Baramous Monastery – Historically – Archaeologically And Artistically – A Thesis by Dr. Pola Saverus

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Historically, Archaeologically, And Artistically.

A Thesis presented to:

The Institute of the Coptic Studies.

Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate.

Anba Riwesse, Abassya,.

to receive.

Master Degree of Archaeology.


Fr. Paula Al - Baramousy.

(paula Sawires).

under the supervision of.

Pr. Hishmat Messiha.


+ A revised version, printed in 1995.


Historically, Archaeology, And Artistically.

This essay deals mainly with the history of the archaeology and art of Baramous monastery, since the foundation of the first monastic community in the north eastern part of Wadi Al - Natroun, in the second half of the fourth century, by St. Makarious the Great, up to nowadays.

Therefore, this essay is divided into: (A) An introduction (B) Four main sections (C) An Epilogue. In addition to a preface and illustrations (figures & plates).

In the preface, the researcher gives, first, brief definitions of the monastic terms, which are used in the thesis. He also points out the main sources of the monastic writings, upon which he has depended during his research. He discussed first their authenticity on both historical and topical levels. Also, he refers to the different methods that he has applied.

In the introduction, he examines the main sources of the Egyptian monasticism, showing who and how it has been founded; which kind of monastic life had been adopted in the fourth century, by those monastic communities in Scete (i. e. , Wadi Al - Natroun at present) , and whether that kind still until now. He concluded that the monasteries of Wadi Al - Natroun (i. e. , Valley of Natroun) had adopted first the Rule of what is so - called “idiorhythmism”, which is well illustrated in the “Apophthegmata Patrum”. But, later on, after the ninth century A. D. , they started to follow the Pachomian Rule known as “Ceonobitism”.

Meanwhile the researcher rejects completely the opinion that advocates a foreign influence upon the Coptic Monasticism. He is greatly surprised that a scholar such as Dieter Aherns wrote recently in the Bulletin of “the Society for Coptic Archaeology” (1984, pp. 9 - 18) , claiming the influence of Buddhists upon the Coptic pioneers of monasticism. He said that “The Egyptian monks developed their thoughts”, by getting in touch with the Buddhists from time to time, so that they had “exchanged ideas about the best means of expressing deep inward concentration”!!. He wrote this, while Evelyn White had completely denied, in 1932, any influence of foreign ascetic elements or trends upon the Egyptian monks.

In addition to a geographical study of the district of Wadi Al - Natroun ( = Valley of Natroun): its products, animals, and plants, the researcher studies critically the different names that given to this district through the various historical periods: Pharaonic, Greek - Roman, Coptic, Arabic and Modern age. Also he discusses the different contributions made by some scholars, which identify the present site of this Valley with the Hieroglyphic name that mentioned in some Pharaonic texts, such as the famous group of papyrus known as “Complaints of the Peasant” and other texts.

The researcher analysed the different shapes of the names that claimed to be the title of this district, which mentioned in those texts, depending upon their meanings in the Hieroglyphic and Coptic tongues. Thus, he refutes the view of identifying the present location of Wadi Al - Natroun with the site of the suggested name that given by Dr. Ahmad Fakhry ([1]).

In the First Section, the researcher deals with the history of Baramous Monastery. He confirms what Sarapion ([2]) had mentioned in the biography of St. Makarious the Great, that the recent monastery of Baramous is in the site of the original monastic settlement, which had been founded by St. Makarious the Great in Desert of Scetis, in the first half of the fourth century.

As Baramous monastery is but the earliest monastic community in Wadi Al - Natroun, so its establishing should be extremely early. This is well shown in many “sayings”, cited in the “Apophthegmata Patrum”, which confirm that a certain community had gathered around St. Makarious the Great, in Scetis before he was ordained as a priest, i. e. , before 340 A. D. So, one can safely say that in, or around, 356 A. D. , a church, monks’cells and common buildings of a well - established monastic community were already existent at the place of the present site of Baramous Monastery.

In other words, the “Lavra” of Baramous had taken its final monastic shape in or around that date.

No doubt that the history of Baramous community correlated with the history of the Valley in general. So, it suffered from the continuous raids of the Barbarians (or Berbers) and Arab Bedouins, who invaded the wilderness of Scetis many times. Therefore many, if not all of the monastic buildings were wrecked and devastated. Some monks were slaughtered, such as St. Moses the Black, from Baramous Monastery, around 407 A. D. , during the first Berber’s raid. During the second raid, some were taken away as captives; others like St. Arsenious of Baramous community had abandoned the Scetis quietly.

Finally, after the sixth raid in 866 A. D. , the shape of the monastic community in Wadi Al - Natroun changed completely from the type of “Lavra” into the type of “inclosure monastery”, i. e. , the present well - known shape of the Coptic monasteries.

As a result, the pattern of the monastic life had also changed into Cenobitism, i. e. , the life of a communion within a high walled monastery.

The researcher refers also to Sts. Maximous and Domadious, the two “Strangers” mentioned in the “life of St. Makariuos” ([3]) , whose ”Roman” nationality had influenced on the name of the recent monastery. For the word “Baramous” is a Greek - Coptic word, means literally “of the Romans”, i. e. , the place at which the ”two Romans”, Maximous and Domadious had lived.

After he examined the different views of interpreting this name, contributed by some scholars, the researcher presents his own view in this regard. He professes that the “two little strangers” were really historical characters, but at the same time there is no necessity to relate them to “a certain Roman Emperor”.

In other words, he denies the royal element in the story of these two saints, and regards the title, at the same time, as a reference to all the Roman Fathers who dwelt some time at the site of the present monastery named “Baramous”. Such as Maximous, Domadious, Aresnious,... etc.

The researcher also exposes the life of St. Moses the Black and his monastery, which was devastated in the second half of the fifteenth century.

In this regard, he presents a contribution for solving the problem that Evelyn White had raised concerning the “Caves of St. Moses” and their remote location. He asserts that one of them was really far enough to be a matter of a threat by Bessus, the Father of the monastery of St. John Kame, in the eleventh century A. D. , who said that he would go to stay there if anyone had disturbed him in his seclusion. He discussed in detail the arguments of Evelyn White, then he has shown where these caves were.

Further, the researcher refutes the view of Vansleben, concerning Pope Matthaeus (101) that he was a monk, graduated at Baramous monastery. He shows that this note was but a fault by a certain scribe and has no valid proof.

He discussed also the view of Cauwenbergh concerning the Pope who at his time, the manuscript of the two saints Maximous and Domadious had been carried to the Guesthouse of Alexandria. He gave his own view in this regard.

Baramous Monastery had passed, throughout the different ages, by many turning points. At one time, it was, at least, one of the leading monasteries of Wadi Al - Natroun, if not the most eminent. At another time, had only one blind monk. Nowadays, it has grown in number once more, and has about sixty monks that most of them are highly educated.

In the second section, the researcher presents first a general introduction about the Coptic architecture, showing the main differences between the various types of Church buildings in general, pointing out the distinctiveness of the Coptic one. He refuses the use of titles such as “Byzantine” and “Basilic” as such to describe the Coptic ecclesiastical masonry; preferring to use instead of them titles like “Long” and “Short”. Whereas there are many significant differences between what is meant by those western terms and the nature of Coptic Masonry.

He also discusses whether the Coptic Church has been influenced by the type of Pharaonic temple or not, and concludes that the resemblance between the two is more apparent than real. Further, he discusses the effect of the eastern type, especially the Syrian, upon the Coptic architecture, analysing the different reviews presented by the writers in this regard,.

On archaeological level, the researcher points out the wrong terms, which used by sone writers in the field of monastic buildings as “an arrow’s loophole” to describe the holes which in the parapet of the high walls, of the Coptic monasteries; or resembling the windows of the monastic fortress with that of the Islamic architecture, which are so - called “loophole windows”. Whereas there are deep differences between the “Fortress” in the monastic conception and the “castle” in the Islamic military buildings.

The researcher points out the danger of interpreting a succeeding phenomenon with the terms of a previous one; or the opposite.

Starting from the archaeological monumental “throne” ( = pulpit) that was discovered in the monastery of Abba Jermia at Sakkara (Giza, Egypt) dated from the sixth century , the researcher proves the complete absence of the “Higab” (i. e. , the Screen) in the original Coptic type of Church building, especially in the monastic buildings, as it is well - noted in the lights of many sayings cited in the “Apophthegamata Patrum”. He provides many arguments that confirm his view.

Therefore he appeals in his epilogue, to whosoever cares, especially abroad, to return to the original type of Coptic Masonry.

In this respect he explained what is meant by the statement, mentioned in the biography of Pope Gabriel Ibn Toreik, which indicates that he was the first one who raised a wooden screen in the Coptic churches. This means according to the researcher, that the Pope, only professed what had been already prevailing.

In this architectural introduction, the researcher shows the danger to deduce a general theory concerning the Coptic masonry from just few monuments, especially in the field of the monastic buildings, because there are many external factors that had ruled the Coptic Architects.

He then deals with the architectural components of Baramous’buildings in detail. He Discusses their formation and development throughout the various historical epochs, especially from the last phase of the architectural shape of the monastery, in general, in or around the end of the ninth century up to now. Shows the changes that have taken place along these periods.

Also, in this section, after discussing some architectural points in the plan annexed to Evelyn White’s work dated 1911, he presents, for the first time, a new plan for the monastery in 1991, and a ground plan for the first and second floors of the fortress of Baramous Monastery. Further, he provides a vertical section of the western side of St. Mary’s church, after the restoration of 1986.

The researcher points in this section to an important architectural feature discovered during that restoration. This feature is remains of a returned vault, half - barrel extends from the north to the south, in the western part of St. Mary’s church over the dome of sanctuary of St. George’s Church. It proves at the same time an imaginary presented by Dr. Grossmann regarding the shape of the monumental church of Baramous in the seventh century A. D.

Also, traces of doors have been discovered at the western and northern ides of St. Mary church. A fact that disproves the view of C. Walters, and dispels his hesitation to admit that this church had, at one time, three doors.

The researcher himself discovered certain graffiti, having Coptic and Armenian dates on one of the pillars of St. Mary’s church, which dates back to the 17th century.

After discussing the date of St. George chapel suggested by Evelyn White, the researcher presents another view. He also points to a certain architectural feature discovered above the roof of the monumental church in 1986, which is a “hidden room” between the walls of that church, and contributes in interpreting it.

Further, he has shown the differences between the type of church St. John the Baptist, which is built in 1883 A. D. , and the so - called Byzantine type, showing how difficult it is, on the architectural basis, to consider this church as such.

In the third section, the researcher presents first an artistical introduction regarding the Christian Art in general, and the Coptic Art in particular. He has shown the deep differences between the “picture” as a general ”tableau” and the “Icon” as an ecclesiastical picture according to the proper Christian conception for the word “icon”. He pointed out the fundamental conditions that are necessary for the picture to be an Icon, i. e. , to be a canonical church picture.

In this regard the researcher has appealed, in his epilogue, to all those responsibles, and to the Christian artists to have not respect of persons, in putting wrong pictures in the churches, such as mentioned in detail in this essay.

The researcher then proceeds to deal with the Coptic Art in detail: Its rise and growth, rules, characters, traits, features, subjects and styles, technique,.. Etc. He discussed the different periodization suggested for the Coptic Art by some scholars, and referred to the one that he adopts. He pointed to the recent renaissance in the Coptic Painting, after the phase of declination, mentioned by Alfred Butler.

The researcher has studied the question of Iconoclasm: Doctrinally, biblically, spiritually, historically and its relation to the Coptic Church, as well as the doctrinal attitude of the Orthodox Copts toward this movement.

He concludes that the Coptic Church has never known any internal iconoclasm. Neverthe - less, she suffered from such movement externally, at some Arabic Periods, especially at the time of the Calipha Yazid ibn Abd Al - Malek who destroyed the pictures all over his countries.

The researcher refutes completely, depending upon certain arguments, the view mentioned by A. Butler that the Pope Keryllos IV burned publicly the Icons!!. He shows the malicious source from which Butler had quoted his paragraph without mentioning to that reference. He expresses his deep regret that some foreign writers, even some Copts, quoted that paragraph from Butler’s work without a least examination.

The researcher then deals in full detail with the artistical antiquities (parameters) in Baramous monastery: Secco Paintings, icons, stucco - grills decorations and wooden work.

Concerning the Secco paintings, he declares how the monastery discovered them during the restoration of the monumental church in 1986. How the French Institute for Archaeology in Cairo came later to restore only those wall - paintngs. Unfortunately, the French restorer of the wall paintings, spoiled some architectural monuments, changing his task during the work from chemical restoration to “excavation” without having an expert architect in this field, as we know about the great work of the same French Institute in Kellia for example. Therefore, the “Cornice” that was still above the central apse of the main sanctuary, has ben destroyed without any reasonable reason, except that there was a painting under it, a matter which was actually disproved. The restorer refused to return it to its place. Also, he broke one of the consecration’ crosses, which were mentioned by the great archaeologist Evelyn White as very valuable monuments in St. Mary church, claiming that that cross has no monumental value and being of recent date “juste two or three hundred years only”!! , and refused also to repair it or to re - put it in its place. ([4]).

On the contrary of these “negatives” of the French restorer, the researcher states his much appreciation to Mr. Laferriere, the French painter for his great effort in copying the wall - paintings of Baramous monastery. Also Mr. Hanz, the art historian whose efforts and artistical observances are greatly appreciated.

The researcher has exposed in detail the different figures depicted on the walls of the Main Sanctuary, the Southern one, the nave, and the pillar of the monumental church St. Mary the Virgin. He gives full description of them, showing the style and technique used in painting them. Presents a study concerning the rules that governed the Coptic Artist of Baramous monastery, in painting his scenes and figures. Also, discusses the general outlines that ruled the arrangement of these scenes, and their relation to the Coptic doctrines and rites, showing that Baramous artist had a deep knowledge of his Bible, the Coptic Tradition, doctrines and rites, and the patrological sayings.

The researcher suggests the eleventh to the thirteenth century as a date of these wall - paintings. This is based on his comparative studies of the style and subjects of the parallel scenes in the monastic buildings, and on his studies in art history in general, and of the Coptic art in particular, and his own induction.

He also points to some old icons, which Ibrahim Al - Nasekh had painted it and existent nowadays in Baramous monastery. They date from the eighteenth century A. D. Most of these icons are worn - out now.

The researcher sees that this painter was a member of a scribing family lived in “Haret Al - Roum” at “Misr Al - Qadimah” in Cairo. He was a scribe, manuscripts’restorer, and a painter.

Also, he points to the decoration of stucco grills, and some wooden works that existed in the churches of the monastery.

In the Fourth Section, the researcher points briefly to the “lives” of the main Saints of the monastery: Maximous & Domadious, Moses the Black, Isidore the priest of Scete, Arsenious the Tutor (or, the preceptor) of the sons of the emperor, and Paphnotious. He also refers to the other famous men who had graduated at this monastery, throughout its historical epochs whether they were patriarchs for Alexandria See of St. Markous, or bishops, or chiefs, or scribes, or hermits, or anchorites, or authors, or preachers in Africa,.. Etc.

Finally, the researcher in his epilogue, points out that the cry of Evelyn white, which he shouted at the end of his third volume, in 1932 A. D. , to preserve the remaining monuments, has found no response. Baramous monastery, for instant, has witnessed in the second half of this century, especially since 1975, many changes that exceed all what had taken place along all the previous periods since the ninth century till now.

Therefore, he appeals to all whoever care, to pay much attention to the monastic monuments, and to let some monks study the scientific methods of restoration in the various fields.

He recommends that all required repairs for the monuments should be done by specialists and well - qualified architect and archaeologist. For, as Evelyn White had said quite correctly, the damage likely to be done by an architect (or a restorer in general) having no real archaeological knowledge would far surpass the harm done through the lacks of technical architectural knowledge by a mere archaeologist. This is has been often proved, as we have just seen in the act of the French restorer in Baramous monastery.

The researcher recommends committing these repairs to the specialists either in the Egyptian Organization of Archaeology, or to the section of Archaeology in the Institute of Coptic Studies, at Anba Riwesse, Abassyia, Cairo, Egypt.

Also, he recommends all the responsible for correcting the deviation of some “pictures” from the Coptic Rules, either in their subjects, or regarding the place in which they are placed in the church, such as drawing any saint alone in the eastern apses of the sanctuaries, which is dedicated, according to the Coptic Title “Bosom of the Father”, mainly and only to the depiction of our Lord Jesus Christ, as well - shown in the old wall - paintings of the Coptic churches.

He refuses also depicting St. Mary as treading a snake or a serpent, a matter that greatly contradicts the Orthodox conception concerning salvation; and depicting the Divine Infant barely as in the “tableau” of the Flemish artist Hanz Memmling, which contradicts completely with the Coptic taste of art as well as the Coptic Tradition itself.

+ + +.

The original essay in Arabic, contains 478 pages (A4, 8. 27 "x 11. 69") , and nearly 100 pages appendices for plates, figures, maps and plans.

Here are the contents, in detail:

Preface: Motives of the theme. Summary of the essay. List of monastic terms and their definitions. The main sources of the essay.

Introduction: A general idea about the Coptic monasticism: its sources & systems. Wadi Al - Natroun: geographically, economically, and its names throughout ages.

Section I: The monastic history of Baramous lavra.

Ch. 1: St. Makarious the founder of the first lavra.

Ch. 2: Baramous lavra during the Roman period.

Its foundation, date of it, its completion. The two strangers. Name of the lavra between the history & story. Unacceptable names. Baramous and hersis. Raids of Berber.

Ch. 3: Baramous during the Byzantine period.

Grant of Zeno. Scetis & Giants. Theotokos churches. A relative prosperous. Fourth raid. Keros & Scetis.

Ch. 4: Baramous during the Arabic periods.

Sources of research. Monks and tributes, taxes. The financial state of the monasteries. Scetis and raids. Rise of walled monasteries. Baramous and high walls. Baramous and relic. Baramous through the eyes of travelers.

Ch. 5: The Ottoman period.

Facilities of the Ottoman Empire to the foreigners and its effect on Copts. Prestige of Baramous. Pope Matthaeus (110) and Baramous. The monastery according to the narrations of the foreigners. Baramous and Mohalm Ibrahim Al - Gohary. Baramous and relics.

Ch. 6: The Modern period.

Internal state of the monastery. Popes graduated at it. Travelers of this period. Reconstructions and new projects. Library of the monastery and number of the monks.

Section 2: The Archaeological history of Baramous monastery.

Ch. 1: General introduction to the Coptic architecture and the factors that ruled and rule it.

Ch. 2: Architectural development of the shape of the monasteries of Wadi Al - Natroun.

Ch. 3: Architectural components of the monastery.

High walls,entrances,fortress, belfries, churches, cells, refectory, cemetery, other buildings.

Ch. 4: Architectural components of Baramous in detail.

Section 3: The Artistical history of Baramous.

Ch. 1: a general introduction to the Christian Art.

What is it? Factors that affect it. Style and elements. Traits.

Ch. 2: Iconography.

Doctrinally, biblically, artistically, spiritually and patrologically. Iconoclasm: did Coptic church know it?. Adoration to,or reverence for, icons?. Rules & Sources of Christian depicting.

Ch3: Coptic Art.

Definitions. Its rise & growth. The revived fragments. Question of effect & affect. Figures of Coptic art. Manners of Coptic artists. Kinds of depicting.

Ch. 4: The artistical monuments in Baramous monastery.

+ Wall - paintings: Its discovering, recording them artistically. Its subjects, arrangements, styles, technique. Its suggested date by the researcher.

+ Old icons at Baramous. Icons of the church of St. John the Baptist.

+ Stucco grills decorations. Wooden works.

Section 4: Saints and Famous men of Baramous.

Ch1: Saints: Moses the Black, Isidore, Maximous & Domadious,Arsenious, and Paphnotious.

Ch2: Famous men: Popes, bishops, chiefs, scribes, hermits, anchorites, authors, preachers... etc.


Illustrations: Maps. Figures. Plates. Sections and plans.

Pl. 1.

Illustration in the apse of the main sanctuary.


The upper part of the plate above.

The lower register of the illustration in the Apse of the main sancutary.

Visitation of St. Mary to Elizabeth.

Archangel Michael on a pillar in the nave of St. Mary church.


Two Saints.

The entrance of the monumental church of Baramous monastery.

The reliquary of St. Moses the Black and St. Isidorous.

[1] 1 - In his article in A. D. S. D. A. , XL, 839 - 848.

[2] 2 - In his manuscript entitled as “Life of St. Makarious”.

[3] 3 - Written by his biographer Sarabion.

[4] 1 - Few years later, the monastery repaired it and reput in its very space.