The Monastery of the Syrians - (referred to hereafter as Deir al-Surian) - History

For many centuries, the desert has provided escape and isolation for those who have turned their backs on life, to be alone with their god. From the beginning of the first millennium, it has been a sanctuary inhabited by monks and hermits which, in the early 3rd century AD, became the birthplace of Christian monasticism.  

Early History
Deir al Surian, one of the monasteries of the Coptic Orthodox Church, is situated in the Western desert, or Desert of Scetis, between Alexandria and Cairo. It was founded in the 6th century as a result of a theological dispute over the incorruptibility of the Body of Christ when monks from the neighbouring Anba Bishoymonastery left and established a ‘duplicate’ monastery dedicated to the Mother of God (Theotokos).
 
From the early 9th until the 17th century the monastery was inhabited by Copts (Egyptian Christians) and monks from Syria, hence the name Deir al Surian which means the Monastery of the Syrians. The library itself was founded in the 9th century by two Syrian monks, Matthew and Abraham.
 
In 927AD Moses of Nisbis, abbot of the monastery, travelled to Baghdad to negotiate an exemption from the poll tax for the monasteries. During his travels he acquired 250 volumes, greatly increasing the library’s holdings and initiating the collection of manuscripts. Following this early period of growth and prosperity the monastery started to decline. According to a note discovered in a Syriac manuscript, by 1413 just one monk lived in the monastery.
 
Later History
Some years later however, the monastery regained its prominence when the Syrian monks engaged in the restoration of the churches, and scribal activities and library activities recommenced. The 19th century guidebook Handbook for Travellers to Lower and Upper Egypt depicts the monastery as “the most beautiful convent of all the convents. It is supposed to resemble Noah’s ark in form, but in no other respect: for here the admission of women is strictly prohibited. This convent contains three churches: one of them, Adra Bi Suriani, has a beautifully carved screen door inlaid with wood and ivory, and an iconostasis also inlaid with ivory; in a chapel is a curious double picture on a panel with two saints on one side, and a crown female head, perhaps Empress Helena, on the other.”
 
During the 17th century the population of Syrian monks decreased, gradually leaving Coptic monks as sole inhabitants of the monastery. However, Lord Curzon, in his book The Monasteries of the Levant  (1849) reports also the presence of Ethiopian monks in 1832. In recent years there has been a revival of the community of Deir al Surian which now comprises some 200 monks lead by Bishop Mattaos.
The Levantine Foundation registered in England 4506398, in The Arab Republic of Egypt under Law No 84 (2002). Registered charity number 1094436.