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Saqqara: more than tombs and pyramids

Saqqara is best known for housing the ancient burial grounds of Egyptian royalty. In its day, it was the necropolis of the ancient Egyptian capital, Memphis. The city is primarily known for the imposing pyramid of Djoser: the oldest complete stone building complex known in history, designed by the then high priest of Ra and exceptional architect, Imhotep –sadly popularized as the main antagonist in The Mummy. But Saqqara is also home to the ruins of the Monastery of St. Jeremiah, the Deir Apa Jeremiah, an essential site in the development of early Christian monasticism.

The desert surrounding Saqqara served as a haven for early Christian ascetics, often referred to as the Fathers and Mothers of the Desert. These early hermits and cenobites gave rise to the early ascetic movement that shaped and influenced Christian spirituality as a whole. The often harsh, desolate, yet breathtaking Egyptian landscapes provided an ideal setting for these seekers of a life dedicated to contemplation and simplicity.

Among these ascetics, the Egyptian Anthony the Great stands out as a pivotal figure. He is often considered the father of Christian monasticism, retreating to the desert to lead an austere life. His teachings and lifestyle profoundly influenced many who sought similar paths, spreading the ideals of desert spirituality. St. Anthony’s guidance attracted numerous disciples to the Egyptian desert, contributing to the establishment of monastic communities and the foundation of monastic traditions. In more ways than one, Egypt is the founding cradle of Christian monasticism as a whole. Ancient pilgrimages to the Holy Land (such as that of the legendary Lady Egeria), included Egypt and many of these early monasteries. Not surprisingly, Egypt has been an important enclave on pilgrimage routes for almost two thousand years. One of these early monasteries was that of St. Jeremiah, situated near Saqqara.

As explained by Jimmy Dunn in his article, at least two different ancient sources tell of this monastery. John of Nikious, who was the Egyptian Coptic bishop of Nikious and general administrator of the monasteries of Upper Egypt, tells of a native of Alexandria named Jeremiah who was the abbot of a monastery close to Memphis. The other source Dunn mentions is the De Situ Terrae Sacrae. This manuscript is a relatively short report of a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, written in the sixth century. We know the date because the author mentions construction work done during the reign of Emperor Anastasius I –that is, from 491 to 518. This second text also refers to a monastery built in the outskirts of Memphis. In any case, we do not really know whether this Apa Jeremiah was the founder of the monastery, or if he succeeded someone else. What we do know is that Anastasius, before becoming Emperor of Byzantium, visited Jeremiah in his lifetime, when he himself was exiled in Egypt in the late 5th century.

The precise origins of the monastery, Dunn claims, are not well-known. However, since we know the monastery was already there during Anastasius’ exile, we can somehow safely assume it must have been built in the fifth century –making it one of the earliest Christian monastic buildings in the world. We can also assume that it grew the way monasteries would in the early days of Christianity. In her article for the Coptic Encyclopedia, Marguerite Rassart-Debergh explains that “the earliest members of the monastery presumably established themselves in the still intact, but otherwise disused mausoleums of the necropolis of Saqqara, and the decision to set up new buildings was made only later.” The initial development would have thus merely established the essential elements needed for communal living.

Finally, Dunn explains, the monastery was rediscovered in the early 20th century by the famed Egyptologist James Quibell. Of course, further excavations have taken place since his –there is a whole Netflix documentary on it. But he was the one who first unearthed most of the monastic complex, plus an important number of items that are now distributed across at least two different museums (the Coptic Museum of El Cairo and the British Museum), although some remain at the place of excavation. Probably the most impressive one is Saint Jeremiah’s pulpit –most likely, the ambo used by the community for liturgical services.

Deir Apa Jeremiah arqueological site

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