An Empress and a Saint in the Desert

A widow well in her seventies travelled through the mountains and deserts of the Middle East looking for relics of her faith. Her discoveries led to her being chosen as the patron saint of archaeologists. This intrepid traveller, famed for finding pieces of the True Cross, was Flavia Iulia Helena Augusta, the mother of Emperor Constantine. With unlimited access to the Roman treasury, she built the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Church on the Mount of Olives, the Church on Mount Sinai and, it is said, the first monastery in the desert near the Valley of the Queens.

The monastery was dedicated to Saint Tawdros (Theodore), an officer in the Roman army under the Emperor Diocletian. Refusing the emperor's demand to worship Apollo, he was affixed to a tree with 153 nails. Honoured as a saint  in the Orthodox and Catholic churches, the Coptic Church celebrates his martyrdom on the 12th of Toba (the fifth month of the Coptic calendar). At the desert monastery near Luxor, the Saint is worshipped as El Mohareb, The Warrior. Following the iconography of many warrior saints, he appears in full military garb upon his rampant steed.

The original monastery built by St. Helena was demolished in the eleventh century. At some unspecified time later, the Saint appeared in a dream to the local governor and asked that the monastery be rebuilt. By this point in time, the previous monastery's existence had been forgotten so the Saint had to lead the governor to the site. Some of the blocks used to build the sanctuary have been recycled from a pharaonic temple, perhaps from nearby Medinat Habu, thus Coptic crosses were carved over upside down hieroglyphs.

Except for the presence of electricity that powers the water pump and the shrine's lamps, a visit to the monastery of Saint Tawdros feels very ascetic. On this particular Tuesday, we were the only visitors until the arrival of an important church official and six engineers who came to discuss the renewal of the church.

Behind the monastery lies a Coptic cemetery. The dead are clothed entirely in white, including a head scarf, gloves, and stockings. They are carried to the burial in a funeral bier and then lowered into tombs carved into the bedrock. Small entry pits give access to a wider chamber where several bodies are laid side by side. When the tomb is full, the chamber is sealed with bricks or a metal door and the pit is filled in. There are no markers. So very different from the gold tiled tomb and red granite sarcophagus of Empress Helena in Rome and the Vatican Museum.

But most certainly she would be pleased with the peacefulness and sanctity of the place.


View Larger Map
The vastness of the cemetery outside the monastery's walls is seen clearly in the satellite image.

Drive past the West Bank Antiquities ticket office on route to the Valley of the Queens. At the small police checkpoint there is a signed desert track leading to the monastery. The track runs close to the rear wall of Medinat Habu. Reflections in the Nile Blog, Palm Sunday Experience at St. Tawdros Monastery
Slideshow by CopticPower Coptic Monastery near Luxor - Thederos el Mohareb

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