The American Research Center in Eygpt

Monastery of St Matthew 'the Potter', Esna

Monastery of St Matthew 'the Potter', Esna

Monastery of St Matthew 'the Potter', Esna
COPTIC
LUXOR

The Monastery of St Matthew ‘the Potter’ – al-Dayr al-Qadis al-Anba Mata’us al-Fakhuri, Esna. 

In response to a request from Dr. Zahi Hawass, then

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Exterior View of the Monastery

Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, ARCE carried out a six-week season of survey, photographic recording and wall painting cleaning tests at the Dayr al-Fakhuri near Esna. The season was supported by the Antiquities Endowment Fund of ARCE with funds provided by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). 

The monastery is located approximately 60 km south of Luxor and nine kilometers northwest of the city of Esna near the village of Asfun. It is located in an area that until the early 1990s was on the low desert to the west of the Nile valley. Today it is surrounded by agricultural development projects that have extended the cultivable land in the region well beyond the natural western edge of the Nile valley floodplain. New villages built by farmers who have moved into the area to work the new field systems have grown up in the vicinity of the once isolated monastery.  Archaeologists, Coptologists and Egyptologists are familiar with the monastery as an historic site from previous work carried out both at the monastery itself and in the desert hermitages nearby.

 The most recent publication, by van Loon, summarizes the work of earlier archaeologists, includes a brief description of the monastery and its neighbor, al-Dayr al-Shuhada which is located closer to Esna, and provides an extensive bibliography .  Until about ten years ago the monastery had remained closed for many years with no resident monks, being opened and used only on special occasions. Recently, however, the monastery has been revived. There are now three monks living on the site with ten novices. There is a large Coptic community living nearby, mostly at Esna, who visit the monastery for services at weekends and on feast days. The monastery has thus become an important part of the local society, performing a public and private function in the lives of the people. Plans to develop the tourism potential of Esna as part of the Luxor Governorate’s development program include increasing tourism access to the monastery. 

When Sauneron and Leroy worked at the site during the 1960s, much more of the mediaeval layout of the monastery was visible than today. Presently, the standing buildings represent the nucleus of what was clearly once a much more extensive monastic establishment. An enclosure created partly from the surviving walls of half-demolished buildings and partly from actual enclosure walls contains two blocks of buildings. The northern block comprises the keep and the church of St. Matthew with surrounding buildings that have developed into their present form through various phases of adaptation and rebuilding.
The modern kitchen and toilets are also located in this section. The southern part includes a vaulted building of monks’ cells and refectory, a second church, now ruined, and a long since abandoned service area of storerooms and ancient kitchens. Outside this enclosure, to the east are traces of a larger enclosure with a substantially preserved wall now partly obscured by tamarisk trees and some water installations uncovered in undocumented excavations. Outside the present enclosure to the west, there is a significant archaeological mound with large amounts of broken pottery and pieces of broken fired bricks. A preliminary appraisal of the ceramics here suggests a date range from late Roman to modern. 

THE PROJECT

Despite the re-establishment of the small monastic community, the rapid growth of agriculture around the site and the growing community of Coptic faithful in the area, few changes have yet taken place at the monastery, which still preserves the integrity of its traditional lifestyle and historic architecture intact. Nevertheless, the population increase, the larger numbers of visitors, the groundwater and atmospheric humidity caused by the agricultural projects and housing developments mentioned above have introduced conservation issues that put the historic fabric at risk. Furthermore, proposed tourism access and increasing numbers of visitors threaten to bring about changes that will not only impact the existing conditions but inevitably compromise them with construction work, repairs, installations for vehicle parking and possibly tourist facilities. This situation creates a pressing need to record and document the traditional monastery and its cultural and physical environment before these are altered by modernization.  The work of this first season was limited in scope to the standing buildings in the northern part of the monastery enclosure. The work plan was divided into three stages.

 1. A complete photographic documentation of the existing conditions of the cultural heritage of the monastery including the buildings, the resident monks, the local Coptic community participating in the monastery life, the rituals performed in the monastery church (in particular the celebration of the Feast of St. Matthew on 15-16 December), the surrounding landscape and a detailed coverage of the mural paintings inside the monastery church.

2. A manual survey to record and document the historic structures of the keep, the church of St. Matthew and their immediate architectural context.

3. Cleaning tests on the interior walls of the church to investigate the condition of the plaster surfaces and the paintings and to provide data for a conservation project. 
 

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Cleaning tests throughout the church

The core of the church comprising its central domed nave and the room adjoining to the east constitutes the oldest part of the existing church building. On these walls are found the wall-paintings. The outer parts are later, and were not added in a single construction phase; in particular the domes over the church are of varied shape and structure. However, the oldest part of the church does not appear to be the earliest part of the architectural complex. Rooms to the west of it include parts of structures belonging to an earlier phase, possibly pre-dating the church.  Partially excavated structures outside the present monastery walls (not covered by the 2010 survey) are earlier than the keep, and possibly also earlier than the church. The large complex of buildings, which later shrank to the size of the present monastery, was surrounded by walls featuring round-fronted bastions, evidently emulating the impressive fortress into which the Luxor Temple was converted in the times of Diocletian. 

The paintings were first recorded by Jules Leroy in

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Cleaning test after treatment

1967 and 1968 and copied in facsimile watercolor drawings by Pierre Laferriérre in 1970 . When this work was done the paintings were obscured by dirt and thus poorly visible, presenting the same general impression as they do today. While the watercolors show some imaginative reconstructions, the black and white photographs provide a more accurate impression of the conditions of the church interior and its painted surfaces as they were just over forty years ago.

The noticeable differences between the conditions shown in Leroy’s published photographs and those observable today seem to be additional damage to the surfaces of the pillars caused by people touching the walls. Leroy’s photographs show the church completely empty of the furniture that today encumbers the interior, probably because in the 1960s the monastery was uninhabited and the church in use only occasionally. One striking aspect is the haikal wall enclosing the altar, on which there are elaborate painted crosses, monograms, and Arabic inscriptions. These images are now covered by a modern wooden screen that has been erected flush with the wall surface.  Today, conditions affecting the conservation of the church and paintings are influenced by several factors. Among the most recognizable are:  1. The technical and compositional factors of the materials used and how these have withstood the passage of time, and, where present, paintings in palimpsest. 2. Extremes of temperature variations fluctuating from winter to summer and the desert climate that contributes considerable amounts of dust to the interior environment of the church.  3. Water entering through broken or partly blocked windows and pipes thus causing washing of the walls and saline efflorescence.  4. Colonies of insects.  5. Consolidated and unconsolidated deposits of particulate matter, wax residues from candles, smoke and oil deposits from lamps.  6. Previous attempts to clean the paintings using inappropriate methods and materials affecting particularly the lower parts.  7. Wetting the walls in recent times to enliven the colors for copying and to read inscriptions.  8. Abrasions caused by people touching the lower parts of the walls and pillars.  Despite these observations, the paintings are generally in a good state of preservation. The plaster is well consolidated and generally intact with the exception of a few localized cases where there are some gaps and abraded surfaces. 
 

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Cleaning test

Cleaning tests were carried out to obtain an overview of the state of preservation of the paintings and plaster layers on which they were applied; to ascertain the characteristics of plaster and paint layers to develop guidelines for future conservation treatment; to determine the working methods of the original painters and those responsible for the various palimpsests. In cases where emergency treatment was necessary, such as detaching plaster or flaking paint layers, some emergency stabilizing interventions were carried out. 
 

CONCLUSION AND FURTHER WORK

The survey and conservation cleaning tests carried in the church have shown that much work still remains to be done to provide a comprehensive documentation of the historic aspects of the monastery and its place in the contemporary community of the Coptic church, local people, visitors, scholars and other interest groups. Only one half of the ancient monastery enclosure has so far been mapped leaving the southern part with monastic cells and the ruined church and service buildings still to be documented, as well as all the surrounding extra-mural areas now at risk from development. The cleaning tests have shown that well-preserved paintings survive in the church. These paintings have affinities with the 13th century paintings at St. Anthony’s Monastery suggesting that they may also date to the period of Egyptian Christian artistic revival that occurred at that time.  Nevertheless, they exhibit striking differences that indicate a separate Upper Egyptian inspiration. There is no doubt that the church would benefit from a complete conservation project that would include the cleaning and conservation of the paintings to bring them back into the lives of the community and to provide access to them for art historians, Coptologists and other interested scholars. Such a project would be the first at this site to address the historic phasing of the architecture and the development of the monastery through the mediaeval and post-mediaeval periods.

The team members were Abuna Maximous al-Antony (Coptic Church Liaison), Amal Nasr Muhammad Awaida (SCA Inspector), Michael Jones (Project Director), JarosÅ‚aw Dobrowolski (Surveyor), Owen Murray (Photographer), and Luigi De Cesaris, Alberto Sucato and Emiliano Ricchi (Conservators). Abuna Serapamun al-Bakhumi and Abuna Ruwais al-Matta’us were the project’s generous hosts at the monastery. The results presented would not have been possible without their hospitality and willingness to provide access and assistance in all aspects of the work.

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