As Egypt looks to restore the damage done by the Islamists in the wake of the overthrow of the Mursi regime, can the fourth century church in Dalga be restored to its previous glory, or is it lost forever?
Unprecedented numbers of attacks on Copts and their churches all over Egypt followed the dispersal by the security forces of the Islamist sit-ins in Cairo on 14 August. More than 57 churches and dozens of buildings belonging to Copts or Coptic associations were looted and set alight, seven Copts lost their lives and scores were injured. All fingers pointed to the Muslim Brothers (MB) and their supporters, but MB spokesperson Ahmed Aref denied that the group had anything to do with the attacks. The Gamaa al-Islamiya group also issued a denial. Which begs the question: who then were the criminal masterminds behind the attacks, and what were the underlying causes of the violence?
The turmoil forced itself onto centre stage in Egypt, and many Egyptian landmarks have been targeted by terrorism. One of them is the ancient fourth century church of Holy Virgin at the Monastery of the Holy Virgin and Anba Abra’am in the town of Dalga, some 300km south of Cairo in Minya, Upper Egypt. The place is not a ‘monastery’ in the traditional sense of the word; it is rather a conglomerate of churches and church-owned buildings that serve administrative and community purposes. Dalga is technically a ‘town’ of a 120,000-strong population, 10 per cent of whom are Copts, but is administratively a ‘village’, meaning it has one minor police station and is affiliated to a larger administrative centre and local government.
Dalga was one of the places most badly hit by the Islamist rampage against the Copts. On that fatal 14 August, life turned upside down for the town’s Christians. More than 45 Coptic families were forced to leave their homes and more than 35 of their homes were torched.
The town has long been an Islamist stronghold where family and clan loyalties run high. The fact that the police force in Dalga could not meet its security needs compounded the problem. On that fateful Wednesday the police station was empty; it had been abandoned after being targeted by heavy Islamist fire on 4 July—the day after Muhammad Mursi was ousted and his Islamist regime fell. The Islamists held the town under their thumb until 16 September when security forces, covered by the military, finally stormed Dalga and regained control.
The 14 August attack against the Copts in Dalga was pervasive and brutal. Two men who resisted the attacks of their houses, Iskandar Doss and Hany Shafiq, were beheaded in separate incidents and their bodies dragged through the streets. The elderly mother of the lawyer Samir Lamei was one of those shot and injured. Churches were attacked and burnt, and Coptic homes were looted and destroyed.
Many of the Copts who left town did so because their houses had been destroyed and were no longer habitable. Other Coptic families left because they were unable to pay the tribute money demanded of them by the Islamists, who have a notorious history of killing those who do not pay up. A number of Coptic families left for fear for their safety even though their homes had not been attacked. These homes were seized by Islamist families, who promptly removed the original nameplates and
replaced them with their own.
Relief only came after dawn on Monday 16 September, when police troops, backed by army helicopters, stormed Dalga. They sealed all the exits from the town, and promptly removed the tree trunks, barbed wire and rocks which Islamists had cut from a nearby mountain and set up as barricades. The Islamists put up no significant resistance.
Fifty-two MB loyalists were arrested immediately, and that figure has now gone up to more than 100. Jihadi documents that included plans to target vital establishments in Minya governorate were found with them. Security officials said the Islamists they arrested had been implicated in attacking and torching police stations in Deir-Muwass and Dalga, as well as the churches and Coptic targets.
Possible repair or lost forever?
When Watani visited the monastery it was still not known if the church could be repaired or was lost forever. The pastor, Fr Abra’am, told us that everything was destroyed including the doors, windows, pews, fans, air-conditioners, and computers. “Parts of the seven attached buildings including the nursery school and libraries were looted and destroyed,” he said, “before they were set on fire.”
There were 3,000 or 4,000 attackers, Fr Abraam said. Some of them jumped over the monastery walls, while others pulled the main gate off its hinges and then set fire to the building. “They even pulled out the wooden floors, leaving the building a ruin.
“The terrorist hands extended to damage an ancient tafous, the tomb where resident monks and bishops are buried after passing. The attackers thought they would find gold or treasure, and when they found nothing but relics they scattered them and tread them with their feet. They also took out the altar floor and marble, searching for gold or antiquities. The looters stripped the monastery’s 1,600-year-old underground chapel of antique icons, and they dug up the grounds because they believed that there was buried treasure.”
Damage was done not only to the ancient church belonging to the monastery, but was extended to Catholic and Evangelical churches as well.
Fr Silwanus Lutfi, pastor of the ancient church, told Watani that a delegation from Al-Azhar had visited the church to view the damage. Another committee from the armed forces has inspected the scene and made a report on the losses and destruction, putting in place a plan to process the construction and renovation works promptly according to a promise made by Defence Minister Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi.
The ancient church of the Holy Virgin
Fr Abra’am showed Watani round every corner in the church during our visit. The monastery’s fourth-century underground chapel is dedicated to the Holy Virgin, and comprises three altars dedicated to the Holy Virgin, St Tekla Himanout the Ethiopian, and the Archangels Mikhail and Ghabrial.
This is the only one remaining of about 24 churches known from archaeological remains that were built in the locality on the same model. These vanished in the dark days of Roman persecution and Arab invasion.
Everything in this church is ancient: the font where Anba Abra’am, once bishop of Fayoum who died in 1910, was baptised; and ancient Roman columns.
On the lower floor are two columns and an iron door that leads to the crypt where priests and bishops were once buried. Their bodies, however, were moved out a long time ago.
A secret underground passage led between the church of the Holy Virgin and the 23 churches that are no longer there. It was built with the aim of linking the churches at the time of persecution to serve as a way of escape in case any of the churches was raided.
Two showcases in the church held a number of icons, among them several painted by Anastasi the Roman. Anastasi was a nineteenth-century iconographer who came from Jerusalem to live in Egypt, where he painted a great many of the icons that hang in Coptic churches today, including Muharreq Monastery in Assiut, Upper Egypt; the church of the Holy Virgin at Surian Monastery in the Western Desert; and the church of Virgin Mary on the Nile bank in Maadi, Cairo. He signed these icons Astassy or Astasius’. There was also an antique iconostasis in the church which was in need of urgent restoration.
Among the Roman columns is the ‘Weeping Column’, from which oil flows like tears on the sixth hour of Good Friday each year.
At the church entrance lay an ancient stone dating from the fourth century and engraved with Coptic drawings of two deer and a qurbana (host bread).
St George’s and Anba Abra’am’s
To the south of the church of Holy Virgin is a church dedicated to St George, built of fired brick a century ago to ease the pressure on the church of the Holy Virgin. The attack led to the destruction of a large section of the church and the demolition of a number of domes.
With its one altar in the name of St George, it was built in the old-fashioned style with no pews. It holds about 100 worshippers.
The modern church dedicated to Anba Abra’am that stood at the monastery’s entrance is the largest in the complex, holding a congregation of 500. A staircase leads to the second floor gallery.
Before the monastery was attacked, a fencing wall and a tower had been added, as well as a number of attached buildings intended to offer social services including an event hall, an open-air theatre, an office for the bishop, and a two-storey building for meetings and activities.
The photos show the churches and monastery before and after the attack and burning.
10 November 2013