Desert guide Amir Milad points to a painting of a face inside the collapsed church at Deir Abu Lifa monastery. The painting is one of several images of religious figures at the site, which is in dire need of protection.
Ahead of me, my companion switches on his head torch and lights up the chamber, revealing the object of our search. Around the walls, just below the ceiling is a layer of plaster, and on it some painted images, the heads of religious figures, saints or apostles perhaps. One bears a striking resemblance to traditional images of Jesus.
We take photographs until the sand causes my camera to seize up, and then return to the fresh air above.
My companion is Amir Milad, a desert guide of many years experience, and he has brought me to Deir Abu Lifa, an abandoned Coptic monastery in the Western Desert north of Fayoum. Dating back to the early days of Coptic Christianity, the monastery is cut into an outcrop of the Qatrani mountain; a remote place in which monks could lead the contemplative life safe from raids and persecution. The name points to the saint assumed to have founded it, Abu Lifa, also known as Abu Banukhm or St. Panoukhius.
The southern section is now collapsed, perhaps due to erosion or earthquakes, leaving only two rooms intact at the northern end. It is in the southern section that the paintings lie hidden.
“I’ve been coming here for about fifteen years,” says Milad, “making desert safaris, taking groups around the north side of the lake, around Fayoum Oasis. There are various archaeological sites here, and we’d visit them, and then come to this place.”
“We’d always visit the northern end, and look inside and take photographs.
But then last November I was curious to look further inside. And so I found this tunnel between the rocks, and after some time, I came across the room with the paintings. When I saw the paintings, I was amazed. I felt sure that nobody else had seen them, certainly none of the other desert guides I know.”
Convinced that he’d made a fresh discovery, Milad began to ponder what else might be hidden beneath the sands of Deir Abu Lifa. A devout Christian, he is fascinated by the religious significance of the paintings, which he suspects mark the site of the monastery’s church. Beneath the gathered sands, he believes, may lie religious relics, texts, even the bodily remains of a saint.
In February of this year Milad paid a visit to the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Zamalek, where he presented news of his find to Dr Mustafa Amin, head of the Department of Islamic and Coptic Monuments.
The initial signs were promising. Dr Amin said that the paintings did indeed seem to be a fresh find, and a search of the Supreme Council’s records showed that Deir Abu Lifa, while recorded as an abandoned Coptic monastery, had never been visited by an official inspector, much less been the subject of any major excavations. Dr Amin made arrangements for a committee to be formed with a view to making an inspection of the site later this year.
While Milad was waiting for the committee to convene, he learned more of Deir Abu Lifa’s history. A study published in 1937 by French archaeologist Henri Munier contains a rough sketch of the northern rooms, as well as a translation of some of the Coptic texts painted on the walls there. One of the texts, apparently written by a monk named Stephen, reads: “Christ remember me... Do penitence for me... Pray that God will give me patience...” Munier dates this text at 686 AD, and another at 858 AD.
A further study in 1993 by the Italian Paolo Gallo provides more detail, including an exploration of the collapsed southern section. Here he identifies fragments of pots used for cooking and vessels for storing wine, as well as a piece of glass found at the foot of the monastery.
Somewhat to Milad’s disappointment, Gallo’s work also contains photographs of the church and its sacred wall paintings. Gallo describes them as “... fragments of a parade of saints or apostles, which are painted frontally. Two of the faces are still almost intact, and their halos have a diameter of 50cm. The head of a third figure has eyebrows and eyes painted in white against a black background.”
Clearly, Milad was not the first to set eyes on these images in modern times.
But his initial assumptions raise interesting questions about its conservation and that of similar sites. The fact that the monastery is unguarded and shows no sign of excavation work initially suggests either that it is unknown to the authorities or that they are acting negligently with regard to a site potentially rich in archaeological finds.
But further investigation points to the significance of Deir Abu Lifa relative to other, more complete, Coptic sites.
Elizabeth Bolman is an expert in Medieval art and Director of the Red and White Monastery Project. As she points out, Deir Abu Lifa is just one of many Christian sites in Egypt containing religious paintings, many of which have survived the centuries more or less intact.
Based solely on photographs, she tentatively places the figures at Deir Abu Lifa in the Late Antique period, but explains that there are several better preserved examples from this period and later.
“There are two sites with significantly better surviving painting that’s Late Antique,” she tells Daily News Egypt. “One is in the Monastery of St.
Simeon in Aswan. But there’s another one called Dier Abu Kinnis, which is near Malawi. And then there’s this later period, like Wadi Natrun, and then a Mediaeval flowering, which is St. Anthony’s.”
“This is part of a larger class of monuments. Some of them have been conserved; some of them are being conserved and partially protected or fully protected. But I can’t imagine much more than an inspector being assigned to Deir Abu Lifa to check on it every once in a while.”
“I mean, I have to tell you, this is not a great find. It’s not negligible, but it’s not spectacular. There’s far too much of great value in this country to be properly conserved. I mean, that’s just a general fact of life,” she concludes.
Considering the limited resources of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, the body has the unenviable task of giving priority to those sites that present the greatest opportunities for preservation, leaving the more humble ones somewhat neglected.
Bolman’s view is echoed by Dr Amin at the Supreme Council of Antiquities, who told Milad that a preliminary report may indicate the need for a fuller excavation, but in the meantime the authorities can only offer very limited protection.
“If we come to the site and see it is valuable, we can protect it,” says Dr Amin. “But because the site is so remote and there are no facilities in the area, we can only hope to put a guard on patrol to visit the site from time to time. There is no place for a guide to live, so he can’t stay there all the time, just visit once or twice a week.”
He adds that the site has survived for several centuries, and so it is likely to survive for a while longer. “It is natural that it might fall apart due to natural effects. The factor of time may cause damage. But since it is still there after all this time, it is apparently self-protecting,” he says.
But Milad is keen that work on the site begin sooner rather than later.
Treasure hunters have been visiting Abu Lifa in recent times, motivated by a local legend concerning treasure hidden there, possibly the wealth of the monastic community buried for safe-keeping. Indeed, evidence of their activity can be seen in the northern chambers, where the walls are pocked with freshly-dug holes and piles of rubble covering the floor. In some places, the plaster on the walls has been smashed, with the loss of sections of ancient graffiti. The deserts of Egypt are sprinkled of similar Coptic sites prey to unscrupulous exploitation.
As for the idea of guards being employed to protect Abu Lifa, Milad is more than a little skeptical.
“You can’t trust them at all,” he says. “They take money to allow people into areas that should be closed, and I’m sure they would be more than happy to help the treasure hunters.”
Milad is still waiting for the Supreme Council of Antiquities to get back to him with a date for the official site visit. Meanwhile, he is taking matters into his own hands. In recent weeks he has been back to Abu Lifa and surrounding sites, and says he has taken to tracking the treasure hunters as they go about their work.
“The last few times I went there I saw tracks in the sand and not just tourist jeeps. There were tractor tracks and motorbikes,” says Milad. “They are looking for the treasure and they will take anything they find and try to sell it.