The Monastery Of theHoly Virgin Mary “El- Sourian”
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. One God...Amen
The Virgin St. Mary Monastery "El-Sourian" in Egypt Esckeet (Valley) is considered one of Theotokos (The Lord Mother) had been established after Ephesians synod in 431 A.D. for the reason to confirm the dogmas of Theotokos (The Lord Mother) which the orthodox believe in it against Nastour's fake statement.
El-Sourian title given to this monastery because some Syrian monks had been come from Syria to live in this area for a period of time, some of them lived alone. After word, some Egyptian monks joined them to live together. Year after others, The Egyptian monks took over the whole area but it kept the name of El-Sourian as is to witness their living around.
As a matter of fact, Antioch Syrian and Alexandria Egyptian Churches are two sister churches in their Orthodox Believe, Dogmas and Ideology.
In El-Sourian Monastery, there are a quite big number of ancient valuable tradition sculptures, like St. Mary church (El-Sourian), The Door of Symbols, the keep, St. Bishoy's Laura, St. Ephraim Tree.
Since Sept. 1994 till now a group of scholars & conservatories from Holland are doing researches seeking to discover the old frescoes on the domes and paintings on the walls. They already discover many valuable icons and historical paintings in the first choir of St. Mary Church (El-Sorian) which are reflected through this book companied with photos.
We present this book for the foreign visitors to the monastery, hoping to maximize its benefits to every one reads and bless them, asking that in the name of God and in the intersession of St. Mary and Anba Yehnis Kamé ( The Monastery Saint) and in the prayers of our Patriarch Pope Shenouda the Third.
May the Grace of God be with us all? Amen
Bishop Metaous (The Monastery Abbot )
Christian Monasticism was founded towards the end of the third century in the Eastern Desert of Egypt by St. Antony the Great (A.D.250 -- 355). In 330 one of his disciples, St. Makaruios the Great, (300- 390) established ascetic life in Wadi El- Natroun (El-Natroun Valley), assisted by St. Ammon, another disciple of St. Antony.
At first monks lived in separate cells, which later increased in number. Later on forts, into which the monks took refuge when attacked, were constructed. A monastery assumed its present shape when high walls were built around a number of cells to secure the safety of monks.
This monastery was established in the fourth century and dedicated to “Theotokos; “i.e. God’s Mother.
From its early monastic history Wadi El-Natroun attracted many Christian devotees from different parts of the world to visit and live by.
Parts of those were many of the Syrian monks gathered together from their home land to live around and used this blessed area which known by a famous figure Great Father Anba Bishoy. Syrian monks lived with Copts since this century till 16 century.
Late in the seven century, St. Yehnis Kamé was inspired and moved by religious vision to enter the desert of Scetis where he became a disciple of Anba Teroti. After some years he became the father and the guiding figure to 300 disciples.
One day the Holy Virgin Mary appeared to him in great vision of glory and gave him three gold Solids craved on it sign of the Cross saying to him " Take these to the purse of the monastery and the blessing of my son shall be in it."
In the eight century, after the destruction of the Monastery of St. Yehnis Kamé (3 kilometers south of this area), his disciples moved to this area seeking a new location for them and brought with them some stones to witness to the history on that. St. Kamé relics and sepulchral stone are extant today.
This monastery is one of the four monasteries located in Wadi El-Natroun in the Western Desert of Egypt. Like many old Coptic Churches the monastery is similar to ark in shape representing Noah's Ark which saved believers from the flooded world.
The monastery main gate stands at the Western part of the Northern wall and considered the highest walls of all the monasteries.
Over it is the Matama (i.e. The Feeding - Place) which is a hole about 10 meters high from which the gate - keeper looked to see who was ringing the bell. Without opening the gate, he lowered loaves of bread to the Bedwins who called on.
Built as the style of Roman forts was established by King Zeno (474- 491 A.D.) Towers spread to serve as refuge during the attacks of the Berber tribes living in the Northern parts of the desert and made occasional attacks on surrounding lands.
The tower is reached by a wooden bridge with one of its ends fixed to its doorstep, and the other resting loose on the stairs. This end was attached to the Keep with a chain, when it was pulled from within the building; the bridge rose and stood flat upon the wall: thus it hides the door and separated the building from the outer world.
The Keep is 18 meters high. It comprises a basement and three floors, on the third floor is a Chapel dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel, as the guardian of the place.
It also contains some secret rooms beneath or above the apparent ones used for saving the sacred Church hooks and materials.
The Ancient Churches in the Monastery:
1- Virgin St. Mary (El-Sourian):
Located at the south-east corner of the keep, beautiful ancient model of building with its Basilica roof and with four wings of the cross ending in semi domes.
It composed of three sanctuaries in the East side, two choirs, nave, old Laura in West side and Refectory
A) The Middle Sanctuary: Dedicated to St. Mary, considered one of the oldest Copts remains with the walls ornamented with molded and carved stucco representing the Christian symbols of fish, grapes and palm leaves and some of David's Musical instruments. Its door known as, The Door of Symbols, it composed of six leaves, three forming a valve on each side. Each leaf has seven panels of ebony magnificent inlaid with ivory.
From top to bottom they represent seven stages which are believed to cover the Christian era from the perspective of the Syrian inscription which was put in A.D.913-914 and it has seven rows:
1- Icons of Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and some Coptic & Syrian patriarchs.
2- A panel stands for the expansion of the Christian Churches.
3- A panel identifies the period of formation of the Episcopal Sees of Ancient Church (Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Rome and Constantinople).
4- The interpretation as crescents in this row representing the expansion of Islam.
5- The panel reflective the rise of modern materialistic ideologies.
6- This row symbolist weakness of the church.
7- The last row depicts the unity and dynamic expansion of the church.
B) The First Choir: Has a very distinguish icons and frescos painted in highly performed art which attracted a group of scholars & conservatories from Lei den University in Holland, headed by Prof. Dr. Karl INNEMÉE to follow some researches started since 1994, till now that came out with great results in this field of, as follow:
Painting of Virgin, breast-feeding Christ:
Located at the left side of the Sanctuary, which given a remarkable position. The Virgin is seated on a delicately decorated throne with a red cushion.
With her right hand, in which she holds a kerchief, she supports the infant Christ, while her left hand supports her breast, depicted unnaturally small.
The iconographical detail of the infant Christ sitting on the right knee of his mother occurs in early paintings and becomes more and rarer in later times.
The painting of the Virgin would be one of the first subjects to be represented in a church dedicated to her, make it likely to assume that this mural painting belongs to period around 700 A.D.
Painting of St. Sergius and Bacchus
On the other half-column, engaged to the same pier, there is a painting of a standing military saint. The left part of the painting was constructed in 913/4 A.D.
The icon representing three saints, Sergios, Dimitrios or Georgios (St.Gorege). All three are known to be depicted as young, beardless men. On the quarter-column, directly left of the doors leading into the Sanctuary, there are the remains of a painting depicting a standing military saint. Both have been painted as almost identical a counterpart that means we have St. Sergius and companion St. Bacchus, usually depicted as youthful soldiers.
They seem to have been painted as guardians to the sanctuary of the church.
On the attached half-column on the western wall of the northern sanctuary a painting shows a standing monk in a red tunic and a light-blue cloak. Although the painting is heavily damaged it is clear that the characteristics of his costume are those of Upper or Middle Egypt. At the left side of his head there is the inscription Abba Apollo, the father who founded the monastery in Bawit at the end of the fourth century.
Three Mounted Saints
On the eastern wall of the southern sanctuary, two saints on horseback wear a blue tunic and a military cape. The right one holds a spear in his raised right hand, St. Mercurius, killing Julian the Apostate.
Holy doctor St. Kolta (Colluthos)
A remarkable painting is in the middle of the southern wall. On a small but neatly decorated stool, a saint is seated, turned towards the right. He wears a red tunic with a grey pallium. In this he grasps a scalpel or similar instrument, which he holds close to the eyes of a much smaller person standing in front of him. Between the head of the saint and the third person there is a small open cupboard in which there a are six red and green bottles. It is evident that we are dealing with a representation of doctor treating patients. The cupboard can be nothing other than a medicine chest. All the evidence refer to a so well-known and recognizable saint's Kolta (Colluthos), who was renowned for curing eye-diseases, and who was, together with Cosman and Damian, always a very popular saint in Egypt.
Opposite the half-column that carries the painting of the Virgin Mary there is a painting of a standing monk with raised hands.
The man, whose face has been heavily damaged, has grey hair and beard and is dressed in a brown tunic with clavi, over which he wears a black-and-white striped cape. Around his head there is a yellow halo. At the left side of his head there is the word ABBA, very faintly legible.
At the right side of his head only faint traces of an inscription were found, doubtlessly the last letters of his name which could be read Makaruios.
There is absolutely no certainty about the identity of the saint.
St. Cosman and Damian
It is evident that the saints in this part of the church have been grouped according to their profession. Right of the painting of the seated doctor there are two holy physicians represented standing, Cosman and Damian.
This is shown from the Greek inscription left and right of the heads. In their right hands they hold a spoon, scalpel or spatula.
In the left hands of the saints we see an object that is not immediately recognizable. It consists of two cylinders, connected by an angular middle section. Two intertwining black lines emerge from the cylinders. Most probably it is a portable medicine chest, a common attribute for doctor-saints.
St. James Minor and another saint adoring the Cross
A painting is on the eastern wall of the northern choir, and arched doorway. Although half of the total surface is lost, the representations are still well recognizable.
To the left is a male figure wit a halo, dressed in a red tunic and a blue pallium. He is turned towards the right with hands outstretched. Next to his head there is the Coptic text referring to St. James, the brother of the Lord ( The cousin of Jesus , son of Koloba & Mary, the sister of Virgin St. Mary you can refer to Luke 24: 10). He is turned towards a jeweled cross against a black background in a circle. On the other side there is a similar figure, dressed in a blue tunic with a red pallium. His identity is not to be retrieved anymore, since his head and a flanking inscription have disappeared during the 13th century renovation of the church. Both saints are represented in a gesture of praying or adoration.
St. Luke and Barnabas
The panel to the right has the representations of St. Luke on the left and next to him is St. Barnabas, identified by Coptic inscription. In contrast to the other paintings the figures are represented in a framework of two arches, separated by a column.
In the middle of the northern wall there is painting representing a standing bishop or patriarch. He has a youthful face with a short dark beard, is dressed in full Episcopal garments and holds a book in front of him with both hands. On either sides of the person there are representations of architecture. On the left a tower-like structure that may be church; a ladder is standing against it, giving access to the first floor.
On the right there is a walled building with a gate. The identification of the person and the legible inscription refer to St. Demianous, 35th patriarch of Alexandria (578-605), who was consecrated at a rather young age. Furthermore we know that he was a monk in Wadi El-Natroun before becoming a patriarch. Demianous was of Syrian origin, but considering that this painting was done after the arrival of the first Syrian monks.
St. Pisentios and St. Apakir
On the left part of the northern wall saints Pisentios and Apakir are represented. Their identity can be established by the inscriptions on either side of their heads and their attributes. The left saint is dressed as a bishop, this must be St. Pisentios, whose name is followed by his title (TCINTI means "the foundation"; it also the name of the community close to Deir el-Bahari, where he lived). He was born around 568 and consecrated as bishop of Koptos in 598. Left of the other saint there is an inscription, right to some Coptic letters. Has carries the attributes of a doctor, a medicine box and a scalpel, similar to those of St. Cosman and Damian on the opposite side of the church. This is St. Apakir, a martyr from the time of Diocletian who had a reputation as a doctor.
A panting is on a piece of a green background with a red & black framing and, below, a figure of a saint. It is carrying a Syrian inscription. The Greek text left of his head reads: on the right there are the remains of a Coptic word that could be read as 'profits'. Thus, the painting would represent The Old Testament patriarch Abba Joseph.
King Abgar and Emperor Constantine
In the southern and northern wall and between three windows two paintings have been discovered. It's uncovered and has Syrian inscriptions. The right painting shows the remains of a person on horseback. The upper part of the frame shows an overlapping fragment of a lance, from which we can deduce that the rider is a warrior. The Syrian text underneath reads: "The king when he saw the sign of the cross from heaven believed in Christ." This is a clear allusion to the vision of Constantine (The first Roman emperor to embrace Christianity).
The space between the middle and the left windows was filled with a painting of which only a fragment of a figure holding a piece of cloth is left. These iconographical indications points to of King Abgar (The first Syrian king), also the inscription under the painting confirmed this. It reads: "...and he sent him the image."
The paintings of Abgar and Constantine clearly fit into an iconographical context. It dating from before 913/14
St. Philip & chamberlain of the Candace
In the southern and northern wall, there are three windows. Between the left and the middle window in the upper zone there is a beardless man seated on a two-wheeled chariot, holding a tablet in his hand with a Coptic inscription translated (the black man of the Candace). This is an illustration of the New Testament book of Acts (8:27) where the conversion of the chamberlain of the Ethiopian Queen by the deacon Philip is described. Of the figure of Philip nothing but his raised hand in gesture of speech is preserved.
St. Andrew & the dog-headed cannibals
In the lower part between the left and middle window there is a scene of a standing man with grey hair seems to address five figures with dog-heads. The scene can be identified as St. Andrew preaching in the land of the dog-headed (cynocephali) cannibals. Between the middle and the right (walled-up) window a second baptism scene was found. The same man as in the scene of the dog-heads (St. Andrew) is shown, baptizing two people. This scene is probably intended to show the continuation of the missionary work of Andrew among the pagans.
St. Gregory the Illuminator
Over the middle window we see half a circle, which looks as if it is suspended from the upper border of the painting. Within this circle there is a schematic representation of a town against the background of a starry sky. Such half-circles in the upper parts of paintings are most often meant to represent the spheres of heaven, from which a hand of God or other divine interventions appears. A town within such a circle might therefore be intended as a representation of the Heavenly Jerusalem.
The second scene, painted under the first one between the two open windows, has almost completely disappeared, except for a piece of bluish-grey background, on which we seen the shoulder and part of the halo of a figure. An inscription left of this figure has been entirely preserved. It reads, St. Gregory the Armenian (The Illuminator).
Since he is well-known for his preaching of Christianity in Armenia, we can consider (the remains of) this scene a counterpart to those on the opposite wall, where the theme is also conversion and baptism.
Dormition, Assumption and the glory of the Virgin
Just under the level of the paintings of Abgar and Constantine there are important remains of a sequence of paintings representing the events surrounding the death of The Virgin St. Mary?
At the far left there is a representation of the Dormition... The Virgin lies on a bed, surrounded by the twelve apostles, who are seated in two rows on either side of the bed. Apart from these persons there are six women, three on either side, who are swinging censers. This is a rather remarkable detail, since the handling of censers is traditionally a male activity in the orthodox churches. The Coptic inscription in the painting calls the six women, virgins, without any specific names. Behind the bed a large winged figure stands, most probably to be identified as the archangel Michael, who is by tradition the one accompanying the souls of the dead to the hereafter. The only remains of his name are two letters. He is standing, his hands stretched out in a gesture as if he is expecting to receive the soul of the Virgin.
Also this detail is unusual; in all known representations of the subject Christ is taking this position.
To the right there has been a scene representing a group of men at the far right, looking up with expressions of amazement. At the top of the edge there is fragment of a Coptic inscription reading: "The body of..." This is a strong indication that the now missing scene represented the assumption of the body of the Virgin.
The oldest representations of the Dormition are post-iconoclastic; the earliest dated examples are from the 10th century.
The centre of the sequence is taken by representation of Christ and the Virgin, sitting side by side on a throne. He holds her left hand by the wrist and raises it as if in a gesture of triumph. At the left side of the head of the Virgin there is a representation of the sun, while the moon is visible right of the head of Christ. This scene can be considered as a representation of the reunification of the body and soul of the Virgin in heaven and her reception by Christ.
C) The Second Choir:
This choir is separated from the first one by the afore-mentioned door. It is larger in size and has a unique icons and frescos painted in highly performed style of art. Some researches and conservation had been done by The French Institute for Oriental Archaeology (IFAQ) on its frescos (1985-1990) and ended up, funding one of the most beautiful paintings on the dome of this choir and some other results as follow:
The Annunciation amidst Four Prophets:
The western semi-dome is representing a beautiful icon of the Annunciation amidst four prophets. The right side of St. Mary shows the prophets Isaiah and Moses with the burning bush above his head (Exodus 3:2-6). On the left side of the Archangel Gabriel, the two others prophets: Ezekiel and Daniel at the extremity of this side. Each prophet holding a scroll, in which a verse from his prophecy is written in Coptic. Referring to the Old Testament Text from both prophets (Ezekiel 44:2 and Daniel 2:34) we can prove the Incarnation and the perpetual virginity of St. Mary. Also, we can figure out the fulfillment of the divine purpose realize the union of the two Testament.
Right of the right window and left of the left window, in the corners of the choir, the remains of in total four crosses were found.
These crosses, all different in shape, have been painted in mainly red and green and are surrounded by a frame of red with a row of white dots on a black line in it.
The three Hebrews in the fiery furnace
A painting are on the northern side of the choir wall identify a part of a winged figure, holding a staff in the direction of flames.
This identifies the episode from the Book of Daniel of the three men in the fiery furnace. Further to the right there is a fragment of what seems to be the leg of a throne. This might be the throne of king Nebuchadnezzar.
Fr. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob
A icon on the south wall of this choir refers to the composition shows the three Old Testament patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, enthroned in paradise with the souls of the blessed, represented as small naked figures, on their laps. All three have almost identical, severe faces and long, white hair. A peculiar detail is that the three arch-fathers are feeding the blessed fruits. In the background there are four trees from which similar naked figures are picking fruits. This is hardly surprising, since the daily evening prayer in the Coptic Church contains a prayer for the dead, saying "Graciously, O Lord, repose all their souls in the bosom of our holy fathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob" The theme of the three patriarchs enthroned in paradise occurs in iconography only since the 9th/10th century and this is the first example in Coptic wall-painting known so far. The painting date according to its style might be dated to the 11th century.
D) The Nave:
In the middle of the Eastern direction is fixed in the floor the Maundy basin used for the rite of washing the feet of the monastery visitors during the week days. Also, to be used in The Epiphany Feasts.
E) St. Bishoy's Laura:
The Western aisle of the above mentioned Nave leads to one of the most interesting monuments in the Monastery. A narrow and low passage leads to St. Bishoy's private Cave which is said to have been joined to St Bishoy's Monastery by an underground path. St. Bishoy got used to withdraw to this place to enjoy quiet prayers far from the visitors. In the top of the cave is a piece of a chain to which he tied his hair to avoid falling in sleep during his vigil prayers.
F) The Refectory:
A door in the Western wall of the Virgin’s Church leads to the old Refectory. The custom was that monks lived in isolation through the days of the week and met on Saturday evenings at Church where they passed the night in discussion with their elders, attending the midnight prayers, Tasbeha (Daily mid-night Hymens) and the Mass service in the morning After the service they proceeded to the Refectory where they enjoyed the weekly Agape (Greek word means a fellow¬ship) meal. This proceeded in silence while a monk was standing at a lectern reading from the stories of the father's book- Bostan (The paradise of the monks). The table, benches and lectern are made of masonry and are in proper condition.
2-The Forty Martyrs Church:
Lies close to the Northern wall of the Virgin’s Church it is dedicated to the famous forty soldiers in Licinius army. (In 313 he ordered 40 soldiers of Sebastea in Lesser Armenia to be cast into a lake of ice while a hot bath lay before them ready to comfort any who would deny The Lord Jesus.
One of the persecutors saw 40 divine crowns descending from heaven, 39 rested on 39 heads of the martyrs while the fortieth remained suspended up.
After a while the fortieth person cried a denial of our Lord and rushed up to the hot bath where he fell dead under the strain of the sudden change. The persecutor jumped in his place and announced him Christian, giving an account of the scene).
In the Southern side of the second Choir of this Church was a relic of Bishop Christodoulos of Ethiopia who was a monk of this Monastery and had been found his tomb in the same place. Who had been died in it while on a visit to Egypt? (1024)
3- St. Mary Church (the Cave):
Another church in the name of St. Mary, but this one indicated as the cave because it was a small cave before some new renovation and extension had been done to it recently.
This church has some special features as follow:
1- On the left side of the Northern Sanctuary there is a little door about half a square meter. It leads to a mysterious recess in the Monastery wall about 20 square meters. It was used as a hiding place in case of a sudden attack and a keep for sacred articles and materials.
2- In the First Choir is an ancient painting of Virgin Mary.
3- The Choir Door dates from the 14th or 15th century.
4- The church had an Epiphany Basin south to the Nave.
4-St. Yehnis Kamé Church:
Lies to the south of St. Mary (The Cave) church, has two sanctuary: one on the name of St. Yehnis Kamé (The main saint of the monastery) and the other of St. Yehnis El-Kaseir (literally; the short) was called the son of obedience, since he was the disciple of his abbot father obeyed him to plant a stick in the desert as if a tree and watered it every day until it came a big tree out of his obedience.
5-St. Ephraim's Tree:
This big tree is stands to the east of St .Mary Church (the cave). It has also a very unique story tells; When the Syrian Figure Father St. Ephraim El-Soriany (308-373 A.D.) came to Wadi El-Natroun to visit his disciples, went to be blessed from the living Abbot of the entire Shiheet Valley ; St. Bishoy the Great. But because St. Ephraim was weak in his body moves, got used to lean on a stick. Out of respect to meet St. Bishoy the Great, gave his stick to one of the monks and told him to stick it into the earth. "Were it used due to weakness, it would bud out" he said. It soon took root and became the famous Tamarind tree which is still living with its girth till now.
6-The Saints Relics:
The monastery has a collection of great saint's relics. This treasure kept into reliquary which contains:
1- St. Yehnis Kamé, in a separate full tube.
2- St. Moses the Black (part).
3- St. Savories (part).
4- St. Dioscoros (part).
5- St. Cyracuse (part).
6- St. Julietta, mother of St. Cyracuse (part).
7- St. Yehnis the Short (part).
8- Forty Martyrs of Sebastea (part).
9- St. Mary Magdalene (Some hair).
10- St .Theodore the Orient (part).
11- St. Ephraim El-Soriany (part).
12- St. James El-Friesian (part).
We sincerely ask God to bless your time and life. Appreciate your visit to share in the holiness of the Saints within your life.
We pray to God to who is due all glory, greatness and power to be with you and keep you safe in your trips around.
Hope will see you again in this blessed area of the earth and feel free to covey its message to every beloved one around you. .