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Deir al-Sourian Review

When you exit Deir Anba Bishoi, turn left, and a 10-minute walk brings you to Deir al-Sourian. Even if you have a car, it is worth walking: the approach gives you a powerful sense of the desert's small dunes with the lush foliage of the monastery just peeking over the high walls that shimmer in the haze of heat off the sands.

Deir al-Sourian was founded by a breakaway faction from Deir Anba Bishoi and dedicated to Theotokos (God's Mother). A later reconciliation made the new monastery redundant, so it was taken over by monks from Syria—hence its name al-Sourian, the Syrian. There is a tamarind tree in the rear of the monastery that supposedly grew out of the walking stick of the 4th-century Syrian Saint Ephraem. Challenged by younger monks, who thought he carried the staff to look authoritative, Ephraem announced: "Were it used due to weakness, it will bud out," and he stuck his staff in the ground.

Many sections of Deir al-Sourian, including the 9th-century Roman-style keep, are not open to the public, but the main church has a number of interesting sights. The most impressive is the ebony Door of Symbols, inlaid with ivory, in the haykal. Its seven panels represent what were thought of locally as the seven epochs of the Christian era. An inscription shows that it was installed in the church in the 10th century, when Gabriel I was the patriarch of Alexandria. On either side of the haykal are two half domes decorated with frescoes, one showing the Annunciation to the Virgin and the other the Virgin's Dormition. Many other frescoes have been discovered throughout the church including, most recently, several 7th-century renditions of as yet unknown Coptic martyrs. The monks are inordinately proud of these discoveries.

In the rear of the church is the refectory, with a kitschy display of monastic eating habits, complete with plaster figures dressed up like monks. If you duck through a narrow passage to the left of the refectory, you can find a stone cave that was Saint Bishoi's private laura. According to legend, Saint Bishoi tied his hair to a chain (now a rope) that hung from the ceiling to prevent himself from falling asleep during his marathon prayer sessions.

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