THE CONVENT OF THE PULLEY (DEIR EL ADRA OR THE MONASTERY OF THE VIRGIN MARY) AT GABAL AL-TAYR 2: THE ACCOUNT OF THE COPTIC HISTORIAN OF THE TWELFTH CENTURY ABU AL-MAKARIM
Al-Mu’taman Abu al-Makarim Sa’d Allah Jirjis ibn Mas’ud (known simply as Abu al-Makarim), who was a Coptic priest and historian from the 12th/13th centuries wrote the important work entitled “تاريخ الكنائس والأديرة”, and was translated by B. T. A. Evetts as The Churches and Monasteries of Egypt and some neighbouring countries in 1895. Evetts says the work is attributed to an Armenian by the name of Abu Salih, but that is wrong. Abu al-Makarim talks in his book about the places in Egypt visited by the Holy Family; and the first location he mentions is “بيعة جبل الكف على إسم السيدة العذرى الطاهرة مرتمريم”, that is “The church of Jabal al-Kaff, named after the Lady, the Pure Virgin Mary”:
The places which our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory! visited with the Lady, the Pure Virgin, and with the righteous old man, Joseph the carpenter, in Upper Egypt.
The church of Jabal al-Kaff, named after the Lady, the Pure Virgin Mary. This church is hewn out of the mountain-side, and in the rock is the mark of the palm of the hand of the Lord Christ, to whom be glory! which was made when he touched the mountain, when it bowed in adoration before him, after he had gone down thither from Syria. He grasped the mountain, when it worshipped before him, and restored it to its place with his hand; so that the mark of his palm remains impressed upon that mountain to the present day. In the impression of the hand there is a fine perforation, large enough to admit a collyrium-needle, into which the needle is inserted, and, when it is pulled out, brings up a black collyrium which makes an indelible mark.
Above this church there is a church built of stone, and named after the Lady, the Pure Virgin Mary. Festival is kept here on the 21st of Tûbah, which is the day of her death, when a large congregation assembles. This mountain [of Jabal al-Kaff] is opposite to the district called Al-Bihû, [but is] on the eastern side of the river. It is also said to be near the city of Al-Ushmûnain; and it is also called the Jabal at-Tair. On this mountain there are two stone crosses, of a red colour; one of them is a large stone and the other a small stone.
Evetts adds the following notes to explain some of the text, which I will use to add some notes of mine:
- About “Jabal al-Kaff”, he says it is the ‘Mount of the Palm of the Hand,’ and adds, “Our author, at the beginning of fol. 76 a, identifies this mountain with the Jabal at-Tair, which rises opposite to Samallût and Bihû, and to the north of Munyah Bani Khasib.”
- About the Death of the Blessed Virgin, he says it “is commemorated by the Copts on Tûbah 21=Jan. 16, and her Assumption on Misri 16= Aug. 9.” The Copts celebrate the Dormition of the Theotokos on the 21st of Tuba, which corresponds to the 16th of January on the Julian calendar and the 29th of January on the Gregorian calendar. Misri 16 (when Copts celebrate the Assumption of the Holy Virgin Mary), of course, corresponds to the 9th of August on the Julian calendar, but on the Gregorian calendar it falls on the 22nd of August. Abu al-Makarim says that the pilgrimage occurred in January each year at the feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos; but, as we see, he did not visit the area, and his knowledge was second hand – the truth is that the pilgrimage was held, as it is today, in August, at the feast of the Assumption.
- About “Al-Bihû/ البيهوا”, he says, “This village still exists on the west bank, opposite to the Jabal at-Tair, and is included in the district of Kalûsanâ, in the province of Minyah. In 1885 it had a population of 1,252. See Ibn Dukmâk, v. p. 4; Rec, de l’Égypte, ii. p. 73.”
- Commenting on Abu al-Makarim’s statement that Jabal al-Kaff “is also said to be near the city of Al-Ushmûnain”, he observes, “Al-Ushmûnain is in reality about thirty miles to the south of the Jabal at-Tair.”
- About “Jabal at-Tair/ جبل الطير”, Evetts gives the following note: “See Norden’s Plate LXXI, where the ‘Tshibel ell Deiir’ as he spells it, is to be seen at the northernmost point of the Nile, on the eastern bank. On Plate LXXV Norden gives a view of the monastery on the Jabal at-Tair, which is called Dair al-‘Adhrdâ, i.e. ‘Monastery of the Virgin,’ or, more popularly, Dair al-Bakarah, or ‘Monastery of the Pulley.’ The latter name is common to several monasteries, which use a pulley to hoist up both provisions and visitors; and one so named is shown on Jabal Abû Faidâ in Norden’s Plate LXXX, a few miles to the north of Manfalût. The Dair al-‘Adhrâ on Jabal al-Tair seems to be the one described by Curzon in his Monasteries of the Levant, ch. ix (p. 111). (A. J. B.).”
Norden, who Evetts mentions, is of course Frederic Louis Norden, or for short F. L. Norden (1708 – 1742), a Danish naval captain and traveller, who visited Egypt and Sudan in 1737–1738 and wrote an excellent book about his travel, Voyage d’Egypte et de Nubie, which was published in Copenhagen in 1755. His book includes many drawings, which Evetts points to. The New York Public Library (NYPL) has digitalised the drawings of Norden’s book; and from it I reproduce Plate LXXI.
The plate is titled “Vue de Tschibel Ell Deir”, which translates into “View of Tschibel Ell Deir”. I think by “Tschibel Ell Deir”, Norden either meant Gabal al-Tayr (جبل الطير /Mountain of the Birds) or Gabal al-Dair (جبل الدير /Mountain of the Convent). He gives a key to details in the picture, but it is hard to see that. The details are: “a. Couvent Cophte de Notre Dame, b. Village ruiné, c. Escaliers pratiqués dans le rocher, d. Espece d’un aqueduc antique, e. Embouchure d’où on a oté les pierres pour batir, f. Sortie des escaliers, g. Carrieres et grottes.”
The interesting drawing by Norden has been engraved by the engraver Marcus Tuscher (1705 – 1751), and its dimensions on the plate are 27 x 45 cm.
 B.T.A.Evetts, The Churches and Monasteries of Egypt and some neighbouring countries, attributed to Abu Salih the Armenian (Oxford, The Clarendon Press, 1895).
 Ibid.; pp. 217-219. The equivalent Arabic text is to be found on pages ٩٥-٩٧.
 His first name is also written as Frederick, Frederik and Friderick; and his middle name as Ludwig, Ludvig and Lewis.
 Published by the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters.
 An amended Google translation: a. Copt Convent of Our Lady, b. ruined Village, c. Stairs made in the rock, d. Space of an ancient aqueduct, e. Mouth where we removed the stones to build, f. Exit stairs , g. Careers and caves.