El-Qusiya, Egypt - November 4th, 2011: A Coptic family visits a shrine at Deir al-Muharraq monastery  also called the Burned Monastery. Being one of the oldest functioning monasteries in the world it is an important pilgrimage place for Coptic Christians. Deir Al Muharraq monastery

Luis Dafos/Getty

Deir Al Muharraq

Northern Nile Valley

Deir Al Muharraq, an hour’s drive northwest of Asyut, is a place of pilgrimage, refuge and vows, where the strength of Coptic traditions can be experienced. Resident monks believe that Mary and Jesus inhabited a cave on this site for six months and 10 days after fleeing from Herod, their longest stay anywhere they are said to have rested in Egypt. Tradition states that the Church of Al Azraq (the Anointed) sits over the cave and is the world’s oldest Christian church, consecrated around AD 60.

There has been monastic life here since the 4th century, although the current building dates from the 12th to 13th centuries. Unusually, the church contains two iconostases; the one to the left of the altar came from an Ethiopian Church of Sts Peter and Paul, which used to sit on the roof. Other objects from the Ethiopians are displayed in the hall outside the church.

The keep beside the church is an independent 7th-century tower, rebuilt in the 12th and 20th centuries. Reached by drawbridge, its four floors can serve as a mini-monastery, complete with its own small Church of St Michael, a refectory, accommodation and even burial space behind the altar.

Monks believe the monastery’s religious significance is given in the Book of Isaiah (19:19–21). The monastery has done much to preserve Coptic tradition: monks here spoke the Coptic language until the 19th century (at that time there were 190 of them) and, while other monasteries celebrate some of the Coptic liturgy in Arabic (for their Arabic-speaking congregation), here they stick to Coptic.

Also in the compound, the Church of St George (Mar Girgis) was built in 1880 with permission from the Ottoman sultan, who was still the official sovereign of Egypt. It is decorated with paintings of the 12 apostles and other religious scenes, its iconostasis is made from marble and many of the icons are in Byzantine style. Tradition has it that the icon showing the Virgin and Child was painted by St Luke.

Remember to remove shoes before entering either church and respect the silence and sanctity of the place. For a week every year (usually 21–28 June), thousands of pilgrims attend the monastery’s annual feast, a time when non-pilgrim visitors may not be admitted.

You will usually be escorted around the monastery and, while there is no fee, donations are appreciated. Visits sometimes finish with a brief visit to the new church built in 1940 or the nearby gift shop or, sometimes, with a cool drink in the monastery’s reception room.

The monastery is about 50 minutes’ drive from Asyut towards Minya. The bus will drop you at Al Qusiya, but currently you are not allowed to take a microbus, so you would have to walk. A taxi is the obvious alternative.

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