THE VIRTOUS MASS SUICIDE OF THE NUNS OF ASYUT IN THE 12TH CENTURY: PART 1
In the Coptic Synaxarium published by Réne Basset (1848-1924), Synaxaire Arabe-Jacobite, we find a very interesting story of a group of forty Coptic nuns from the Mountain of Asyut who in Muslim times preferred to commit mass suicide rather than submit to Muslim soldiers who were intent on capturing and defiling them. The story is commemorated on the 6th of Baramhat, the seventh month in the Coptic calendar. The date corresponds to the 2nd of March in the Julian calendar and the 25th of March in the Gregorian calendar.
The Synaxaire Arabe-Jacobite includes the original Arabic text and a French translation by Basset. I include below both of them.
The Arabic of the original manuscript of the synaxarium is generally very poor, with lots of spelling and grammatical mistakes that often alter the meaning intended or make it incomprehensible altogether. I believe the poor Arabic reflects that of the original authors but the copyists added their usual mistakes to make it even worse. The lingual defects in the above text concerning the nuns of Asyut are an example; and they start from the beginning. For instance, the first line in the Arabic text reads, “اعلموا يا اخوة ان فى مثل هذا اليوم ملكوا الحبش الغريب الديار المصرية”. This is uncritically mirrored in Basset’s translation: “Sachez, mes frères, qu’a pareil jour, les Éthiopiens (El- Ḥahach) s’emparèrent de l’onuest de l’Égypte [ed-diâr el-miṣriyah)”. Even Otto F.E. Meinardus falls for the obvious mistake; and, so, in his Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity, he includes in the calendar of the Coptic Church, under 6 Baramhat, “Occupation of the western part of Egypt by the Ethiopians”. This does not make sense: the Ethiopians have never seized the western part of Egypt since the 25th Dynasty (746 – 653 BC), let alone during the Islamic period when this story occurred. The original text (through a copyist mistake) and its translation, therefore, are historically wrong and have led to the incomprehension of the story of the nuns of Asyut; possibly contributing to readers ignoring the interesting story altogether. The author’s original text must have been, “اعلموا يا اخوة ان فى مثل هذا اليوم ملكوا الجنس الغريب الديار المصرية”, which translates into “Know my brethren that on this day, the foreign race occupied the Egyptian Lands”. This fits in well with the rest of the story and puts sense back into it. I include my own English translation of the full Arabic text below:
Know my brethren that on this day, the foreign race occupied the Egyptian Lands; and they chased the Christians everywhere. There was in the Mount of Asyut a convent where thirty nine virgins and their abbess, forty in total, lived; and they were engaged in many prayers, constant watchfulness, fasting, and prostrations; entreating God for salvation and mercy. And God had given them the gift of healing; and any woman with an illness who visited them was cured through their pure prayers.
And the Ghuzz heard about them and came to the convent. And the virgin nuns were scared, and beseeched God to save them from temptations and misfortunes, saying to Him that the Ghuzz had come to the convent to take them, go to their countries with them, and treat them as slave girls.
And the old abbess said to the virgins: “My children, seek [for yourselves] the salvation of your souls from these unjust and evil people; and see how you could save yourselves [from them].” And there was at that time great wailing because the soldiers had surrounded the convent from all sides, and knocked at the door of the gate with great noise. And a young nun in the convent said to the abbess: “My mistress, listen to what I say to you: lay each one of us on a straw mat, and set the mats on fire, so that we may go to the Lord like pure korban (offering/sacrifice).”
And when the rest of the virgins heard what the girl had to say, they said to the abbess: “Oh, blessed, hurry up with what this blessed sister has said.” And the abbess quickly wound a straw mat around each of the virgins, and prayed: “My Lord, may thou accept this korban; for those people have come from their lands seeking to frustrate the salvation of these virgins. The death [of the nuns] in this manner is better than them being assaulted by those offenders. Oh, Lord, do not hold this sin against me.” She then set them on fire; and their smoke ascended to heaven.
And when the soldiers entered the convent, they found that the fire had consumed all the virgins; and they were wroth with the abbess, and said to her: “No one has done this except you.” The abbess [after she had set the virgins on fire], got to the convent’s keep. The soldiers said to her: “Come down. We shall not do anything to you.” But she threw herself down from the top of the keep to the ground, and gave up her soul into the hands of God, the Lord.
My God have mercy on us through their prayers.
The historical backdrop to the story of the nuns of Asyut, which starts with the “foreign race occup[ying] Egyptian Lands”, is the struggle between the Ayyubids and the Fatimids over Egypt. Egypt was then ruled by the comparatively tolerant Ismaili-Shiite Fatimids (969 – 1171); while Syria, with its capital Damascus, was recently seized by the fanatic Sunni Ayyubids, headed by Nur al-Din Zengi (1146 – 1174), who was intent on occupying Egypt, taking it away from the Fatimids, whom he considered as heretics. Between 1164 and 1169, Nur al-Din dispatched his army to Egypt, in three major campaigns, led by his ablest generals, Shirkuh, and accompanied by his nephew, Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi (the famous Saladin). It was during the second campaign, in 1167, that the story of the nuns of Asyut occurred. During that campaign the Ayyubid army, or a large chunk of it, marched into Upper Egypt, pillaging cities and villages on both banks of the Nile; and killing and enslaving, as the story says, “chasing the Christians everywhere”. The brutality of the Ayyubids during these years and the first few years of their rule in Egypt (they were practically in control of Egypt from 1169, when Shirkuh became vizier to the last Fatimid Caliph, al-‘Aḍid [1149 – 1171]) is well documented in Coptic sources  Most of the Ayyubid army was composed of Kurds. In Coptic sources of the period, the Kurds are called Ghuzz (غُزْ) – a word derived from the Oguz, which was a Turkish tribe originally from Central Asia. The Coptic convent in the Mount of Asyut that is mentioned in the story was attacked by these Ghuzz.
Asyut (Lycopolis during the Ptolemaic-Roman-Byzantine period) was, and still is, though to a lesser degree, a large Coptic centre. It lies some 320 km (200 miles) south of Cairo, on the western bank of the Nile. Mount Asyut is located 10 km to the west of Asyut. In the past, it was awash with monasteries and convents, since it was considered a holy place. Today, only one monastery remains in it, that of the Virgin Mary (also called Monastery of Dronka after the adjacent village); and it houses both monks and nuns. It has a cave chapel that dates from the first century; and is believed to have been the resting place of the Holy Family before it took the boat on its way back to Nazareth in Palestine, after it had remained in Egypt for three and a half years to escape the threat of Herod the Great. It is conceivable that the convent in the story, where the forty nuns sacrificed their bodies, was the same as today’s Monastery of Dronka.
 Synaxaire Arabe-Jacobite was published, in Paris, in five volumes of Patrologia Orientalis (PO), from 1907 to 1923: tomes I, III, XI, XVI, and XVII, and covered the 13 Coptic months. In 1999, the late Anba Samuel, bishop of Shabin al-Qanatir (r. 1992 – 2003), published the Arabic text as it appeared in Basset’s publication in P.O. under the title السنكسار القبطى اليعقوبى لرينيه باسيه in three volumes; and he included the story of the nuns of Asyut under ٦ برمهات. Samuel’s publication, although it is sold at ecclesiastical outlets, is, however, not regarded as an official Church copy.
 Synaxaire Arabe-Jacobite, ed. Réne Basset. P.O., Tome XVI (Paris, 1922), pp. 206-207 [848-849].
 Ibid, p. 206 .
 Otto F. A. Meinardus, Two Thousand Years of Coptic Christianity (Cairo, AUP, 2002), p. 298
 I could not find any existing English translation of the story.
 The original says, “ليتزوجوهم” (to marry them). This, in my opinion, reflects the writer/s poor Arabic rather than anything. It is clear from the text that the nuns knew that the intention of the Ghuzz was not marriage. I believe the Arabic should have read, “ليتخذوهن سرايا”; that is, to be taken saraya (‘saraya’ is plural of sariya, which is a woman captured in war, enslaved and used for service and sex.
 Keep or qasr (castle) is a fortress-like building that was used by monks and nuns when they were attacked by Berbers, Arabs, etc., to protect them. In it was kept sufficient supply of food and water. Keeps have drawbridges that connect the keep to the roof of a church or other buildings; and once the ascetics cross the drawbridge to the safety of the keep, it is lifted up or drawn.
 Steven Runciman, A History of the Crusades, 2 Kingdom of Jerusalem, pp. 362-400.
 One can review the History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church attributed to Severus of Ashmunein; and The churches and monasteries of Egypt and some neighbouring countries Abu al-Makarim (wrongly attributed to Abu Salih al-Armani); translated by B. T. A. Evetts.