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Kellia and Pherme

Introduction
Toward the western outskirts of the Egyptian Delta lie the remains of over one thousand five hundred early Christian monastic structures — mud-brick dwellings dating primarily to the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries. In antiquity, because of the many hermitages that dotted the landscape, the main settlement in the area came to be named Kellia — “The Cells.” Another settlement called Pherme grew up as something of a satellite community to the larger one at Kellia. Both are well known from ancient sources like the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Monasticism at Kellia and Pherme combined elements of the solitary and communal life. While there was ample opportunity for monks to find solitude in their individual cells, many occupied their houses in pairs or groups of three and gathered with other monks weekly for the purposes of worship. This way of life continued until the eighth century, when these settlements declined under early Arab rule.

Archaeology at Kellia
The site at Kellia lay abandoned for centuries until its rediscovery in 1964. French and Swiss archaeological teams began work at the site the next year, work that continued until 1990. Throughout this period, the French and Swiss teams had to contend with significant environmental and societal factors that threatened the site’s preservation. In the 1960s, the Egyptian government began intensive efforts to reclaim desert territories and sponsor agricultural development through irrigation in the western Delta region. The result of these efforts was a rising water level that increasingly saturated and destabilized the ground in and around the monastic remains. Each year, portions of the site were lost to unmonitored agricultural expansion, and in 1990 the archaeological work at Kellia was suspended.

Figure 01

Photo of previously excavated monastic cells at Pherme (2005)


Archaeology at Pherme

While the rising water level has made future excavations untenable throughout much of the western Delta region, the cluster of monastic remains at Pherme, located eleven kilometers southeast of central Kellia, have fortuitously escaped this fate because of a slightly higher elevation. The site of Pherme today contains approximately 115 monastic hermitages, only about ten of which were excavated by the Swiss during their three seasons of work there from 1987 to 1989.1 In 2006, at the invitation of members from the former Swiss team, the Egyptian Delta Monastic Archaeology Project conducted a series of surveys and preliminary excavations at Pherme. Using the geophysical method of magnetic prospection, the team was able to map the location of unexcavated structures buried beneath the ground and correlate that data with the earlier Swiss findings. The results of this survey have been documented in an article co-authored by Tomasz Herbich, Darlene Brooks Hedstrom, and Stephen J. Davis and published in the Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt 44 (2007), 129–37.

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Notes

1 Philippe Bridel, et al, eds., Explorations aux Qouçoûr Hégeila et ‘Éreima lors des campagnes 1987, 1988 et 1989 (EK 8184, vol. 4; Louvain: Peeters, 2003).