An Empress and a Saint in the Desert

A widow well in her seventies travelled through the mountains and deserts of the Middle East looking for relics of her faith. Her discoveries led to her being chosen as the patron saint of archaeologists. This intrepid traveller, famed for finding pieces of the True Cross, was Flavia Iulia Helena Augusta, the mother of Emperor Constantine. With unlimited access to the Roman treasury, she built the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the Church on the Mount of Olives, the Church on Mount Sinai and, it is said, the first monastery in the desert near the Valley of the Queens.

The monastery was dedicated to Saint Tawdros (Theodore), an officer in the Roman army under the Emperor Diocletian. Refusing the emperor's demand to worship Apollo, he was affixed to a tree with 153 nails. Honoured as a saint  in the Orthodox and Catholic churches, the Coptic Church celebrates his martyrdom on the 12th of Toba (the fifth month of the Coptic calendar). At the desert monastery near Luxor, the Saint is worshipped as El Mohareb, The Warrior. Following the iconography of many warrior saints, he appears in full military garb upon his rampant steed.

The original monastery built by St. Helena was demolished in the eleventh century. At some unspecified time later, the Saint appeared in a dream to the local governor and asked that the monastery be rebuilt. By this point in time, the previous monastery's existence had been forgotten so the Saint had to lead the governor to the site. Some of the blocks used to build the sanctuary have been recycled from a pharaonic temple, perhaps from nearby Medinat Habu, thus Coptic crosses were carved over upside down hieroglyphs.

Except for the presence of electricity that powers the water pump and the shrine's lamps, a visit to the monastery of Saint Tawdros feels very ascetic. On this particular Tuesday, we were the only visitors until the arrival of an important church official and six engineers who came to discuss the renewal of the church.

Behind the monastery lies a Coptic cemetery. The dead are clothed entirely in white, including a head scarf, gloves, and stockings. They are carried to the burial in a funeral bier and then lowered into tombs carved into the bedrock. Small entry pits give access to a wider chamber where several bodies are laid side by side. When the tomb is full, the chamber is sealed with bricks or a metal door and the pit is filled in. There are no markers. So very different from the gold tiled tomb and red granite sarcophagus of Empress Helena in Rome and the Vatican Museum.

But most certainly she would be pleased with the peacefulness and sanctity of the place.


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The vastness of the cemetery outside the monastery's walls is seen clearly in the satellite image.

Drive past the West Bank Antiquities ticket office on route to the Valley of the Queens. At the small police checkpoint there is a signed desert track leading to the monastery. The track runs close to the rear wall of Medinat Habu. Reflections in the Nile Blog, Palm Sunday Experience at St. Tawdros Monastery
Slideshow by CopticPower Coptic Monastery near Luxor - Thederos el Mohareb

Qus: A Town of Distinction

Tuesday morning streets in Qus teem with pedestrians, carts and vehicles. It's market day and the street melange might strike the visitor as rather chaotic but no one else seems to notice. This is their daily life. There are goods to be bought and sold, prices to be argued, news to be exchanged, politics to be discussed and chickens to be butchered. All of this takes place to the somewhat discordant chorus of car horns in the narrow streets of this medieval city.

In fact, the scene today is probably not too dissimilar from the tenth century when this town rose to prominence as Egypt's second most important city, after Cairo. And it remained key for six hundred years thanks to its pivotal location on the trade route between East and West. All goods from India and Arabia that passed through Qus on their way to Mediterranean markets until 1498 when Vasco de Gama discovered an alternative sea-route around Africa.

That trade brought Qus much prominence and wealth, which explains why in this backwater town of modern times you will find the most important medieval monument in Upper Egypt. Al Amri Mosque was founded in 1083 and many sultans and pashas added to its splendor over the centuries.

The mosque has an open enclosure plan featuring arcades of columns surrounding a large opening in the roof to fill the building with light and air. Surprisingly, the cacophony from the street seems to stay outside the walls.

The original builders reused columns and capitals from some unknown Roman monument built by some distinguished official in a town that commanded an important position in the transfer of granite and marble to the imperial courts in Rome and Byzantium. Under the arcade, or riwaq, Moslems gather to hear the imam's sermon and to pray.

The riwaq and the qibla wall are the only surviving elements of the original Fatimid mosque. The arched mihrab indicates for Moslems the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca so that they can orient themselves correctly for their daily prayers.

The mihrab's interior is decorated with magnificently intricate stucco work that dates to the Mamluk period (1250–1517). The Quranic inscription that frames the arabesque design in the centre is written in Thuluth script. This style of calligraphy was revolutionary in the eleventh century because it replaced the straight block letters of Kufic script. Thuluth's letters flow in a cursive style because one third of each letter is curved.

The imam reads the weekly sermon from a stepped platform, called a minbar. Al Azmi's minbar is of intricately carved wood and is one of the oldest in Egypt. The Fatimid vizier al-Salih al-Tala'i presented this magnificent podium to the mosque in 1155 when he governed Qus. He later went on to build his famous mosque in Cairo. The Quranic inscription that graces the lintel over the platform's entrance is written in the block-like Kufic script. The seemingly incongruous microphone at the top of the stairs shows that the minbar remains integral to the mosque's current use.

Every inch of the minbar's teak exterior is intricately carved in complex geometric and vegetal patterns. Islam's prohibition of idolatry forbids the creation of images of God, the Prophet Mohamed and other living beings, giving rise to amazing non-figural art to decorate their houses of worship.

The riwaq, mihrab and minbar are all spectacular but scholars of Islamic architecture distinguish al-Azmi Mosque as the most important medieval monument in Upper Egypt because of the architecture of the dome over the tomb of Mubarak bin Maqlid. Built in 1172, the architect devised an elaborate system of squinches to make the transition between the four-sided room and its domed roof. The dome's six-pointed stars with tear-shaped openings above are quite unique.

Al-Azmi Mosque provides a peaceful place for contemplation of the divine. Across the square is a reminder that secular economic activities enabled the creation of that peace. Quite distinct from the quiet of the mosque is the hustle and bustle of the wakala. Protected behind its strong door, traders stored their goods and housed their animals on the lower level and rented rooms above.

Its exterior brick and woodwork are well maintained. Inside, the balconies are shaky and rooms lack roofs but the building continues to be part of the city's economic life as it is home of a metalworking shop. Although Qus has declined from its high point as Egypt's second city, it remains economically vibrant and a town of distinction. Well worth a visit!


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The large roof with an opening to the sky distinguishes Al Azmi Mosque amid the complicated matrix of other buildings in the center of Qus.

Drive North on the Luxor-Qena highway. Approximately 30 km from Luxor turn East at the well-marked turn-off for Qus. This road becomes Al Nasr street. Some 3.4 km from the highway, turn left. It is almost a straight shot to reach al-Azmi Mosque but it is best to begin asking directions once you turn off Al Nasr street.

I was told that a entry ticket is usually sold to visitors, however none were available on the day that I visited. In lieu of a ticket, a tip to the man who guards the shoes at the door and LE 20 to the unofficial guide was happily accepted. Simply ask to take a peak inside the wakala. Access to the upper floors is not advisable, but it's worth a look.
Pergamon Museum, Berlin, has a 12th century wood panel from al-Azmi Mosque: Collection of the Museum of Islamic Art