There is no doubt that Virgin Mary Church in Deir Gabal Al-Tayr, is a sacred place that is considered among the important stations in the journey of the Holy Family to the land of Egypt.
The monastery is located on the top of the mountain on the eastern bank of the Nile River in the city of Samalout – Minya Governorate.
All the books about the Holy Family in Egypt mentioned their visit to this church, as mentioned by many travelers and historians, including Shabashti in the 10th century AD, Abu al-Makarem in the 12th century AD, and al-Maqrizi in the 15th century AD.
The church was originally a Roman temple with an entrance from the eastern side, according to the architectural historian Robert Curzon in his book “Visits to the Monasteries.” The staircase that led to the Roman temple was discovered in the mountain in 2016.
Accordingly, the Holy Family saw this deserted place and the stairs, so it went up and rested in this place for 3 days. After 300 years, the temple was converted into a church in the fourth century 328 AD with the help of Queen Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine. Her team kept the rocky walls and columns and added other elements to suit and employ them in religious rituals as a church.
The layout of the church is basilican, which consists of a nave surrounded by 12 pillars carved in the rocks, with two aisles on the north and south sides, a western corridor, and a transverse corridor as the khorus.
There is the middle sanctuary with an altar named after Virgin Mary, and the northern sanctuary with an altar named after the martyr Demiana. The sanctuaries are connected to each other with a small opening. As for the archaeological cave in which the Holy Family rested, is located to the south of the middle sanctuary, and it is carved in the rock.
The church had two entrances before 1928, one on the western side and the other on the northern side, but it was closed to place the baptistery in front of it.
During the reign of Anba Thomas, Metropolitan of Minya and Ashmunayn chair, 1924 AD, other architectural elements were added to the church, and extra work was done during the era of Anba Sawiris, Bishop of the Minya and Ashmunayn chairs, 1938 AD. These added elements are the external western entrance, the external southern entrance, as well as a concrete roof and the construction of a loft with an additional sanctuary with for martyr Saint george and the Angel. Another concrete roof was made for the domes, the vault, the lighthouse, and the roof.
There is an antique baptistery carved in one of the rock pillars and is no longer used for fear of the impact of the use of water on the pillar. Another baptistery was added in the northern part of the northern corridor of the church’s nave, and that was also canceled in 1980 AD, and a large baptistery was added the western side outside the church building. Anba Befnotios, Bishop of Samalut, established seven new baptisteries in the building attached to the church, and the old baptism became only archaeological.
There is also a circular lantern in front of the western entrance, which is decorated with antique stones carved with the image of Christ and the Apostles and drawings of the vine and fish. In the church there are three archaeological icons, one for the Virgin Mary, another for the martyr Demiana, and a third for the martyr St. George, all of them painted by Anastasiya al-Qudsi al-Rumi in 1554 (martyrs year).
Restoration and maintenance project of Virgin Mary Church in Deir Gabal Al-Tayr
For more than forty years now, this place and what surrounds it are the focus of attention and development from the Diocese of Samalut under the leadership of Anba Befnotios.
The Diocese of Samalout assigned the project to the Scientific Center for Architecture, Coordination and Site Planning “Scale” led by Dr. Eng. Sami Sabry Shaker and a team of engineers, and the office of Prof. Dr. Adel Farid – consultant for the construction works of the project, as well as the office of Dr. Hany Sobhy, electromechanical works consultant. The work is executed and managed by a management team and technicians under the authority of Samalout Archdiocese.
Restoration of the ancient church
The restoration phase was the outcome of many studies and research, that came out with results about the archaeological building, its elements, the environment around it, and the factors affecting it. Hence, work on the project actually began on 8/24/2018, after the approval of the Permanent Committee of Islamic and Coptic Antiquities, held in its session on 4/4/2018, to restore the ancient church, provided that the works will be carried out at the expense of the Diocese of Samalout and under the supervision of the Islamic and Coptic Antiquities Sector and the Projects Sector
The concrete ceiling was removed in both floors and replaced with wooden ones. Restoration of the second floor on the southern area and a wooden ceiling was constructed above it. In addition to restoring the cave area and paving its floor, and restoring the lighthouse structurally and architecturally. Also, the roof vault was dismantled and rebuilt, and during the past months, the restoration of the western corridor and the sanctuaries as well as the northern and eastern outer walls were finished too.
Work to develop the outer perimeter and the road leading to the church
Within the framework of the state’s plan to develop the Holy Family Trail and with the implementation of the Minya Governorate, the Tourism Revitalization Department and the National Company, a 500-meter basalt floor was made for the road leading to the ancient church, and the facades of houses and tombs surrounding the road leading to the ancient church were painted to uplift the neighborhood looks. A wall hiding the tombs from the road side that leads to the ancient church and this wall has engravings of the Holy Family’s journey. A lounge was made for the dignitaries by Minya Governorate and the entrances to Deir Gabqal Al-Tayr were established on the desert road with clear guiding signs. On the other hand, the road leading to the ancient church was decorated with plants on both sides.