Deir el Shuhada: In Reverence of Martyrs

Diocletian ascended Rome's imperial throne in difficult times. Anarchy of the third century A.D. had enabled invasions by Goths, Visigoths, Vandals and others, fueled civil wars that split the empire into three competing states, and fostered economic hardship through hyperinflation and the breakdown of once-prosperous trade networks. The empire was crumbling and it seemed to Diocletian that the moral fabric of his people was crumbling too.

With authoritarian single-mindedness he set out to rectify the empire's problems. To fix the administration of the empire he created the Rule of the Four (Tetrarchy); to fix the economy, he instituted wage and price controls, and to fix the moral fabric of the people he promoted "pious, religious, peaceable and chaste life" through veneration of the traditional Olympian gods and elimination of religious minorities. Beginning in 303 until his retirement in 305, Diocletian oversaw the worst persecution of Christians across the empire. It was most brutal in Egypt where more than half a million men, women and children are estimated to have been killed.

To mark the momentous suffering, Year 1 of the Coptic calendar is 284 A.D., the first year of Diocletian’s rule. Hence, 2011 corresponds to 1728 A.M (Anno Martyri – Year of the Martyrs). Moreover, martyrdom remains a significant cornerstone of Coptic faith. Copts honour those who die because of their faith, as seen in the martyrdom of those killed on Christmas Eve 2010 in Nag Hamadi and whose portraits appear on postcards recently seen in Luxor. It was with this background that an excursion to Deir el Shuhada, the Monastery of the Martyrs, located at the desert's edge near the city of Esna, was made.

In the first centuries A.D., Esna had a significant Christian population. A monk named Ammonius was ordained their bishop in the early years of fourth century as Diocletian's persecution was raging. Perhaps in the year 307 A.D., Ammonius took his congregation to the monastery of St. Isaac the Hermit, located in the mountains West of Esna, to celebrate the saint's feast day. Diocletian's appointed governor for the area, Arianus, followed with his troops and killed the congregation, said to number 160,000 people. Ammonius was arrested and tortured but would not recant his faith. Instead, he prophesized that Arianus himself would embrace Christianity and be martyred. With that, Ammonius was put to death. Remains of "innumerable bodies" found in a mass grave about three kilometres West of Esna, at a location that corresponds with the monastery of St. Isaac, provided tangible proof of the persecution.

The Monastery of the Martyrs is also known as Deir el Manawus, the Monastery of Ammonius. Tradition states that Ammonius built the monastery in the early fourth century but, as yet, there is no evidence for such an early date. Another tradition says that Queen Helena built the monastery to commemorate the martyrs. Today, there are two churches within the monastery which has been re-newed and re-inhabited by nuns. The newest church, dedicated to the Virgin and built in 1931, was required to hold the growing congregation that visits the monastery from the surrounding villages as well as pilgrims coming from further afield.

Copts do not worship saints. In fact, such worship is forbidden. Icons are "windows to heaven". The faithful pray before an icon to honour the life and deeds of the saint and to ask for the saint's intercession with God and Christ to help them in their daily lives. Prayers are often accompanied by the lighting of a candle placed before the icon. Appeals for help are also written on scraps of paper and slipped behind the glass that fronts the saint's image, as here before Saint George in the new Church of the Virgin at Deir el Shuhada.

Written appeals have a long tradition. In the older Church of the Martyrs prayers to Saint Theodore are preserved on the fragmentary plastered walls which probably date to the 11th or 12th century.

On the opposite wall rides another warrior saint, Saint Claudius.

Brooklyn Museum - Early Christian (Coptic) Monastery at Esna - Edwin Howland Blashfield
In ca. 1887, Edwin Blashfield visited the Church of the Martyrs and was able to provide a more wide-angle view of the sanctuary with a pencil than I could capture digitally. His drawing captures the central and southern haykals dedicated to the Holy Virgin and the Holy Martyrs of Esna, respectively.

No doubt, Blashfield saw more than meets the eye today. Some restoration work has taken place recently to stop further plaster fragments from falling off the mud-brick walls. Lacuna in the painted plaster emphasize the preciousness of the images that remain.

The concha (semidome) of the apse bears an image of Christ in Majesty. He sits within a mandorla symbolizing spiritual power or the transition of heaven and earth. He holds a codex in his left hand and raises his right hand in blessing. On the inner curve of the arch Saint Peter holds two keys in his left hand and points to them with his right. 

Below the dome is an image of the Virgin and Child (barely visible) sitting on a throne flanked by the archangels Michael and Gabriel, who hold orbs. A red cloth with white crosses covers the altar in the centre of the chapel. Time has faded, abraded and soiled the images but it has not hidden their glory.

The visit to the Monastery of the Martyrs was most enjoyable and enlightening. Worshipers welcomed us, shared sacramental bread, and proudly guided us around their monastery. Leaving, one of the nuns who now inhabit the monastery waved good-bye and locked the door behind her as has been done in centuries previous. They are reviving the monastic life inspired by the teachings of the fourth and fifth centuries. They "are social martyrs who have sacrificed their life in the world for an existence of worship and total dedication to the rules of the Church." (van Doorn-Harder, p. 17)


View Larger Map
Arriving at Deir el Shuhada by car, rather than by balloon from on high, I had no concept of the vastness of the cemetery that stretches to the West of the church complex. The satellite imagery from Google Maps provides a widened dimension of understanding of the monastery's context.

Cross the Nile at Luxor to the West Bank and turn left (South) on the Luxor-Esna highway. Some 46 km after the checkpoint and before arriving in Esna, there is a road on the right that leads off the highway to the West. This is a ring road that avoids the city's traffic jams. After 8 km turn right (West) at an intersection that takes you over the sugarcane railway tracks and onto a gravel road. Drive another 2 km and you will see the monastery on the left hand side. Christianity and Monasticism in Upper Egypt by Gawdat Gabra and Hany N. Takla: Chapter 10: Esna Martyrs, pages 95-104
Encyclopedia Coptica: The Christian Coptic Orthodox Church Of Egypt
Claremont Coptic Encyclopedia article: Dayr Al-Shuhada'
Nelly van Doorn-Harder article: Imagined Antiuqity: Coptic Nuns Living Between Past Ideals and Present Realities

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