In Oriental Orthodox Churches in Armenia, Syria, and Egypt one can find churches with water pits built into the floor or nearby. At the monastery of Mor Gabriel monastery in southeast, Turkey, where I lived for long periods we had a cistern outside the nave of the church. There were several others nearby. Simon of the Olives, an abbot of the monastery during the 7th century used an abandoned cistern in the floor of the Mother of God chapel to store olive oil.
In an article from the NY Times on September 28, 2005 there is a report of an excavation of the Coptic monastery of Saint Anthony in Egypt, a sister Oriental Orthodox church, where Father Maximous looked for water pits as a clue to excavating an ancient monastic church.
“Father Maximous is a Coptic monk who for 27 years has made his home inside the walls of St. Anthony’s Monastery, a fortress of Christianity 100 miles southeast of Cairo that is generally considered the birthplace of Christian monastic life.
During the third century, there were Christians who sought piety through abstention and self-denial. But St. Anthony is credited with taking those practices a step further when he went to live in a cave in the mountains of the desert, not far from the monastery that bears
his name, around the year 270.
The monastery is breathtaking, two tall towers rising up from the sand, each topped with the Coptic cross, dotted with churches and cells for 110 monks. But it is the green that is so striking, the green that historians say drew Anthony, the green palm trees that signal the presence of water. It is easy to feel a divine spirit where water emerges from the desert floor.
And so the men who sought to live like St. Anthony built cells in the ravines of a craggy, bare mountain with all they needed to survive, and with quiet. They made their cells of bricks and plaster, durable but lost over the years, buried beneath Apostle Church.
Father Maximous is deeply interested in the past and is busy working with crews that have dug and scratched away at layers in every corner of the monastery. He said he knew that his predecessors used to build basins into the floor of their churches for what he called a “water mass.” So he began looking. Working with contractors, and with the help of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, he found one basin, and then, mysteriously, a second.”
The water pits are clues to the presence of a monastic church. When I looked at the main excavation area of the Da Qin site I immediately noticed the water pit to the southern side of the portico area where six stone pillar bases outline a significant building. The relationship of this water pit to the six pillared portico area could suggest the presence of a church. The portico area lies on an east-west axis. Generally monastic naves lie on a north-south axis. The site is not fully excavated so it is difficult to determine what part of a worship site this might be. Nevertheless, the water pit under the floor level of a significant building offers some support to the thesis that this is a monastic worship area.