The 4th century church of Mar-Girgis (St George) in the village of Sahragt (also called Sahrajt) in Mit Ghamr, Daqahliya, on the eastern branch of the Nile Delta, has celebrated a phenomenon that occurs only once every year, on 19 June, the Feast of Michael Archangel. On that date, a beam of sunlight shines on the altar consecrated in the name of Michael Archangel, entering through an aperture in the dome above the altar. It is the only day in the year that this occurs.
The church includes three altars consecrated in the names of Mar-Girgis, the Holy Virgin, and Michael Archangel. Through apertures in the domes above each, sunlight illuminates each altar on the feast day of its patron saint. It shines on the altar of the Holy Virgin on the Feast of her Assumption on 22 August, and the altar of St George on 23 July which coincides with the feast day marking the bringing of the relics of Mar-Girgis into Egypt in the 15th century.
Abu Simbel and Kafr al-Deir
Mar-Girgis’s in Sahrajt is not the only church or building in Egypt where the sun rays illuminate a spot of the building on only a specific date or dates in the year. The phenomenon was known to Egyptians since ancient times, a prime instance famously occurring twice a year at the temple of Abu Simbel in Aswan. At sunrise, the sunrays enter the temple through an aperture above the doorway, and penetrate the length of the temple till they illuminate the face of the pharaoh Ramses the Great (1279 – 1213 BC) at the far end of the temple. The two dates the phenomenon occurs are 22 February and 22 October, coinciding with the dates of birth and enthronement of the Pharaoh.
The 4th-century church of Michael Archangel in the village of Kafr al-Deir, Minya al-Qamh, in the East Delta province of Sharqiya also witnesses this phenomenon twice every year; on 1 May on the Feast of the Martyrdom of Mar-Girgis, and on 19 June on the feast of Michael Archangel.
The Astronomy Department at the National Research Institute of Astronomy and Geophysics last year issued a certificate officially confirming the phenomenon that occurs every year at Kafr al-Deir’s Archangel Michael church.
Flat surface vs dome
During a recent conference on “Coptic Heritage between Tradition and Modernity”, hosted by Cairo’s Coptic Cultural Centre, Dr Sami Sabri, Dean of the Institute of Coptic Studies and Professor of Coptic Architecture, explained the phenomenon of sunlight illuminating a specific spot inside a building on a specific date and time, from an architectural point of view. He said that there were 23 ancient temples in Egypt in which this phenomenon occurs, but pointed out that it was structurally easier to align the sanctuaries with the sun in the ancient temples, since they are rectangular. It is much more difficult, he said, to adjust this in case of domes, and requires extensive astronomical studies and computations to precisely calculate the alignment of the spot required with the sun rays, so that they would fall on it only at the same date and same hour every year.
Dr Sabri listed the different types of church domes, explaining that the type of dome at Kafr al-Deir’s Michael Archangel church in Sharqiya is a Dome on Squinches. He said it was a structurally more critical process to open an aperture in the curved surface of a dome than in a flat structure such as a wall or roof, since an opening in a dome, if not done according to precise calculations and careful considerations, could weaken it considerably.
The feast on 19 June goes back to ancient Egypt, and celebrated the “first drop” of the Nile’s annual flood which came to inundate the land, endowing it with its legendary life-giving fertility and rendering agriculture, the main activity of the people, a major source of the country’s wealth. When Christianity came to Egypt at the hands of St Mark in the first century and was later embraced by the majority of Egyptians, the Coptic Church baptised the feast to celebrate Michael Archangel who was made patron saint of the Nile waters.