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Christianity and Monasticism in the Fayoum OasisEssays from the 2004 International Symposium of the Saint Mark Foundation and the Saint Shenouda the Archimandrite Coptic Society in Honor of Martin Krause$

Gawdat Gabra

Print publication date: 2005

Print ISBN-13: 9789774248924

Published to Cairo Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5743/cairo/9789774248924.001.0001

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The Early Christian Churches of Tebtunis Discovered by the Italian Mission in 1930–1933

The Early Christian Churches of Tebtunis Discovered by the Italian Mission in 1930–1933

Chapter:
(p.197) 17 The Early Christian Churches of Tebtunis Discovered by the Italian Mission in 1930–1933
Source:
Christianity and Monasticism in the Fayoum Oasis
Author(s):

Gawdat Gabra

Publisher:
American University in Cairo Press
DOI:10.5743/cairo/9789774248924.003.0017

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the early Christian churches discovered at the Fayoum Oasis in Egypt between 1930 and 1933 by an Italian mission directed by Carlo Anti and later by Gilberto Bagnani. All the three churches at Tebtunis are provincial in character with a rather meagre articulation of the central naves. This chapter provides relevant photographs and the floor plan of the church made based on the visible features of the excavation.

Keywords:   Christian churches, Tebtunis, Fayoum Oasis, Egypt, Carlo Anti, Gilberto Bagnani

APART FROM THE TOWN of Crocodilopolis—or Arsinoë, as it was called later—no large settlement existed in the Fayoum. All the Fayoum sites known to archaeology are either large or small villages. None of these contains an early Christian monument of a higher architectural standard than would have existed in Arsinoë.1 It is therefore a pity that practically no monumental architecture survives in this town. On the other hand, the churches in the villages give a good idea of how Christian church architecture in the chora was understood. It also demonstrates that its character was not the same everywhere.

Churches are principally known from Narmuthis2 (modern Madinat Madi), and Tebtunis (modern Umm al-Baraygat), both situated at the eastern margin of the Fayoum and thus relatively close to the Nile Valley. In other villages, only a few churches were discovered. One was partially excavated by W.M. Flinders Petrie in the cemetery of Hawara (Petrie 1890: 21, pl. 6; Grossmann 2002: 427 ff., fig. 49), which will be reexamined by a Belgian mission (Uytterhoeven 2001); there is apparently one at the northern margin of Karanis,3 and there are also some examples of monastic churches in other villages of the Fayoum.4

The examples from Tebtunis are the most regular ones, and I will concentrate on these buildings because today practically nothing is visible of them. They are three in number, were all excavated between 1930 and 1933 by an Italian mission directed by Carlo Anti and later by Gilberto Bagnani.

(p.198) Churches A and B were excavated in 1930 and 1931 by Anti, but never published.5 His report was forthcoming in the Revista Archeologica but was never printed, probably because of the disturbances of the Fascist movement in Italy. The plans of these churches, made by the mission's architect, Fausto Franco, are kept in the Archaeological Institute of the University of Padua, and I am indebted to the generosity of Prof. Luigi Polacco, head of that Institute, who handed these drawings to me and permitted their publication.

Church C was excavated in 1933 by Gilberto Bagnani 1933: esp. 122–126). It is the most famous, and was decorated with some interesting wall paintings, now on display in the Coptic Museum in Cairo (Gabra 1993: 71, fig. 19). But apparently a plan was never produced for this church, and I received only a number of photographs documenting this monument. However, I was lucky enough to identify a correspondence between details appearing on these photographs and some of the surviving physical remains in the area. Other remnants were completely covered by windblown sand. I measured the visible features to obtain a rough idea of the size of the building. The rest of the plan of this church was drawn based on the photographs.

The Early Christian Churches of Tebtunis Discovered by the Italian Mission in 1930–1933

Fig. 17.1a. View into the central chambers of the sanctuary with traces of the former apse at the floor (Courtesy of the Italian Mission).

(p.199) Church A

All three churches at Tebtunis are provincial in character with a rather meager articulation of the central naves. The reason for this was obviously that the central nave had only a flat roof, which did not allow a wider span.6 The first church, designated A was not originally a church, but a three-aisled colonnaded hall, probably a public basilica, with sequences of pilasters and several niches along the inner sides of the walls. We do not know when this building was turned into a church. But, from the character of its construction it is reasonable to assume that it was built before the Arab conquest in A.D. 642.

Two phases of renovation are recognizable, corresponding to the conversion of the building into a church. At first only an apse was erected inside the eastern part of the building while the interior colonnades were apparently kept as they had been before. Parts of the lower stone socket of the eastern apse are still in situ (fig. 17.1a). The shape of the apse is slightly pointed. It was probably fitted with two side chambers, the so-called pastophoria, but of them nothing survives.

During a second phase, the sanctuary with the apse at the eastern end

The Early Christian Churches of Tebtunis Discovered by the Italian Mission in 1930–1933

Fig. 17.1b. View from the southwest into the nave (Courtesy of the Swiss Institute).

(p.200) was replaced by a sequence of three almost square units opening off each other by biforia with central columns (fig. 17.1b), as also occurs in some churches in Kellia.7 Because the biforia required stronger abutments of the arches, in our example of Tebtunis these abutments were not only erected in front of the walls, but were partly inserted into the masonry of the eastern outer wall (fig. 17.1a). The southern side chamber had an additional entrance from the nave and a window beside it (fig. 17.1b), while the northern side chamber was accessible only from the central main chamber. But there was a larger arched window in the partition wall between the northern aisle and the side chamber. In the nave, apparently as part of the same renovation, new colonnades were erected8 including two stronger pillars in a transverse position in the west to separate a western return aisle from the central nave.

The last changes in the church were carried out when it seems that the roof of the northern aisle fell into decay. But, instead of doing a correct repair of the building, the builders walled up the intercolumnia so that the northern aisle became closed off from the interior of the church. Apparently the Christian population in the village was already so much reduced in number, with a corresponding decrease in financial resources, that nothing else could have been done.

Church B

Of the second church at Tebtunis (Church B), only a few traces survive. But enough remains to create a sufficiently complete idea of its form. The church had a three-aisled nave with a western return aisle and a rather broad tripartite sanctuary. Unlike Church A, its central nave is slightly emphasized. On a later occasion the western return aisle was separated from the rest of the church by two archways erected in the position of the two corner pillars at the western ends of both lateral aisles.

The central main chamber of the sanctuary was wider than the nave. Unfortunately, nothing survives to indicate the position and the width of the triumphal arch. In comparison with the central part of the sanctuary, the two lateral side chambers are rather narrow.

Church C

The third, Church C, was excavated in 1933 by Gilberto Bagnani (fig. 17.2). It is the most interesting one and it is unfortunate that no plan of this church dating to the time of its excavation is available. The drawing I (p.201)

The Early Christian Churches of Tebtunis Discovered by the Italian Mission in 1930–1933

Fig. 17.2. Church C. (Drawing: Peter Grossmann).

(p.202) have included is virtually entirely based on photographs taken by the Italian mission during the course of the excavation. Therefore, a number of questions—such as the exact positions of the columns, which could easily have been determined when they were visible—must remain open or can be only vaguely fixed on the plan.

This church also underwent several changes. It is a three-aisled basilica with entrances from north and west. Whether it was provided with a western return aisle is not fully clear. None of the photographs I had in hand offered a view of the central part of the western end of the church with a view to any existing traces of a central column in the west. But, the distance of the westernmost pair of columns from the western wall, as indicated by the shadow of these columns, is noticeably wider than the normal intercolumnia between the other columns of the church, supporting the idea that the builder of the church understood this part of the nave as a transverse passage.9 Furthermore, Bagnani 1933: 122) describes this area as the pronaos of the church. Since the interior distance of the two westernmost columns is rather wide I feel encouraged to add a central column between them.

In the northern wall of the church three large windows survived, at least until the time of the excavation. Now they are all lost. Just to the left of the northern door a small rectangular niche was later cut into the wall. In front of this niche there are four post-holes in the floor indicating the position of a table or a large cupboard, probably for relics.10 It may also be the case that a tomb was located below this installation, because later investigations at this spot revealed a strong stone foundation below the table or cupboard. In the less-well-preserved southern wall, high up at the western end only, there was a narrow opening, which probably belonged to a ventilation shaft.11

A narthex is extant in front of the church, which was added later (not indicated in the plan). It was apparently an exonarthex with a large colonnaded opening in the west. Later, probably when some of the columns were lost, they were replaced by continuous walls. Only one column remained in place embedded in masonry to the top. At the same time the whole area was divided into two unequal sections.

The tripartite sanctuary is rather rich in details. Only the central main chamber has a large opening to the nave. This triumphal arch stands on two relatively small columns, not on the floor, but upon a small recess in the masonry. Behind this on the northern side of the main chamber (p.203) a large, originally arched niche is situated. There is also a smaller niche in the eastern wall of the chamber and a small stairway of three steps in front of it, probably serving as a replacement for a synthronon as is customary in other churches. The southern side chamber is openly connected to the central main chamber through a high arch that was added later by replacing an earlier, probably closed wall at this position. The chamber has two niches, a window and, in the northeast corner, a trough, probably for water. The column in the center is also a later addition, probably a support for the ceiling. The entrance from the nave into this chamber was later enlarged by pulling down the entire northern part of the wall. The northern side chamber has only a narrow entrance from the northern aisle of the nave.

The paved area in front of the central and the southern chamber of the sanctuary is slightly raised. The area was once screened, as indicated by the presence of fixing holes in the two easternmost columns of the church. According to the surviving holes in the columns still standing, these screens reached a rather high level, apparently taller than a man's height.12 In front of the original entrance into the southern side chamber, a reused sigma shaped mensa of marble is inserted into the floor (fig. 17.3a). Its purpose at this position is not clear. In front of the main chamber the screened area has been extended further into the nave as indicated by the fixing holes in the bases and shafts of the columns. We do not know whether this was done because the altar was to be placed here. Another possible position of the altar might have been a large rectangular block of stone situated, if it is in situ, just below the triumphal arch of the sanctuary.

All these churches of Tebtunis are dated more or less to the seventh century A.D. None of them shows traces of a later insertion of a khurus, a particular feature of early medieval church architecture in Egypt, probably introduced by the patriarch Benjamin I (628–665) when he took refuge in the Monastery of Apa Shenoute at Atribis in Upper Egypt (Grossmann 1995: esp. 130). We do not know how long these churches of Tebtunis were in use. Because of the absence of a khurus in all of the described churches, it cannot have been very long. On the other hand, they testify that the khurus was not adopted in the general program of church building in Egypt as early as in the monastic churches.

In Churches A and C some strange small interior structures are extant (figs.17.5b and 17.6), which we have not yet mentioned. They were erected upon the pavement and stand in both cases in the western part (p.204)

The Early Christian Churches of Tebtunis Discovered by the Italian Mission in 1930–1933

Fig. 17.3a. Church C, reused sigma-shaped mensa of unknown purpose inserted into the floor (Courtesy of the Italian Mission).

The Early Christian Churches of Tebtunis Discovered by the Italian Mission in 1930–1933

Fig. 17.3b. Church A, unknown structure, northern aisle (Courtesy of the Italian Mission).

(p.205) of the churches, in Church A in the northern aisle (fig. 17.3b), and in Church C in the central nave (fig. 17.4). The construction consists in both cases of a short and low eastern entrance wall with a very low and narrow arched opening (about 60 centimeters high) leading into a small semicircular space behind, which was, because of the thin surrounding wall, apparently open to the top. In the example of Church C the rear space is covered partly by a semicircular slab of stone.13 We do not understand the function of these structures. Bagnani 1933: 122) explains them as installations for the ceremony of foot washing on Maundy Thursday and on Epiphany (“fonte per il mandato e ľepifania”), but this can hardly be the case because foot-washing basins and Epiphany tanks known from the churches in Old Cairo are quite different.

During the excavation a number of decorated limestone blocks with architectural molding were discovered. We do not know their provenance, but the majority of them were found in the churches. They are all clearly reused pieces, manufactured for other buildings and datable generally to the fifth and sixth centuries.

The Early Christian Churches of Tebtunis Discovered by the Italian Mission in 1930–1933

Fig. 17.4. Church C, unknown structure, central nave (Courtesy of the Italian Mission).

The most important group of reused stones consists of a number of capitals. There are several Corinthian capitals or dependents of this type. Two of them have no abacus as was the fashion in the late fifth and early sixth centuries. The second piece of this kind was reworked at a later date. The impost capitals are numerous, and belong to a type developed in Constantinople at the end of the fifth century to be used for columns in combination with arches. The purpose of this invention was to overcome the aesthetic conflict of being loaded with weight that was not only vertical, as was the case with classical types of capitals. In earlier times a special impost block was placed between the top (p.206)

The Early Christian Churches of Tebtunis Discovered by the Italian Mission in 1930–1933

Fig. 17.5a. Basket capital with mythological animal head at the upper corners, reused in church A (Courtesy of the Italian Mission).

The Early Christian Churches of Tebtunis Discovered by the Italian Mission in 1930–1933

Fig. 17.5b. Basket capital with a richly decorated abacus (Courtesy of the Italian Mission).

of the capitals and the springers of the arches. The early examples of these impost blocks were shaped as architraves.14 Among these impost capitals are three different versions of basket capitals (figs. 17.5a, 17.5b), one of them with animal heads in the corners (fig. 17.5a). But the animals are sculptured in such a stylized way that it is hard to identify them. The animal on the left side could possibly be a lion.

There is one piece with floral decoration in a geometric pattern (fig. 17.5c) similar to a number of marble capitals from Constantinople with à jour-work, and there is also a so-called “kettle capital” (fig. 17.5d), richly decorated with stylized floral motives.

In addition to these fully plastic capitals the Italians found several friezes and pilaster capitals. All the latter are different in design, giving an idea of how many other buildings were dismantled to get access to this material. Since all the pieces are relatively small in size they probably originate from chapels in some neighboring late antique or early Christian cemeteries.

There is also a large water-jug stand with a waterspout in front in the form of a stylized lion's head. Another piece of interest, although unfortunately very eroded, is a decorated block apparently showing a female person in a wreath held by two flying angels, a motif copied from pagan decoration with victories replaced by angels. In the neighborhood of Church B, a decorated impost block was found with a picture of a lion. It probably belongs to a wider arch. (p.207)

The Early Christian Churches of Tebtunis Discovered by the Italian Mission in 1930–1933

Fig. 17.5c. Impost capital with geometric pattern filled with acanthus leaves (Courtesy of the Italian Mission).

The Early Christian Churches of Tebtunis Discovered by the Italian Mission in 1930–1933

Fig. 17.5d. “Kettle capital” with rich decoration (Courtesy of the Italian Mission).

Notes

(1.) Concerning the destruction of the town there are some disappointing contemporary comments such as those of G. Schweinfurth and A. Grohmann (quoted in Grossmann 2002: 5 ff.). Of the excavation of a church at Arsinoë in 1867 by Auguste Mariette, we know only from his unpublished find journal (now in the Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris, Nouv.acq. franç. 20.167). In connection with a number of bronze vessels discovered in this church and now on display in the Coptic Museum, see Bénazeth 2001, 411 ff. Of the church itself nothing is known.

(2.) See the reports on the seasons of excavations at Madinat Madii by Bresciani, et al. (1984; 1987; 1988; 1989), in the course of which eight churches dating before the Arab conquest were excavated. A short reference is given to most of them also in Grossmann 2002: 419–423, figs. 39–44.

(3.) Not published.

(4.) Recent very successful excavations were carried out by the Polish mission to Dayr al-Malak (the Monastery of the Archangel Gabriel) at Naqlun. The reports have been published in various places. Discoveries since 1991 have been regularly described by Godlewski in Polish Archaeology in the Mediterranean (PAM) 3 (1991)–13 (2001).

(5.) They are briefly mentioned in Bagnani 1934: esp. 8.

(6.) On the roofs of the early Christian churches in Egypt cf. Grossmann 2002: 155 ff.

(7.) As pars pro toto the basilica of QIsa 366 (cf. Haeny and Leibundgut 1999: 19 ff., fig. 2); and the small monastic church QIz 16 (cf. Descoeudres 1989: 51 ff., fig. 36).

(8.) The original colonnades should have been more regularly distributed than the existing ones.

(9.) In my earlier reconstruction of this church (Grossmann 2002: fig. 47), the distance (p.208) between the last pair of columns and the western wall was erroneously estimated as being as wide as the distances between all the other columns.

(10.) On such cupboards or shelves for relics in churches see Grossmann 2002: 200–202.

(11.) Similar ventilation shafts are known also from some monastic churches and monks' cells, cf. Grossmann 2002: 109, 187.

(12.) Such high screens (cancelli) are not unusual in early Christian churches in Egypt. According to Apophthegma patrum 189 (Daniel 7), repeated also in Sawiris ibn al-Muqaffẚ 1943 : 166 (= fol. 145v.-146r), visitors to the church needed to stand upon a step if they wanted to see the activities in the sanctuary during the liturgy.

(13.) Slightly similar structures of equally unknown purpose were also discovered recently at the Monastery of Apa Shenoute at Sohag; unpublished.

(14.) See the examples in the mausoleum of Constantina (rotunda of Santa Costanza) in Rome (fourth century), Deichmann 1948: 27, pl. 10.

Notes:

(1.) Concerning the destruction of the town there are some disappointing contemporary comments such as those of G. Schweinfurth and A. Grohmann (quoted in Grossmann 2002: 5 ff.). Of the excavation of a church at Arsinoë in 1867 by Auguste Mariette, we know only from his unpublished find journal (now in the Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris, Nouv.acq. franç. 20.167). In connection with a number of bronze vessels discovered in this church and now on display in the Coptic Museum, see Bénazeth 2001, 411 ff. Of the church itself nothing is known.

(2.) See the reports on the seasons of excavations at Madinat Madii by Bresciani, et al. (1984; 1987; 1988; 1989), in the course of which eight churches dating before the Arab conquest were excavated. A short reference is given to most of them also in Grossmann 2002: 419–423, figs. 39–44.

(3.) Not published.

(4.) Recent very successful excavations were carried out by the Polish mission to Dayr al-Malak (the Monastery of the Archangel Gabriel) at Naqlun. The reports have been published in various places. Discoveries since 1991 have been regularly described by Godlewski in Polish Archaeology in the Mediterranean (PAM) 3 (1991)–13 (2001).

(5.) They are briefly mentioned in Bagnani 1934: esp. 8.

(6.) On the roofs of the early Christian churches in Egypt cf. Grossmann 2002: 155 ff.

(7.) As pars pro toto the basilica of QIsa 366 (cf. Haeny and Leibundgut 1999: 19 ff., fig. 2); and the small monastic church QIz 16 (cf. Descoeudres 1989: 51 ff., fig. 36).

(8.) The original colonnades should have been more regularly distributed than the existing ones.

(9.) In my earlier reconstruction of this church (Grossmann 2002: fig. 47), the distance (p.208) between the last pair of columns and the western wall was erroneously estimated as being as wide as the distances between all the other columns.

(10.) On such cupboards or shelves for relics in churches see Grossmann 2002: 200–202.

(11.) Similar ventilation shafts are known also from some monastic churches and monks' cells, cf. Grossmann 2002: 109, 187.

(12.) Such high screens (cancelli) are not unusual in early Christian churches in Egypt. According to Apophthegma patrum 189 (Daniel 7), repeated also in Sawiris ibn al-Muqaffẚ 1943 : 166 (= fol. 145v.-146r), visitors to the church needed to stand upon a step if they wanted to see the activities in the sanctuary during the liturgy.

(13.) Slightly similar structures of equally unknown purpose were also discovered recently at the Monastery of Apa Shenoute at Sohag; unpublished.

(14.) See the examples in the mausoleum of Constantina (rotunda of Santa Costanza) in Rome (fourth century), Deichmann 1948: 27, pl. 10.