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The extraordinary 10th-century Door of Symbols, which punctures the iconostasis, links the sanctuary with the nave and is inlaid with ivory designs representing the history of the church in Egypt. Icons depict important saints of the Church of Alexandria, including St. Mark the Evangelist, who brought the Christian faith to Egypt and was martyred in 63.

Many frescoes date from as early as the seventh century. They had been plastered over until rediscovered by French and Dutch experts in the 1990’s. A magnificent seventh-century fresco depicting the Annunciation is in good condition, painted with pigments developed by the pharaohs.

The oldest part of the church is St. Bishoi’s hermitage, a gloomy little space where he lived for 30 years. A chain still hangs from the ceiling where, according to tradition, he tied his hair to stay awake.

The keep is also one of the oldest buildings and still has a drawbridge that makes the building virtually impregnable. It has a deep well, food storage area, chapel and cells. The present Patriarch of the See of St. Mark, Pope Shenouda III, had been a monk at Al Sourian for 14 years, his cell within the keep.

During recent renovations, a vast treasure trove of ancient manuscripts – both Syriac and Coptic – as well as papyrus fragments were discovered there, many buried in rubble.

With the help of the British Library, the monastery has been preserving these ancient religious texts. Father Bigoul, who studied manuscript preservation in London, is in charge of the project.

“When I first discovered the papyrus it looked like a piece of plywood, but I saw writing on the front and back,” said Father Bigoul, a graduate in chemistry. “I realized it was not plywood but many layers of papyrus stuck together. I contacted an archaeologist at the University of Cairo and we decided to separate the sheets using an enzyme. When it was dry we put them in acetate sheets and later, with the help of the British Library, we preserved them behind glass.

“The monastery’s library dates from the fifth century. We have fragments of the Bible of St. John,” Father Bigoul said, “though most of the Coptic texts date from the 12th century.

“We have many volumes documenting the lives of saints and the rites of the Coptic Church, mostly written in our monastery’s scriptorium. Syriac and Coptic scribes worked side by side. Over half of the manuscripts are in good condition.”

The manuscripts had been hidden in the walls of the keep by the monks so that no adventuring opportunists could find them.

Their rediscovery was a boon for the monastery and Father Bigoul was eager to show off the collection, opening up many beautifully illuminated texts.

With the finds come new challenges for the monastery, as it battles to preserve its traditional monastic seclusion while sharing its ancient wonders with the modern world.

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Sean Sprague, a photojournalist living in Wales, travels the globe for ONE.

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Tags: Egypt Pilgrimage/pilgrims Monastery Coptic Orthodox Church Media