Coptic Studies

There are currently two projects in Coptic Studies that are supported by the NVIC. Both are directed by Dr. Karel Innemee and both take place in the Wadi Natrun.

Excavations at Deir al-Baramus, the Monastery of Moses the Black

Director: Dr. Karel Innemée

Since 1996, the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) and the Faculty of Archaeology of the University of Leiden have financed archaeological research into the remains of a monastery in the Wadi Natrun, known as Deir Anba Mussa al-Aswad (Monastery of Moses the Black), but which is more probably the old Deir al-Baramus. This means that it is the oldest monastic settlement in this area; Deir al-Baramus must have been established by Macarius, one of the founders of Egyptian monastic life. Mainly archaeologists from Leiden participate in the project. From 18 October till 26 November 1999 excavations were continued at the site commonly known as Deir Anba Mussa al-Aswad. Already in previous seasons it had been established that it concerns really the remains of Deir al-Baramus, while the monastery presently known under that name should be identified with the monastery of the Virgin of Baramus. During the 1999 season two main questions dominated the work: - The function of a large square building excavated in previous seasons. - The location of the church of the monastery.

The Square Building

During the previous seasons (\'96-\'98) remains were uncovered of a square structure, measuring 16 x 16 meters, in the south-eastern corner of the site. Its function remained a mystery until the latest campaign. Only after reaching the foundation level of the building it became clear that it had an internal structure of 1 meter thick walls, dividing the plan into 9 equal squares. The outer walls had a thickness of 2 meters. This, together with the absence of windows or doors in the outer walls, led to the conclusion that what we have here are the remains of a defence tower that may have been as high as 15 meters or more. Pottery found at foundation level gives a date of late 4th or early 5th century for the construction of this building, which is extremely early for a monastic defence tower. In this period small communities of hermits would have been very unlikely to construct such impressive architecture. One possibility to explain its presence would be that it was built as a Roman military structure, defending the Wadi al-Natrun and its salt-production from unwanted intruders. Being deserted by the end of the 4th century it may have been re-used by newly arrived anchorites.

The Church

Immediately north of the tower, remains of what was supposed to be church, were discovered in 1998. The building was further excavated in 1999 and proved indeed to be the remains of the church of the monastery. The masonry of the walls of the nave is of an extremely improvised an poor quality, suggesting that the church was rebuilt in haste after a major destruction of the building. This may have been the destruction by Bedouins at the beginning of the 9th century, that struck must of the monasteries in the Wadi. The sanctuary (haikal) of the church is of a better quality and was added or reconstructed slightly later, possibly at the end of the 9th or the beginning of the tenth century. The remains of the altar, constructed on a one-step high podium, were rather well-preserved. Although the walls of the church are of a mediocre quality, remains of a more solid masonry, consisting of well-cut limestone blocks, have been found in the western part of the nave, possibly remains of an earlier structure. At least a number of the limestone blocks used in this wall were re-used. On one of them a number of hieroglyphs in high-relief are visible. This could mean that a pharaonic monument has existed in the close vicinity of the site. Since limestone of a good quality is to be found within a range of 3 kilometres, there would be no point in quarrying off blocks from, for instance, a deserted temple much further away.

During the 2001 season an earlier church was discovered, north of the later church. This building may date back to the 6th century or earlier, judging from a number of remodellings that have taken place. The later church turned out to be an improvised enlargement of the former southern patoforion of the older church. The church was constructed as a three aisled basilica, in which a khurus was constructed, possibly in the second half of the 7th century. Although the western part of the church is still to be excavated, it seems that this building was larger than any other church in Wadi al-Natrun known so far. Underneath the foundations of the sanctuary of the church remains of an even older construction were found, possibly a church from the 4th or 5th century.

The north-eastern Corner

A square of 10 x 10 meters was opened at the north-eastern corner of the site. This revealed a structure that is comparable to the residential area at the western side of the site. In both areas an older residential building was incorporated in the later defence-wall of the monastery. The most significant feature that was found here is the large corner-buttress that was supporting the surrounding wall of the monastery. Several phases in its construction could be distinguished. The core of the wall was constructed of mudbrick, built directly against the outside of what must have been a mashobiyya. As at the western side of the monastery, this wall was reinforced with a limestone facing. The corner-buttress was originally constructed in mudbrick and covered with two layers of limestone. The final result was a wall of almost 3 meters thick, supported at the corner by a huge conical support, more than 6 meters in diameter. Within this massive construction there is a room, constructed in mudbrick and probably part of a mashobiyya-like structure. The estimated date of this building is 6th-7th century, while the outer wall can not be earlier than 9th century.


The results of the excavation so far have confirmed that this settlement is older than the present Deir al-Baramus. The oldest architectural remains can be dated to the 4th or the 5th century; a terracotta oil-lamp found during the 1998 season is probably from the 4th century. It is not to be excluded that an abandoned Roman settlement was the core of the later monastery. The monastery had a roughly rectangular outline of 80 x 65 meters. A defensive wall surrounded the complex, but this wall must have been one of the last major additions and was possibly constructed in the ninth or tenth century. At that time the buildings within had already gone through a tumultuous history of building, destruction and rebuilding. Since the very beginning of monastic habitation the region of the Sketis was a frequent intervals invaded by Berber nomads who molested or killed the anchorites and monks and robbed them of their scarce possessions. Particularly one raid, at the beginning of the 9th century must have been severe: according to the History of the Patriarchs (a chronicle relating the most important events in the history of the Coptic Church) the area was sacked and remained depopulated for several years. In all the squares that have been excavated so far at least one level of severe destruction can be found. It is not unlikely that this represents the early 9th century disaster. The construction of defensive walls around the monasteries of the Wadi al-Natrun must have started soon afterwards. A recently discovered inscription in Deir al-Surian mentions the 'building' of the monastery in 819 A.D., while the History of the Patriarchs records that under Patriarch Shenouda I, later on in the 9th century, St. Macarius Monastery was surrounded by defensive walls. Before that time we should imagine the monasteries as lauras, open structures with a village-like character. Each laura had a church in a more or less central place. The oldest laura must have been that of Baramus, founded by St. Macarius in the middle of the fourth century. The first raids of Berbers in the early 5th century must have left very little of these doubtlessly very modest structures. The oldest structure that has been found and that must have played a central role in the laura is an almost square tower of approximately 16 x 16 meter. This tower must have functioned as place of refuge in times of trouble. There is reason to believe that is was damaged in the raid of ca. 800 and that it was restored, but finally abandoned when the complex was surrounded by a defensive wall.

The Wall Paintings of Deir al-Surian

Director: Dr. Karel Innemee

Since 1995 an international team of restorers and researchers is working on the wall-paintings in the church of the Virgin in Deir al-Surian (Wadi al-Natrun). Since the interior of the church was replastered at the end of the 18th century, the majority of the paintings, including many inscriptions, had been covered and forgotten. In the period between the 7th and the 13th centuries four layers of paintings have been applied on the walls. It is the aim of the project to bring them back to light and to further investigate this rich source of historical information.

The most recent campaign lasted from 23 October 2001 till 31 January 2002. As in the previous season this work was concentrated on the paintings in the khurus (transept) of the church. A number of paintings that had been uncovered and consolidated before received their final retouchings. This was the case for the painting of two mounted saints on the eastern wall of the khurus and the Virgin Galaktotrophousa on the half-column on this wall. Also on the higher parts of the southern wall, just under the central dome, paintings from previous seasons were retouched.

With the work on the northern wall a new chapter was opened. This wall was still completely covered with 18th century plaster and after removal a number of reasonably well-preserved paintings were discovered. They belong to the second layer of painting and are probably to be dated to the first half of the 8th century. As most of the other paintings on this layer they were executed in the encaustic technique (using a paint consisting of pigment mixed with heated fluid bee-wax).

To the left St. Pisentios, bishop of Koptos, and St. Apakir are represented. Pisentios is dressed as a traditional 6th century Coptic bishop, while Apakir carries the attributes of a doctor.

In the middle, separated from the other paintings by two blocked windows, there is a figure of a standing patriarch, possibly St. Damianos, 35th patriarch of Alexandria. An interesting and unusual feature in this painting is the representation of architecture in the background. So far the buildings have not been identified.

On the far right end of the same wall a representation of St. Luke and St. Barnabas was found.

During the work in this corner it was discovered that the construction of wooden beams, supporting the semi-dome in the north of the transept, had completely disintegrated. The beams had to be replaced and during this work a part of the earlier painting in the semi-dome came to light. The fragment shows three sheep. Together with another fragment that was revealed later and that shows the inscription "Melchior" this is the evidence that under the 13th century painting of the Dormition of the Virgin, this semi-dome carries a painting of the Nativity of Christ. This painting of the Nativity belongs to a cycle to which also the Annunciation in the western half-dome belongs. Here we have evidence that the Annunciation, discovered in 1991, can be considered part of the decoration of layer 2 and it is an indication that its date is probably 8th century.

On the upper part of the eastern wall a number of unusual paintings were discovered. Just under the level of the dome, between three blocked windows, there are remains of paintings of Constantine the Great and king Abgar of Edessa as his counterpart. Although the paintings are preserved only in fragments, inscriptions in Syriac, exclude any doubt about their identification. These paintings belong to the third layer and are probably to be dated around 900 AD On one hand the fit in with the paintings of conversion of foreign people, found on the northern and southern walls in previous seasons, on he other hand they are a clear sign of Syrian influence in the paintings of the monastery. The fact that Abgar is represented as a counterpart of Constantine underlines his position as the first monarch in the Syrian region to embrace Christianity. That his conversion took place almost three centuries before Constantine's must have been a source of considerable pride for the Syrians and the main reason for the presence of his painting here.

Under the painting of Abgar, on the left part of the wall and also on layer 3, but painted slightly later, there is an elaborate painting of the Dormition of the Virgin. It is part of a cycle to which also belongs the representation of Christ enthroned with his mother next to him. To the right there has been a painting of the Assumption of the body of Mary, but very little of this remains. The Dormition is extraordinary because of its iconography: instead of Christ there is the archangel Michael standing behind her to receive her soul. Apart from the 12 apostles there are also six women swinging censers. If the dating of early 10th century for layer 3 is correct it means that this is one of the earliest known examples of this theme.

Christ and the Virgin sitting together on a throne can be seen as a representation of the triumph of the Virgin. Christ holds her by the wrist and raises her hand in the air as if he welcomes her in heaven with a gesture of triumph. Also this scene has no known parallel in Christian iconography so far.

Last Modified: 26-10-2008