The ruins of the old Christian monastery, the largest ancient Coptic architecture complex in Egypt, known as the monastery of St. Simeon, are located in the Aswan desert, in 700 meters from the west bank of the Nile, opposite to the island of Elephantine.

Source: Gawdat Gabra. "Coptic Monasteries: Egypt's Monastic Art and Architecture".

Coptic and Arabic historical sources are calling this monastery as the monastery of Anba-Hatra (Hidra, Hadri). The name of St. Simeon was given to this place much later. This is the last name, by which the monastery is known until our days, but the history of it's renaming is lost in the centuries. The Holy Hatra was an anchorite, consecrated by the bishop of Aswan Patriarch Theophilus (385-412) and who died in the time of Emperor Theodosius I (379-395). Whether the monastic settlement in this area existed before these times is unknown, but the wall paintings found in the rock caves under the brick ruins, date them by the VI-VII centenary.

Along the entire period of its existence, the monastery has undergone a great number of rebuilding works, including the erection of it's high towers in the first half of the XI century. The priest of the Orthodox Church of Alexandria, Abu al-Makarim (XIII century) mentioned this place in his work "History of the Churches and Monasteries", published at the end of the XIII century. By the end of the XIII century the monastery was completely abandoned.

Despite the fact that most of the buildings of the Anba-Hatre complex are destroyed, the monastery represents a great interest among architects and archaeologists.

The Church of the monastery is the most important example of the first domed Egyptian Churches. The ceramic furnaces, found there are also representing a scientific interest for the research of the Aswan pottery.

The foundation of the complex is a continental rock, formed by the limestone deposits.

The continental cliff divides the monastery into two natural terraces, enclosed in thin trapezoidal brick wall with a parapet. Each terrace has its own gate. The lower terrace includes natural rock caves with images of Saints, a Church with a baptistery and many rooms for pilgrims. The upper terrace is designed as a residential complex for permanent owners. Here one can see the monastic cells, refectory, kitchen and workshops.

Inspite of the well-developed infrastructure of living appartments, no any cisterns or wells for water supplying were found on the territory of the monastery.

The gates of the lower level are located in the eastern wall. After entrance follows the vaulted lobby, leading to the monastery's territory and the eastern side of the Church appeares infront of a visitor.

The church was erected in the first half of the 11th century. Its roof is absent now. Despite the fact that only the lower part of the Church has survived, it still represents a significant architectural interest. As was mentioned above, the most important architectural example of the complex is the domed vault of the central sanctuary, which has a rectangle in its base, transforming into an octagon. Such an architectural solution is known to Egypt from the beginning with the Fatimid Caliphate period (909 - 1171). Two adjacent rectangular rooms with domed ceilings, adjoining the sanctuary were added later.

 General view of the Church.

Source: Gawdat Gabra. "Coptic Monasteries: Egypt's Monastic Art and Architecture".

Both passages, leding along the sanctuary to the east into a room that originally had an entrance in its eastern wall. Such an architectural design is unusual for the Coptic Churches and both exits were subsequently blocked.

(Click on the image to enlarge)

The central sanctuary was originally connected with two rooms from its both sides, forming a large "trefoil". Such an architectural solution is one of the oldest in Egypt. Below are photographs, showing the ruins of rooms, adjacent to the central sanctuary and forming the so-called "trefoil".

(Click on the image to enlarge)

A number of wall paintings of the Anba Hatra Monastery could still be observed at the end of the XIXth century. Unfortunately, only a few of them has survived. A significant part of the ancient drawings is badly damaged or destroyed. The eastern half-dome of the sanctuary is decorated with the image of a scene, depicting Jesus Christ, seated on the throne inside the mandorla with a sacred light, coming out from its base. Mandorla is held by two angels. In the right part of a scene, there is a man with a square halo above his head, holding his hands raised in the position of Oranta. Christ holds a book with his left hand, and his right hand is stretched in a blessing gesture beyond the mandorla.

On the north wall of the sanctuary, one can still see the fragments of the painting, depicting 24 Priests with haloes.

On the western side of the sanctuary, once was a painting, showing the Blessed Virgin Mary standing between two kneeling angels. Unfortunately, the picture is not preserved. Presumably, the wall paintings of the Church were made in the XIth-XIIth centuries. In some places there are several layers of paintings of different times.

The grotto at the western end of the northern corridor of the Church, used by monks for appartments, was an ancient Egyptian tomb carved in the bedrock. Three of its walls are decorated with drawings, depicting 36 people standing in a row.

(Click on the image to enlarge)

They probably represent some of the 72 disciples of Jesus Christ.
In the ceiling of the cave one can see the portraits of the Saints with haloes, framed in large squares and small octagons. The space between the portraits is painted with geometric pattern. Drawings on the walls and on the ceiling of the grotto can roughly be attributed to the VI-VII century.

On the top terrace there is a three-story Tower, rising above the monastery. The staircase on the northern wall of the Church leads to it.

The sizes of this three-story Tower is quite impressive and unusual in comparison with other ancient monasteries. With its cells, refectory, kitchen and other objects, nesessary for the living appartments, this grandiose building appears to be the culmination of the development of the residential complex in Egypt. On the first floor there is a refectory. The living cells are located on both sides of the vaulted corridor, oriented to the north. Three windows at the very end of the corridor provide it with natural light.


Most of the cells are equipped with several stone beds, from 6 or more.

(Click on the image to enlarge)

On the north-west side of the corridor there is an entrance to the refectory. It is a rectangular room that was originally divided into rows with four columns and overlapped by two rows of adjacent triangular arches formed by the intersection of the dome with its supporting arches. The floor of the refectory is made of baked bricks, on top of which it is still possible to see 7 rings, made of gray brick, which once were the bases of the seats, arranged around the tables.

To the west of the refectory there is a kitchen with fragments of bakery equipment.

Despite the fact that not a single well was found neither inside nor in the the vicinity of the monastery, the fragments of the surviving plumbing devices show that water was delivered to the upper terrace and supplied bathrooms, toilets and laundries.

Plan of the Upper Terrace structures.
Source: Gawdat Gabra. "Coptic Monasteries: Egypt's Monastic Art and Architecture".

Pottery furnaces in the southern part of the monastery are representing a special interest for the study of Aswan ceramics, which was used in Upper Egypt and Nubia during the Roman, Byzantine and Early Islamic times.

The oil press, made of granite and decorated with three crosses, is located on the upper terrace, south of the Tower.

Photos of the general view of the monastery and its interior are shown below.


What prompted the first Egyptian Christians to build a monastery in the desert, at an altitude of 130 meters above the sea level, in a place where water delivery was a big problem, while on the left bank this problem would be solved much easier - remains a big question.

Probably, the place itself has played an important role in choosing it for establishing the foundation for the construction of the beginning of a New Era. Or maybe here, at the point where one can see the First Cataract, Elephantine Island, the ancient volcano and the network of ancient Egyptian "quartzite roads". the foundation was already laid by someone else, in rather earlier times? ..

The strategic position of the complex, that mostly remainds the fortress of the dark ages, together with its sanctuary in a form of a "trifoil", and the "croix pattee cerclee" on the round granite block, brings to mind an idea, that perhaps it was the Castle of the first Templars at some stage of its history...


Author: Gawdat Gabra
Coptic Monasteries: Egypt's Monastic Art and Architecture.
Year 2002

Claremont Coptic Encyclopedia.

Author: Gawdat Gabra
Coptic Civilization: Two Thousand Years of Christianity in Egypt.
Cairo: AUC Press, 2014.
Year: 2014



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