Charles Woods

The word “Coptic” is a very ancient word meaning “Egyptian” so when we speak of Coptic Christians, we mean Egyptian Christians.   The Egyptian or Coptic Christian Church pre-dates both the Greek Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Churches, and developed from basically from the same form of Judaism that goes right back into Egyptian history, many centuries before Christ was born.    The word “Deir” is another word that simply means “Church”.  There are many places around Luxor, particularly on the West Bank which incorporate the ancient  word for “church” in their names, for example Deir el Bahri and Deir el Medina being two of the most commonly known.

Luxor both on the East side of the River Nile and at Thebes on the West Bank had a large population of Coptic Christians in antiquity, and their remains are some of the oldest to be found in Egypt.  They even had a Holy See established at Thebes before the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.

Dier el Bahrideir el bahri
These old photos show the old tower of the Coptic Monastary and the ruinous state of the Deir el Bahri before restoration

At one time the town of Djem appears to have extended from Deir el Medina to Deir el Bahri.  The remains of a large church were found there which is believed to have been the Cathedral of Saint Athanasius.  Unfortunately, its remains were cleared away in 1895 by the Service des Antiquities.  Other Coptic remains were incorporated into a number of Phoaronic sites such as Deir el Bahri which is better known as Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple. 

At one time this temple was converted into a Coptic monastery.  This was known as the northern monastery,  Pa Phoibammon.  The upper terrace was settled by Christian monks who used the large hypostyle hall.   A huge brick tower was constructed of mud brick and stone which were taken from the walls of the ancient temple.  This monastery remained inhabited until around 780 AD by Christian monks, but became abandoned shortly after that.  We have reproduced a very old photograph of Hatshepsut’s Temple which shows how it possibly looked in the days of the monastery.  Very little of Hatshepsut’s temple actually remained, and what you see today has largely been rebuilt by modern craftsmen and virtually all traces of the Christian occupation have been regrettably removed.   

Further south at Deir el Medina there is a Temple built by Ptolemy IV (Philopator) which owes its name to a Christian monastery and church dedicated to Saint Isidorus.   Not far from this is a place situated on a hill which divides the Valley of the Queens into two sections, called Deir el Rumi.    This was another small Coptic Christian monastery, and there are a number of interesting tombs nearby. 

Much is owed to the Ptolemy kings of Egypt for the promotion of Judaism which eventually led to Egyptian Christianity and then to the Greek Orthodox Church and the Roman Church.   Ptolemy II (Philadelphos) sponsored the translation of the Old Testament into Greek somewhere between 285-246 BC.  He also sponsored the Egyptian priest, Manetho, to write the “History of Egypt”, to which we owe a great deal of our current knowledge.  Ptolemy V (Epiphanes Eucharistos) also continued the tradition established by his forebears and is remembered mainly for the Rosetta Stone, without which it is doubtful that Egyptian hieroglyphs would have been deciphered.

deir el medinacoptic cross

There was an ancient Monastary at the Deir el Medina and carved Coptic crosses are still visible on the Temple to Hathor.

On the slopes of an area known as Sheikh Abd el Qurna made famous by the Nobles’ Tombs, there were another two monastic sites named after Saints Cyriacus and Epiphanius.  Epiphanius might be a reference to Ptolemy V who was called “Epiphanes”.  The monastery of St. Ephiphanius is about 20 meters above the road to Deir el-Bahri.    There is very little remaining today of this site but it can be seen at the entrance of the tomb of the 11th dynasty vizier Dagi, and there are known to have been Coptic settlements around this area.    The other monastery dedicated to Saint Cyriacus is located between the Nobles Tomb (TT 67) of Hapuseneb and (TT 65) of the tomb of Nebamon.    From the Deir el Bahri Road this is the first of the two sites, and the second one is just slightly  further up.
St. EpiphaniusSt. Epiphanius
Remains of the Monastery dedicated to St. Epephanius and a dish found on the site

Deir Abi Fam is the site of another Coptic Church and monastery which dates from around the 4th century AD.  However, for the average visitor, it is difficult to access.  It lies about 6 miles west of the Valley of the Queens.   One has to get to a place called al-Hamra and one has to cross the desert of al-Kula, and special permission might be required.

There were many hermits and destitute people living as Christians all over the West Bank.  Many of them were known as “Anchorites”, a name which was given to people who were unable to pay exorbitant taxes and as a result lost their homes and possessions.    Traces of them exist all around the area known as Qurna Murrat and they often occupied many of the empty tombs which they turned into homes for themselves.   Many tombs including some of the kings have been used as homes for these hermits and often are found traces of graffiti left by the inhabitants.

Temples of Luxor and the West Bank were also turned into many places of worship by these early Christians.    The Temple of Karnak became a Christian place of worship where the spaces in between the central columns accommodated them.   Also in this Great Festival Hall of Thuthmosis III five or six columns have been decorated with Christian Saints.

Within Luxor Temple there are remains within the Temple of Montu of a church which had three knaves and some pillars are still traceable.   These remains are believed to go back to about the fourth or fifth century AD. Also within Luxor Temple in the Court of Rameses II, the Mosque of Abu al-Haggag was built upon the remains of a Coptic Church and there are traces of a large basilica with a baptistery northwest of the nave southeast of the eastern pylon.    There are a number of columns and statue bases of about 12 in number which all bear inscriptions in Latin, and on about four of them are dedications to Maximian, Contantius, Galerius and the emperor Diocletian.   Sadly, virtually, all traces of these Christian churches have been removed and the visitor is often unaware of the Byzantine period, and before, of Egyptian History and the importance of the Coptic Heritage of Egypt, and in particular Luxor.      

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