DAYR AL-BALĀYZA (ABBA APOLLŌ MONASTĒRION)
|Greek||Ἀββᾶ Ἀπολλῶ μοναστήριον | Ἀββᾶ Πουλει Πἐτρα|
|Coptic||pmonasth(rion) napa apollw | pxagios apa apollw | tpetra apa apollw | apa pole | apa apoulw | tpetra|
|French||Dair al-Balaiza | Dayr al-Balayza | Deir Balaiza|
|Pleiades ID||756520||PAThs ID||92|
|Ancient name||Abba Apollō monastērion|
|Modern name||Dayr al-Balāyza|
"The site is located at the edge of the desert on the west bank of the Nile, approximately 18 km south of Asyut, near the moder village of el-Bala'iza (Coquin - Martin - Grossmann 1991a; Grossmann 1986; 1993; Cappozzo 2007, 133-139; Goehring 2015; Bagnall - Rathbone 2017, 185)...
The plan of the settlement follows and adapts to the surrounding mountainous environment, slightly sloping down from the upper cliff and evolving into a roughly trapezoidal area in the lower valley. Evidence suggests that a first occupation was established in the recesses of an earlier (Roman) quarry and later developed outward in the area in front of it, reaching a full extension of ca. 220 x 240 m. It is likely that the existence of a functioning deep well excavated in association to the mining activities represented an important factor in the choice of the site and in its development (Goehring 2015, 42; Grossmann 1993, 175). Grossmann (Coquin - Martin - Grossmann 1991a, 787) notes that the upper edge of the slope reveals a row of large pharaonic quarry caves that were reused for monastic purposes, as can be argued from the many graffiti of crosses preserved on their rock walls as well as from the addition of mudbrick walls to the natural caves. Subsequent expansion moved outward with additional structures built in tiers down the slope of the escarpment toward the valley below. Finally, the whole monastic settlement was surrounded on three sides (north, east and west) by a large enclosure wall that connected south to the gebel (Grossmann 1986, 36, Fig. 1: 1993, pl. 1; Grossmann - Coquin - Martin 1991, 787). According to Coquin - Martin (Grossmann - Coquin - Martin 1991a, 786), this wall “certainly exceeds a mile in length”, having its base made of large stones bound together with clay, and the elevation built of mudbricks.
The monastery was accessed from the east through a gate facing the valley, while a small room beside the entrance, on the inner side of the wall, was likely destined to the gatekeeper and designed to control and regulate access to the settlement. Moreover, outside the enclosure and just adjacent to the gate, there was a structure identified as a guesthouse for the monastery’s visitors (Grossmann 1993, 194-196; Goehring 2015, 44).
As for the internal organisation, the settlement included a number of buildings and features of various functions. Beyond the wall, ca. 35 m north-east from the gate, a well for the water supply of the community is followed by a relatively small church, which is placed further up the escarpment on an isolated platform on the southeastern side of the complex, facing the entrance gate (Grossmann 1993, 175, 176-180). Considering its location, one could think that this was the main monastery church, but, on the other hand, the alleged high population density (infra) contrasts with the small dimensions of the building and could rather suggest that the main church of the complex has not been preserved (cf. Cappozzo 2007, 137); it appears as a three-aisled edifice with the sanctuary at the east end flanked by rectangular side-rooms and characterised by a deep apse that was originally decorated by a circle of columns; at a later stage, a narthex was added on the west end, with a stair to the south (Grossmann - Coquin - Martin 1991a, 787).
Above and behind the church lies a dense cluster of buildings, built on natural tiers on the escarpment leading up into the core area of the quarry (Goehring 2015, 44). First, one approaches two large three-aisled structures serving as the monastery refectories. These were surrounded by a number of single- and multi-story elongated buildings interpreted by Grossmann as dormitories (Grossmann 1993, 190-194; cf. Goehring 2015, 44). The compounds above the two refectories could have accommodate 400 monks ca., a fact which would accordingly suggests, together with the overall extension of the area, that in its heydays the settlement might have housed over 1000 inhabitants (Grossmann 1993, 202). On the other hand, Ewa Wipszycka (2009, 119-120) considers the dimension (3x5 m) of these spaces as more fitting to “des entrepôts, des ateliers artisanaux ou quelque chose de ce genre”, and thinks that the monks’ dwellings (“maisonnettes”) were located in still unexcavated sectors of the site. Moreover, she considers the figure proposed by Grossmann as “très exagéré”. Moving upward along the escarpment, one approaches some other buildings, among which one to the north appears to be provided with a series of niches that might indicate a use as the monastery’s library or archive (cf. Grossmann 1993, 185-189). It must be remarked, however, that unfortunately the exact context of discovery of the manuscripts was not recorded so that it cannot be determined if the alleged library was the actual place of storage and finding spot of the cache.
The westernmost section of the site located in the ancient quarry. There, a second large church was built around and out from a cave (Grossmann 1993, 181-185), while south of this edifice and along the west side of the cliff, lie an installation consisting of a number of basins (likely to full or felt clothes) and a seriers of small rooms of unknown purpose (cf. Grossmann 1993, 199-201; Goehring 2015, 44).
Overall, the impressive physical evidence at the site, its articulated internal organisation, and the consistent number of associated manuscripts seem to point, on the one hand, to the cenobitic character of the monastic settlement (Grossmann - Coquin - Martin 1991, 786, 787; Goehring 2015, 44; cf. Kahle 1954, I, 30-31), and on the other hand to its relevance within the religious-cultural panorama of Upper Egypt.
As for the chronological development of the site, textual evidence from the discovered manuscripts provides useful hints. In particular, some non-literary documents date from 685 to 740, thus placing the main phase of occupation of the settlement firmly between the late VII and the mid-VIII century (Kahle 1954 I, 16; Grossmann 1986, 35; 1993, 203; Goehring 2015, 43). Obviously, this fact does not exclude the possibility of a somewhat earlier installation of a Christian community at the site. In this regard, basing on the fact that the recovered literary manuscripts mostly date before 685, with some being as early as IV and V centuries, Kahle suggests that “[t]he rather considerable number of early literary texts found at Bala'izah makes it probable that the settlement existed long before the eighth century, but there is no evidence for the actual time when it was founded” (Kahle 1954 I, 16-17, 20). Yet, one should be careful in the use of literary texts to date the occupation of a site, as they are mobile items that might have entered the monastery’s archives well after its foundation (cf. Grossmann 1993, 204-205). On the other hand, the architectural features of the small church by the gate can be likely dated to the mid-VII century (cf. Grossmann 1993, 205), providing a positive evidence for a slightly earlier activity at the site.
The end of the monastic occupation appears less problematic, as it is generally admitted that the site “was either deserted or destroyed shortly after AD 750” (Kahle 1954 I, 19); both literary and documentary texts point in this direction. It is however possible that activities at the site lasted until the beginning of the IX century, and Coquin-Martin argues that “the presence of a strong encircling wall would argue for a date of abandonment later than 750” (Coquin - Martin- Grossmann 1991, 786; cf. also Grossmann 1993, 203-204). Certainly, it can be assumed that the end of the manuscript record marks the end of the monastic community as such.
The ancient designation of the monastic site as the Monastery of apa Apollo is certain, as it is attested in 26 documents of the corpus discovered at the site (Crum 1907b, 39; Kahle 1954 I, 15). Besides, in some legal documents it is extensively labelled as “The (holy) monastery of Apa Apollo in the nome of the town Sbeht” (cf. Kahle 1954 I, 15, n. 3), thus being explicitely linked to the southern site of Sbeht, which is to be identified with the nome capital Apollonpolis parva (modern Kom Isfaht; cf. Amélineau 1883, 463).
As for the identity of this Apollo, Kahle assumes that he was most likely the founder of the monastic community, but excludes the equation with Apollo of Bawit; rather, he suggests an identification with a VI century monk of the same name, who was expelled from the Pachomian monastery of Pbow in the time of Justinian, and is reported to have founded two monasteris, one at Titkooh and the other in an unknown location (Kahle 1954 I, 18-19). The hypothesis evidently implies a Pachomian type of monastic organisation, Grossmann (1993, 171, n. 3, 201-202) opposes some archaeological and chronological arguments to such a straightforward interpretation. In this regard, while it is possible that the monastic community received external influences from the Pachomian or Shenoutian models, it seems, rather, that “the evidence supports its independent development. Its distinctive cenobitic structure, including numerous dormitories, sets it apart from other known ascetic communities, serving once again to underscore the diversity of monastic practices in Egypt” (Goehring 2015, 45)."
- Angelo Colonna
"First excavated by Petrie as early as 1907, it is mostly known for the large corpus of literary and documentary manuscripts discovered there, while its archaeological context was only partially investigated and never fully published. It was only after the surveys conducted by Grossmann in 1982 and 1985 that a complete report and a detailed analysis of the site was produced, being also integrated by a first plan of the archaeological area."
- Angelo Colonna
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• Coquin, R.-G., M. S. Martin and P. Grossmann. 1991. “Dayr al-Bala'yzah.” In The Coptic Encyclopedia, edited by A. S. Atiya, vol. 3, 786-787. New York: Macmillan.
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• Petrie, W. M. F. 1908. “Athribis.” British School of Archaeology in Egypt 14: 13 and plate 43.
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• Wipszycka, E. 2009. “The Alexandrian Church. People and institutions.” Journal of Juristic Papyrology Supplements 25: 157-160, figs. 30-31.