – 337) converted to Christianity, his mother Empress Helena (d. c. 330), who is canonised as Saint Helena, built a church in AD 328 on the place the Holy Family landed on the Gabal al-Tayr. The place also became a monastery. It now houses also several Coptic families, who have built houses around the monastery. The monastery can be reached from the Nile now by some 160 stairs;[8]however, in the past, people were hauled up into it by a winch, and hence the name “Monastery of the Pulley”. The imprint of little Christ’s hand, which was incorporated into the church, history tells us, was cut out and taken by King Amalric I (Amaury or Aimery) of Jerusalem (1163 – 1174) in his 1160s campaigns in Egypt.[9] Since then it has been lost and no one knows its whereabouts now.

The Church of the Holy Virgin in the Monastery of the Pulley is the destination of a huge annual Coptic pilgrimage (mulid), estimated in the tens of thousands of pilgrims from Minya, Asyut, and as far as Cairo, all for the feast of the Assumption of the Holy Virgin on the 16th of Misra (22 August).[10]


[1] See: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O181884/dayr-el-bukhur-or-of-watercolour-sausmarez-george-de/

[2] Or Deir el Adhra.

[3] We shall talk about that in further articles.

[4] Sailboat used extensively by travellers to cruise the Nile in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries.

[5] Small sailing vessel.

[6] Fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 19:1.

[7] The Churches & Monasteries of Egypt and Some Neighbouring Countries; attributed to Abu Salih, the Armenian. Translated from the original rabic by B. T. A. Evetts with added notes by Alfred J. Butler with map (Oxford, The Clarendon Press, 1895); pp. 217-219.

[8] It can now also be reached by vehicle from the back.

[9] The Churches & Monasteries of Egypt; p. 219.

[10] See Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity by Otto F. A. Meinardus (Cairo, Cairo University Press, 1999); pp. 213-214.

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