This monastery, one of the four well known of its kind in Wadi al-Natrun, was probably founded in the sixth century, though some might date it later. It is located about five hundred meters northwest of the Monastery of Saint Bishoi.
Its establishment is closely connected with Julian's heretical doctrine which spread throughout Egypt under the patriarchate of Timothy III (517-535). The Julianist (Gaianists, after Archdeacon Gaianus, a supporter of Julianist theology who was a bishop in Alexandria c. 550 was an even more extreme approach to Julianist) heresy, which owes its name to its principal exponent Julian, a theologian and bishop of Halicarnassus (Halicarnarsus) in Ionia, is also called Aphtartodocetism (Aphthartcdocetae or Phantasiastae). Julian was exiled to Egypt for having defined the doctrine of the incorruptibility of Christ's body. Julianist basically believe in an extreme view that the body of the Lord Jesus Christ was incapable of corruption. They held that Christ's body was so inseparably united with the Holy Father that its natural attributes made it sinless and incorruptible.
To the Orthodox Church, however, Christ had taken human flesh that prevented him from being ideal and abstract and therefore corruptible. Thus, the Orthodox Church reaffirmed and clarified the idea of the real human nature of Christ. Yet, in the monasteries at Wadi al-Naturn (Scetis), the monks embraced the doctrine of Julian. A majority of the monks became followers of Aphtartodocetism, while those who refused the doctrine obtained permission from the governor Aristomachus to erect new churches and monasteries so that they could settle apart from the Julianists.
These new facilities were often built along side the old ones, even keeping the same name but adding to it Theotokos (Mother of God, or God-bearer). In this way, they recognized the significance of the incarnation, which Aphtartodocetism seemed to minimize, and thus reaffirmed the charismatic dignity of the Holy Virgin.
The Monastery of the Syrians was thus established by those of the St. Bishoi (Pishoi) monastery who were opposed to Julianist doctrines. Hence, it was originally the Monastery of the Holy Virgin Theotokos, but by the beginning of the eighth century, the problems between the Orthodox Christians and the Julianists died out and there was no longer any necessity to maintain two distinct monasteries. Therefore, it was sold to a group of wealthy Syrian merchants originally from Tekrit in Mesopotamia for the sum of 12,000 dinars. They had settled in al-Fustat in Old Cairo, and a certain Marutha from Takrit in eastern Syria converted it for use by Syrian monks who renamed it the Monastery of the Holy Virgin of the Syrians. However, some manuscripts refer to it as the Monastery of the Mother of God of the Syrians at that point. There had actually been Syrian monks at Wadi al-Natrun since the end of the fourth century, living amongst the other monks. Perhaps, the Syrians wished to live in a monastic community that would be ethnically and culturally homogeneous.
Overall Plan of the Monastery
All of the Monasteries in the Wadi al-Natrun were subjected to horrible attacks by desert tribes, and the fifth of these by Berbers in 817 AD was particularly disastrous to this monastery. Afterwards in 850, it was rebuilt thanks primarily to the persistent labor of two monks, Matthew and Abraham. After having traveled to Baghdad to ask the caliph al-Muqtadir bi'llah to grant tax exemption to the monasteries, in 927 AD, a learned and cultured hegumen (hegomenos, a title given to priests and monks to emphasize their leading roles) named Moses of Nisibis (c. 907-943 AD) traveled to Syria and Mesopotamia in search of manuscripts. After having spent three years gathering material, he returned to Egypt, bringing with him 250 Syrian manuscripts. Soon, the monastery became an a prosperous and important facility, possessing many artistic treasures and a library rich in Syrian texts, making it a fundamental source of history and culture of Syria.
We know, from a census taken by Mawhub ibn Mansur, the co-author of the History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic Church, that the monastery was populated by some sixty monks at the end of the eleventh century (1088). At that time it was the third largest in the wadi, after those of St. Macarius and St. John the Little. We are told that sometime in the middle of the twelfth century, it must have witnessed a period of trouble for a period of ten years when "no Syrian priests was present there".
In the fourteenth century, as with other monasteries here, it was once again decimated, but this time by the scourge of the plague. Thus, when a monk named Moses from the monastery of Mar Gabriel in Tur Abdin called on this monastery in 1413, he found just one remaining Syrian monk. This time, it was the Patriarch of Antioch, Ignatius XI, who visited the monastery at the end of the fifteenth century and granted to it privileges and donations in order to restore it to its former glory. However, by now, Egyptians were once again beginning to inhabit the monastery and by 1516, only eighteen of the forty-three monks were Syrian.
The trend of Egyptian replacing the Syrians continued as the prosperity of the monastery increased. By the time of the patriarchate of Gabriel VII (1526-1569), who himself had been a monk at the Monastery of the Syrians, it was able to supply ten monks to the Monastery of St. Paul and twenty to that of St. Anthony in the Eastern Desert when those two communities were damaged by Bedouin raids.
In the seventeenth century, western travelers from France, Germany and England visited the monastery and reported that there were two churches, one for the Syrians and the other for the Coptic Christian monks. They also mention a miraculous "St. Ephrem's tree". Interestingly, according to tradition, Ephrem was a fourth century Syrian theologian and ascetic from Nisibis. He sought to meet the holy monk Pshoi, and thus came to the monastic centers of the wadi. We are told that he visited Pshoi's hermitage that was located on the future site of the monastery of the Syrians. However, when the two men met, they were unable to communicate because Ephrem spoke only Syrian. Yet, suddenly and miraculously, Pshoi began to express himself in that language, enabling his visitor to understand him. During this exchange, it is said that Ephrem leaned his staff against the door of the hermitage and all at once it became rooted and even sprouted foliage. Near the church of the Holy Virgin, monks will continue to point out even today this tamarind, miraculously born from Ephrem's staff.
By the middle of the seventeenth century, there is no evidence that Syrian monks still inhabited the monastery, as evidenced by the visit of Peter Heyling, the Lutheran missionary of Lubeck in 1634. This fact may have surprised the Levanese Joseph Simeonis (Yusuf'Sim'an) Assemani, who was sent to Egypt by Pope Clement XI to seek ancient texts in 1715 and 1735. When he visited the Monastery of the Syrians, he found not a single Syrian monk. Nevertheless, he did manage to visit the monastery library and acquire forty precious manuscripts that today are kept in the Vatican Library.
Later, between 1839 and 1851, the British Museum in London was also able to procure about five hundred Syrian manuscripts from the monastery library, concerned not only with religious topics, but also with philosophy and literature. Actually, in 1730, Granger was refused entry to the library and Browne found it impossible to obtain any manuscripts in 1792. However, in 1799 Andreossy removed some manuscripts and Lord Curzon actually purchased a considerable quantity in 1837. Tattam secured many manuscripts for the British Museum in 1839, while Tischendorf obtained only a few parchment sheets in 1844. The British Museum secured over two hundred items from Pacho in 1847, though in 1852, Brugsch was unable to purchase any. Other visitors to the monastery included Lansing (1862), Chester (1873), Junkers (1875), Jullien (1881) and Butler (1883).
Afterwards, these very manuscripts inspired intense research on the Syriac language and culture, for until that time, many classical texts from Aristotle, Euclid, Archimedes, Hippocrates and Galen were known to Western scholars only in their thirteenth century Latin translations. Even these were often translations from earlier Arabic sources.
Even though many of the manuscripts from the Monastery of the Syrians have reached us in a fragmented state, these documents are the oldest copies of important Greek classical texts, with some dating back to the fifth century.
Only two Coptic patriarchs came from the Monastery of the Syrians. They were Gabriel VII the modern Pope, Shenouda III. Both patriarchs shared a common interest in restoring and repopulating abandoned monasteries.
The monastery of the Syrians provides a great opportunity to study the development of Coptic wall painting. Between 1991 and 1999, several segments of wall paintings layered on top of each other were uncovered in the Church of the Holy Virgin and the Chapel of he Forty-nine Martyrs, dating from between the seventh and the thirteenth centuries. Undoubtedly, the ongoing project to uncover, restore and conserve wall paintings within this monastery will increase our knowledge about Christian Art in Egypt.
The Monastery Buildings
The Enclosure Walls
The walls of the monastery enclose a rather unusual plan in relationship to others in the Wadi al-Naturn. They form an almost rectangular quadrilateral with the short sides measuring 36 meters at one end and 54 meters at the other. The two longer sides measure some 160 meters. The height of the walls varies between nine and a half and eleven and a half meters. Traditionally, the monks explain this abnormal plan in an unlikely way. According to them, the monastery was built on a model of Noah's ark. These walls most likely date to the end of the ninth century. The entrance to the monastery is located at the west end of the northern side of this enclosure wall.
The Keep (Tower)
The mammoth keep (qasr) is situated west of the north entrance to the monastery. We believe it was built in the middle of the ninth century, but at any rate it was built after the enclosure walls. It belongs to a less well developed type of tower, of which the oldest examples may be found at Kellia. It consists of four stories, with access granted by a wooden drawbridge to the second floor. This is a somewhat typical configuration, where the bottom floor was used for storage of food supplied as well as the production of flour, oil and wine in order to assure supplies during a siege.
In order to further insure the complete autonomy during times of trouble, there was also a water well.
The second floor was, for centuries, used to house the precious library of manuscripts that were gradually surrendered, mostly to experts from the West, who sought out these volumes to enrich the collections of the Vatican Library and the British Museum.
The third story, consisting of a corridor with four vaulted rooms to one side and two on the other, probably provided housing to the monks during time of danger.
The Church of the Holy Virgin (el-Adra)
The Church of the Holy Virgin within this monastery is very ancient, dating to probably 645 AD (though some references date it as about 950 AD) and was constructed in the basilican style originally with a wooden roof. Were it not for the court and a side chapel that is dedicated to the forty-nine martyrs of Sebaste, its plan would be almost perfectly rectangular, measuring twenty-eight meters long by twelve meters wide.
The Chapel of the Forty-Nine Martyrs
Attached to the north side of the Church of the Holy Virgin is the Chapel of the Forty-Nine Martyrs. Moses of Nisibis was probably also responsible for this building. It is entered through the court at the north entrance of this church. In 444, forty-nine martyrs were massacred during a bloody raid by the Berbers who plundered the monasteries of Wadi al-Naturn. It is to them that the chapel is dedicated. Buried within the chapel is Anba Christodulus, the abun of Ethiopia at the beginning of the seventeenth century.
The Church of St. Mary (al-Sitt Mariam or Maryam, Church of the Lady Mary)
Dedicated to the Holy Virgin, as is the principal church, this structure dates from the ninth century, according to some references, or to the eleventh century, according to others, and, with the exception of the cupola over the main sanctuary, precisely reproduces the Typology of monastic churches in Tur Abdin. It is also made up of a naos, khurus and triple sanctuary that may have been built in the fourteenth or fifteenth century.
The Church of St. Honnos and Marutha
This church, which is no longer in use, is attached to the east wall of the Church of St. Mary. It dates from the beginning of the fifteenth century, a period in which the monks from the ruined monastery of St. John Kama took refuge in this monastery. St. John Kama, whose remains were transferred here, is therefore closely associated with this monastery.
The Church of St. John the Little
The ruins of the Church dedicated to St. John the Little stand in the northeast corner of the monastery enclosure wall. Until the nineteenth century, Ethiopian monks occupied this church after their own monastery had fallen into ruins. Ethiopian monks lived in the monastic communities of Scetis as early as the twelfth century and at one time occupied a monastery dedicated to St. Elisha. After that monastery fell into ruins, they were received by the monks of the Monastery of the Holy Virgin of St. John the Little. However, that monastery also had to be abandoned because of its precarious state, and the few remaining Ethiopian monks were then welcomed by the monks in the Monastery of the Syrians.
West of the Church of the Holy Virgin is the ancient refectory, which is no longer in use. It is mostly rectangular (the east wall is slightly longer than the west one), with a masonry table running down its axis. This table is flanked by chairs that are also of masonry. The room is roofed with a vast cupola in which small windows are opened to admit illumination. Near the east wall of the refectory is a large stone pulpit from which the sacred texts were raid and the saints' lives were revealed during the common meal.
Syria's influence in Egypt
The Monastery of the Syrians in Wadi al-Natrun