Monday, 21 December 2015

Tenth-Century Egyptian Nativity

Close up of the tenth-century Nativity at Deir el Suriani.  The inscription is in Syriac, a version of Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus.
The Coptic Orthodox Church celebrates Christmas on the same date as the Orthodox churches of Greece, Russia and elsewhere, on 7 January.  I have several times travelled through Egypt visiting Coptic monasteries - in Upper Egypt, along the Red Sea and in the Western Desert at the Wadi Natrun.  These are some photographs appropriate to the season now upon us that I took at Deir el Suriani, the Monastery of the Syrians, at the Wadi Natrun, halfway along the Desert Road between Cairo and Alexandria.

Deir el Suriani in the Western Desert.
Christian asceticism first most widely flourished at a place once known as Scetis or Scete, now the Wadi Natrun, its monasteries standing as citadels of the Coptic faith through all the adversities of the past 1700 years. After years of decline, all four monasteries (St Macarius, St Bishoi, the Syrians and Baramous) are now thriving monastic communties.
The place called Scete is set in a vast desert, and the way to it is to be found or shown by no track and no landmarks of earth, but one journeys by the signs and courses of the stars. Water is hard to find. Here are men made perfect in holiness, for so terrible a spot could be endured by none save those of austere resolve and supreme constancy.
          - A pilgrim’s account in the late fourth century Historia Monachorum
As you approach, the monasteries give the impression of enormous arks for the faithful sailing in a desert sea. But their high walls were raised only in the ninth century to protect them from Bedouin raids. The monasteries were founded much earlier.

The Church of al-Adra in Deir el Suriani.
During the great Roman persecutions of Christians in Egypt, beginning in 202 under Septimius Severus, continuing in 250 under Decius, and reaching its most awful climax under Diocletian from 303, hundreds of thousands of Egyptians were martyred for their faith.

A few sought refuge in the desert, but it was only after Constantine’s Edict of Toleration in 313 when the need to flee had passed, that the great exodus began. Martyrdom had offered a direct route to God; now the way would be found in the desert. In an astonishing act of anarchy, Egyptians in their thousands, rejecting any interference by the hierarchy of state or church, deserted the towns and cultivation for the barren wilderness with the aim of shedding all worldly possessions and distinctions, wishing if possible even to shed their sense of self, the better to unite with God. 

Through them Christianity explored another dimension, as they strove to embody eternity in their lives. St Antony said, ‘Let no one who hath renounced the world think that he hath given up some great thing. The whole earth set over against heaven’s infinite is scant and poor.’ That quiet voice from the Egyptian desert, which said that each living moment carried its eternal freight, was to have as profound an impact on the Western imagination as all the Greek sophistication of Alexandrian thought.

It is Deir el Suriani, the Monastery of the Syrians that most suggests a desert ship, its undulating ochre walls riding a wave of sand. Domes, towers and crosses make the superstructure, and palms wag within like prizes bound for Kew Gardens.

The tenth-century Annunciation fresco at al-Adra
in Deir el Suriani.
You pass through this northern wall by a small doorway into a forecourt, then left into the courtyard before the church of the Virgin, al-Adra, remarkable for its frescoes in the semidomes of the choir.

The tenth-century frescos in the south semidome, where the theme is the Annunciation and the Nativity, are the finest still to be seen in situ in a Coptic church in Egypt, the colours as striking as in an illuminated manuscript. 

Gabriel is shown approaching Mary who stands within the doorway of a building. The Virgin is then shown reclining on a couch, the Christ child wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger, though in an unusual feature his legs are bare. Joseph is seated pensively below, while around are angels, shepherds and the Three Kings.

The fresco in full of the Nativity in the semidome of al-Adra Church in Deir el Suriani in the Wadi Natrun.
The monastery has a particular attachment to the Virgin Mary; originally it was founded in her name as the Theotokos, the Mother of God. But the death and resurrection of Jesus is also marked; at the west end of the church is an ebony reliquary containing the hair of Mary Magdalene.