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Monastery of Saint John the Little

In late antiquity, the desert settlement called Scetis (Wādī al-Natrūn) was a haven for Egyptian monastic communities. In this region west of the Nile Delta, thousands of monks’ cells dotted the arid landscape; and over the course of time, clusters of these cells were organized into more formal monastic organizations. The Monastery of John the Little was one such organization. Named after the fourth-century desert father, John Kolobos (“the Dwarf”), who lived as a hermit in the region and who was renowned for both his humility and his short physical stature, it remained one of the most active monasteries at Scetis through the period of Arab rule until its destruction by a Berber raid in the fourteenth century. Today, the buildings of this early medieval monastery lie largely undisturbed beneath the desert sands, awaiting archaeological investigation.

Map of Monastery of Saint John the Little

Archaeology at the Monastery of St. John the Little
Prior to the start of YMAP’s work in 2006, the history of formal archaeological investigation at St. John the Little was restricted to three seasons conducted by the Scriptorium Center for Christian Antiquities and Calvin Theological Seminary in 1995, 1996, and 1999.1 Preliminary surveys and excavations, under the direction of Bastiaan Van Elderen, uncovered an enclosed main church as well as a hermitage (residence A) similar to the type of dwellings found at ancient Kellia.2 Unfortunately, the work of the Scriptorium team was interrupted and their results were never fully published.

Survey map 1In light of the urgent need to document the site, YMAP’s primary goal during its first season (May-June 2006) was to conduct a series of surveys with the goal of producing the first comprehensive archaeological map of the site (in progress). Over 100 mounds have been plotted within the seven square kilometer area of the site using Total Station technology: these mounds indicate the location of unexcavated architectural remains. In coordination with these surface surveys, we also used magnetic prospection in selected areas to detect and map buildings beneath the surface (figures 1 and 2). Some of these structures were revealed to be as large as ninety meters in length.

Survey map 2During season one, the YMAP team also excavated a monastic trash deposit located between three larger cell complexes. This ninth-century deposit yielded a wide range of materials, including construction debris and painted plaster, pottery, glass (including glass slag from production, window panes, and fine stemware), a bread stamp, coins, and small animal remains. Such material will be incredibly valuable for constructing a material typology for studying the local monastic economy—from patterns of building construction and renovation, to food storage and dietary habits.

Since 2007, our work at the Monastery of John the Little has focused on the excavation of one of the monastic residences adjacent to the trash deposit. This structure (residence B) has proven to be very well preserved, in some places up to 2.5 meters in depth, above the level of the door archways. Architectural finds include plastered window frames with glass panes still preserved and an extensive kitchen installation with multiple mud-brick ovens. The walls of a central room feature a program of Coptic dipinti (painted wall writings) and wall paintings, including crosses and figures of saints. Pottery analysis has indicated a late ninth or early tenth century dating for the large complex, and this period of occupation has been confirmed by one of the dipinti, dated specifically to the year A.D. 985/6.

Bibliography

Apophthegmata Patrum. Greek text in PG 65.71–440. English translation by Benedicta Ward, The Desert Christians: Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Alphabetic Collection. New York: Macmillan, 1975.

Evelyn-White, Hugh G. The Monasteries of the Wadi ’n Natrûn. 3 volumes. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1926–33.

Samuel el-Souriani. “Bâtiments monastiques anciens au Wadi Natroun,” Le monde copte 21–22 (1993), 245–253.

Samuil, Bishop, and Peter Grossmann, “Researches in the Laura of John Kolobos (Wādī al-Natrūn),” Ägypten und Nubien in spätantiker und christlicher Zeit: Akten des 6. Internationalen Koptologenkongresses, Münster 20.–26. Juli 1996 (Wiesbaden: Reichert, 1999), 360–4.

Zacharias of Sakhā, Life of Saint John the Little. Coptic Bohairic text and Sahidic fragments edited by E. Amélineau, “Vie de Jean Kolobos,” Histoire des Monastères de la Basse-Égypte, Annales du Musée Guimet 25, 316–413, 414–25. Paris: Leroux, 1894. English translation by M. S. Mikhail and T. Vivian, in Coptic Church Review 18.1–2 (1997), 17–58, 59–64

Notes

1 In 1992, a general survey of the area assessed the potential value of the site for future excavation and was used as a preliminary report for the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt: Samuel el-Souriani, “Bâtiments monastiques anciens au Wadi Natroun,” Le monde copte 21–22 (1993), 245–253.

2 Bishop Samuil and Peter Grossmann, “Researches in the Laura of John Kolobos (Wâdî Natrûn),” in Ägypten und Nubien in spätantiker und christlicher Zeit: Akten des 6. Internationalen Koptologenkongresses, Münster 20.–26. Juli 1996 (Wiesbaden: Reichert, 1999), 360–4.