September 17, 2013

Christian Structures at Luxor

Christian Structures at Luxor
Literally thousands of anchorites lived in the ancient tombs at Luxor, especially the nobles’ tombs on the hillside of Sheikh el Kurna. Some, however, occupied tombs in the Valley of the Kings.

Christian Structures at Luxor
The tomb of Ramses IV (No. 2) was occupied by early Christians, who inscribed Coptic graffiti on the walls.

During the fourth century hermitages spread, and Luxor became famous for its monastic settlements. Thus, there was a mixture of solitaries on the one hand, and Pachomian-type cenobitic communities on the other.

Many of the great temples were converted into monastic centres. Around the Mortuary Temple of Ramses III at Medinet Habu, a large Christian community flourished. Some lived inside the ancient temple where the second court was converted into a church. The remains of this church were only cleared in 1895. A library was found at Medinet Habu with records written on papyrus and pottery sherds (ostraka).

The Graeco-Roman Temple of Deir el Medina (page 167) owes its name to the Christian monastery into which it was converted; some of the inscriptions in this nearly perfectly preserved temple were mutilated by the early Christians. The Festival Temple of Thutmose III at Karnak(page 68) was also converted into a church, as well as the Court of Amenhotep III in the Luxor temple.

In some temples we owe the preservation of the ancient reliefs to the early Christians; they covered the ‘heathen’ reliefs with plaster and thus protected them.

The Monastery of St Simeon at Aswan This is one of the largest and most well preserved of the monasteries; it is dedicated to a local saint who lived there in the fifth century. It is built on a hill in the western desert about one and half kilometres from the southern tip of Elephantine.

Christian Structures at Luxor
Of its origins we know little, though it is believed to date from very early times. The present construction dates from the seventh century. There is evidence of restoration in the tenth century, and the monastery was abandoned in the thirteenth century; the reason may have been lack of water or constant attack from roving bands of nomads.

The surrounding wall is over six metres high; the upper part is sun-dried brick and the lower is rough hewn stone sunk in the rock. At intervals along the enclosure wall there are towers. These have raised the possibility that the monks may have chosen a deserted and ruined Roman fortress in which to construct their monastery.

The low face of the cliff divides the monastery into an upper and a lower level from north to south. The entrance to the east leads to the lower level, which comprises a vaulted central corridor; on the eastern wall is a painting of Christ enthroned with the archangel Michael and six apostles by His side. The small chambers on each side contained from six to eight beds for the monks. The upper level, approached by a staircase in the southern angle, is similarly arranged; monks lived in cells opening out on each side of the corridor. Below the main building are some rock-hewn cells and a rock-chapel that is painted with saints.

Christian Structures at Luxor
At the northern end of the upper level is the main building, which itself is double-storied. The church lies to the south-east, between the building itself and the outer wall. The roof was originally a series of domes supported by square pillars. The domed apse at the east has a well-preserved painting of enthroned Christ, His hand raised in benediction. He is flanked by angels, two on each side. The two main angels have wings, long hair and splendid robes. On either side of the recesses are seven seated figures. Around the walls are paintings of Saints Michael, George and the archangel Gabriel with the Twelve Apostles. A cave leading off the north-west corner of the chapel is believed to have been the dwelling place of the patron saint. It has painted walls and decorative ceiling.

The northern wall of the upper level of the monastery is actually built over the enclosure wall. The windows look out over the steep cliff. The desert slopes towards the Nile valley. This is one of the most picturesque of Egypt’s desert scenes and gives a sense of the mystic appeal of the desolate wilderness.


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