From beyond a high ancient wall, which initially appears to belong to a Pharaonic temple or Roman fortress, the voices of deacons ring out in the early hours of Sunday — Coptic prayers in Upper Egypt accents. The deacons hit their duffs and the sound echoes inside a large open stone nave, a wide central passageway lined by decaying stone pillars. Worshipers enter from a small wooden door bearing ancient inscriptions in the middle of the huge wall, joining the monks’ prayer in the church of Anba Bishai and Anba Bigol, known as the Red Monastery.
On the outskirts of the small village of Naga Ed Deir, about 11 kilometers west of Sohag in Upper Egypt, the Red Monastery lies along an unpaved road called Barryet Adreba, its existence made known by a hand-written banner with the drawing of an arrow, installed in a small cafe at the corner of the monastery. “We wrote that sign and asked the cafe to hang it there,” says Monk Shenouda.
US art historian Elizabeth Bolman spent 15 years, starting in 2000, working on the restoration of the church’s sanctuary. “I saw the monastery for the first time at the end of 1990,” she says. “From my experience as a historian of Byzantine monuments and architecture, I realized then that I was living an unusual moment. There is no church in the world like this one in its unique condition — for a church to survive intact since the very first ages of the Byzantine world is a miracle.”
Since 2000, US$30 million has been spent on restoring the Red Monastery through a collaboration between American Research Center, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and Italy’s Roma Tre University. Work is expected to continue until 2020. The Red Monastery is important because it is one of only three monuments left of Byzantine architecture in the world, alongside the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy and Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey, which was turned into an Ottoman mosque and then a museum in 1935.
Even though the monastery is not listed among Egypt’s tourist sites, it is world famous. In 2016 alone it was visited by various ambassadors, including those of the United States, Britain and the Vatican, and it is frequented by tourists interested in religious heritage sites.
Escape and monasticism
Christians started taking refuge in the desert in the late 3rd century, sometimes running away from poverty or oppression, other times seeking isolation and places to worship. They went to the heart of the desert, or atop mountains, to be as far as possible from populated areas. The Red Monastery was constructed in the 4th century, during the beginning of this period of Christian monasticism, in an empty, dry desert — which is largely why it still stands.
“Along with the dry weather, one reason for the survival of the church — especially its triconch sanctuary — throughout this duration is that a lot of mud accumulated in the sanctuary’s arches, giving support to cracks in the walls and providing natural protection to the paintings behind them for hundreds of years,” says Bolman.
Despite neighboring modern buildings that undermine the monastery’s monumental character, the eye cannot miss it. The small wooden door stands on a stone base that’s covered with inscriptions, which clearly show that it’s made of stones taken from ancient Egyptian temples. It opens onto the middle of the church, where the sanctuary dominates the space.
This triconch sanctuary is another reason why the church is so important. It is a large dome consisting of three contiguous arches that form a circle, supported by circular columns carved in stone, in true Byzantine style. “I wasn’t disappointed by the dark shadows on the paintings because I’d previously worked with a marvelous team of Italian restorers on the Monastery of Saint Anthony [in the Red Sea mountains] and was familiar with their capabilities. Of the 15 years we spent working on the sanctuary, 10 were spent only on restoring the paintings,” said Bolman, whose mission focused exclusively on restoring the triconch sanctuary.
The ancient church was built in the style of huge temples, with a sanctuary and a large stone nave with a wooden or plaster roof. Both were surrounded in 1910 by an internal fence to protect the sanctuary, turning it into a small church, which is clear when you notice that there is no place for worshipers outside the deacons’ choir. The church has a mix of ancient Egyptian, Roman and Coptic styles, and its walls are built from layers of stone and wood: every two layers of stone are separated by a layer of large tree trunks to lessen the danger of collapse in an earthquake.
Can the monastery survive?
The monastery consists of a group of old buildings: the church of Anba Bishai and Anba Bigol, built with red granite like ancient Egyptian temples — hence the name — as well as the citadel or castle, which is said to have been the monks’ hideout during raids and includes a groundwater well. The newer buildings include a bigger church, large enough for the monks’ cloisters and more worshipers, and other service buildings.
With the restoration of the east side and the triconch sanctuary of the church completed in 2015, the new project of restoring the citadel and the church’s outer nave began under the supervision of the American Research Center in Egypt and headed by architect Nicholas Warner. He tells Mada Masr that they don’t have much money to finish the current project, and are waiting to acquire new funding.
Stone corinthian capitals and decaying columns are distributed along one side of the nave, next to a well covered with a metal mesh. Mahmoud al-Tayb, supervisor of citadel restoration works, says his team plugged the well with natural materials like lime and sand to prevent sewage leaking under the monastery’s floor, because monks used the well for drainage.
Indeed, it seems that although the Red Monastery has withstood centuries of natural, political and social change, it may not survive for much longer. This is because of sewage spreading under it, due to urban expansion around it without a sewer system and residents depending on the old mechanism of ditches, making the earth beneath the monastery unstable.
“I’m not sure at all about the church’s ability to survive the current century,” says Bolman with dismay, “with the rise of the groundwater level due to intensive agricultural activity and urbanization in its surroundings. This water will destabilize the walls, and sadly it also attracts termites, which we did all we could to fight, but unfortunately failed.”
A monument or a house of worship?
Mass is served from time to time. “The church is closed most of the time,” says monk Shenouda. “When visitors come we open it — I’m responsible for that. We don’t pray much inside, but of course we have it because it’s a house of God. No matter how important it is, a church is a place of prayer, or else it has no value.”
Bolman begs to differ: “The monks must use the church as little as possible. Personally, I think the monastery should only use the church for important celebrations like Christmas and Easter, and open it for public visits the rest of the rest of the year, which is an opinion I’ve strongly expressed. But I know they want to use the church more, even though there are other churches in the monastery.”
Candles and incense are used during Coptic services, which tend to leave organic residues deposited on the walls and may affect the survival of wall paintings.
“We did all we could to safeguard the ancient church, including windows protecting against ultraviolet rays, fans to blow the incense outside, a new electricity network and blocks to support the walls,” says Bolman. “The monks should not install any air conditioners inside the church, because changes in temperature and humidity could quickly destroy all the paintings.”
Jesus the baby, the young man with a moustache
The triconch sanctuary combines several artistic styles, between painting and carving, saint icons and plant motifs, and marvelous drawings of peacocks and deer, which cover 80 percent of the church’s walls.
The Red Monastery hosts a very rare icon of Jesus as young, clean-shaven and with a thick, black moustache. Monk Shenouda has a theological interpretation for the painting: Christ’s church will always stay youthful and strong like the Lord Jesus.
The image of the Virgin Mary breastfeeding Jesus covers one arch. It is a unique and unusual image, showing the human side of Christ’s life on earth.
Christians believe that the divinity of Christ was inseparable from his humanity since birth, and this image of breastfeeding reflects a period of the life of the incarnated God on earth — a child resting on his mother’s chest on one side, and ruler of the universe on the other.
The colors look as bright as if they were painted yesterday; green and red contrast atop the capitals bearing the sanctuary roof, while the ankh is carved on column bases.
Some paintings are deformed, as overlapping details show that these walls were painted with different images more than four times, layer upon layer, between the fifth and sixth centuries. “When the heads of the monastery changed in successive eras, each would decide to change the general style of the walls to change the topics of the paintings, which were to express the new ideas of every different period according to the vision and interpretation of the new head monk,” says Bolman.
“The final part of the project was a high-quality digital laser scan of the church, so that if anything happens we can restore it to its original state,” she adds.
Pharaonic land, Christian sanctuary, Muslim workers
Close to the Red Monastery is the Abydos temple, one of Egypt’s most important temples. Some archaeologists believe Abydos was once a city and an ancient capital. The temple receives many visitors, as the wilds of Sohag west of the Nile, with its divers religious monuments, paints a picture of very tolerant Egypt that always accepted different civilizations and religions, each leaving monuments to tell what happened on this land.
In 2012, the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (ISESCO) designated the Red Monastery an Islamic World Heritage Site, making it the first Egyptian monument on the list, side by side with the city of Jerusalem.
“What’s great about the Red Monastery project is that it is a humane project based in international cooperation between specialists, scientists and the Ministry of Antiquities, in addition to the monastic community,” says Bolman. “And everyone did their job with enthusiasm.”
The restoration project, still continuing until today, includes workers of multiple nationalities — Egyptians, Americans, French, Italians, British and more — united for one goal: saving a heritage that is more human than religious.
“Our brothers who are helping in restoring the monastery are mostly Muslim, and we trust them, depend on them and are indebted to them,” says monk Shenouda. “Even the visitors, many times they are Muslim friends, acquaintances and neighbors of the monastery who come because of what they’ve heard from friends.”
“We love the monks and we love working with them,” says Mahmoud al-Tayb. “The monastery is our second home. We spend more time here than back in our houses.”
Translated by Ahmed Bakr. All photos by Roger Anis.