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This holy place had a significant effect in attracting the ascetics of Abba Bakhomios, the father of fellowship, who came to Qosqam in the fourth century. They participated with the residents in the area around the church in establishing the monastery. The number of monks at the end of the fourth century reached 300. The fathers of the monastery have a strong and firm tradition since ancient times; for the church of the Al-Muharraq monastery to remain as it is.
“In that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt.” (Isaiah 19:19)
The monastery’s history dates back to a holy beginning. It has a special state because it is one of the places which was divinely chosen to be a safe haven for the Holy Family as they fled from King Herod the tyrant. The prophet Isaiah prophesied about this great event before Christ’s birth by approximately eight centuries.
The story of Yousi: During the Holy Family’s stay in this place, a man named Yousi came to them. He was Joseph’s nephew. Yousi informed them about the soldiers sent by King Herod to search for the child Jesus. Yousi died and was buried beneath the stony entrance of this house. Generation after generation, the monks inherited that this place in which Yousi was buried lies in the South-Western side of the monastery’s ancient Church of the Virgin. His bones were found in the same place during the renovation of the church in the year 2000 A.D. They were moved to the tomb of the monastery’s abbots located underneath the baptismal font in Saint George’s Church.
The Holy Family spent 185 days in this house; six Coptic months and five days, until an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph the Carpenter in a dream saying: “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the young Child’s life are dead.” (Matthew 2:20)
The Monastery’s Saints:
-The martyr Abba Helias, bishop of Quseya and Church of Saint Mary in Qesqam. This saintly father was of Syrian descent and his name was mentioned in different forms in the ancient manuscripts such as; Elias, Helias and Helits. This saint was a bishop over the Church of the Virgin Mary in Qesqam, prior to the establishment of the monastery and until his death.
-Hegumen Boulis Al-Muharaqy and his disciple the priest Mikhail Al-Muharaqy.
The Monastery and Heritage:
Daily Divine Liturgies have been prayed since ancient times except during the four days of Holy Week.
There is also a strong tradition in the monastery for the Liturgy to be prayed in the Coptic language except for the readings which were added in the Arabic language. Until recently, any monk who was ordained a priest was dedicated to memorizing the entire Divine Liturgy in Coptic, including its silent prayers.
The Coptic Language:
The fathers the monks cared for the Coptic language, especially when it began to vanish during the Middle Ages during the fourteenth century, knowing that there were fathers who were using the Arabic language. They were keen for the Coptic language to be present, as evident in the manuscripts they copied such as the Katamaras (to be used in the daily Liturgy) and the holy books which they used for private reading. They did not neglect the Arabic language at that time but made it enter with the Coptic language in the image of two rivers. They copied many of the holy books in this manner, with the very best writing.
The names of the monastery’s monks who copied the holy books (their names became known in the 14th century):
1. Father Cosman: he copied some of the books of the Holy Bible.
2. Father Okloda: he was the brother of Pope Ghobrial (Gabriel) the fourth and he copied the Coptic Katamaras books (books used for the Liturgy readings).
One of the famous copiers from the monastery during the 19th century was Hegumen Yohanna (John) El-Etledmy, who copied a manuscript for 48 years and earned the title of ‘The Father of Copiers.’ Some of the important manuscripts in the monastery were copied and published.
The Monastery’s Ancient Icons:
-The icon of the Holy Family fleeing: it is drawn on fabric and through studying it, it was discovered that it was drawn by John the Armenian who was famous at that time for drawing beautiful icons. His unique touches can be noticed in the icon, such as the use of agricultural clothes of Armenia and the Levant region.
-The icon of St George the Palestinian (1510 A.M/ 1794 A.D) the ancient fort, the visitor’s palace, the theological college.
-The theological college’s building was previously a building for the school of the monks, established in 1932 A.D. It was turned into a theological college and the first class graduated from it in 1977 A.D, during the papacy of H.H. Pope Shenouda III. Currently, it is located in a new building beside the monastery’s main gate and in it is a small church named after Saint Hegumen Mikhail El-Behery.
-The Institute of Didimos for Chanters
This institute was founded in the monastery in the late 1970’s, for the teaching of chanters for the Church who specialize in the Church’s hymns, responses and rites with all precision. The course length is five years.
The Most Important Ancient and Modern Features of the Monastery:
-The ancient Church of Saint Mary: This church is characterized by the simplicity of its building, despite the restorations it has underwent. It is not considered under the category of civil arts in the Coptic heritage. To put it in other words, the construction of its building is unique as it is simple and inexpensive. It is made from brown bricks and its walls are disorganized. There are no decorative engravings, or drawings on the walls etc…
According to the information gathered until now, the church has not been damaged, but of course requires restoration from time to time as its buildings are made from green-brown bricks.
-The new Church of Virgin Mary which is well known as the Church of Saint George.
-The Church of Saint Anthony and the Church of Saint Paul.
The Monastery’s Current Abbot: Bishop Bigol
The Name “Al-Muharraq”:
-the name Al-Muharraq originates from the fact that its area was used to gather and burn harmful crops and plants. This is why the area was named ‘Al-Muhtareqa or Al-Mahrooqa’ (Arabic for ‘the burned’). With time, the name of the monastery settled as ‘Al-Muharraq’.
Despite the periods of weakness which this monastery experienced, the power given from the Lord granted preservation during the times of damage, widespread plagues, and famines. When monasticism had stopped in many monasteries across the country and the monasteries were no longer lively with monks, things did not stop nor calm down in Al-Muharraq Monastery. On the contrary, visitors would flee to the monastery during times of difficulty to ask and plead with the Lord, through the intercessions of Saint Mary to help and cover them. The monastery’s importance became clear when an elderly historian named Al-Mokrizi (1346-1441 A.D) stated that Christ dwelt here for six months and days, and it has a great feast known as the feast of the olive and the Pentecost, in which large crowds are gathered.
The Church of Saint Mary had a great role in offering the Sacrament of the Eucharist since the Liturgies never stopped nor were adversely affected. No evidence exists until today to contradict this. The opinion which states that all the monks of Al-Muharraq Monastery vanished during this dark period is not supported by a single piece of evidence in all the ancient sources which spoke about this time. However, it can be said that the monastery was impacted by the financial state of the country in terms of a reduction in the number of monks due to less people desiring monasticism because the plagues and famines killed many people. It is worth mentioning that the manuscripts from the 14th century which are present in the monastery and international libraries confirm the continuous movement within the monastery, although in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the Church went through tribulation it had not experienced since the time of the Romans. The consecutive events of persecution and natural disasters (famines, plagues and earthquakes) exhausted the Church. This was the main reason behind the reduced numbers of those desiring to become monks. There was no one to follow the monastery’s history during this time. The Lord was preparing the monastery to play an important role in these difficult times which the Church endured.
Five of the monastery’s monks were promoted to the Papal throne:
– Pope Gabriel IV (86th Patriarch)
– Pope Matthew I (87th Patriarch)
– Pope Matthew II (90th Patriarch)
– Pope John XII (93rd Patriarch)
– Pope Peter VII (El-Gauly) (109th Patriarch)