The White Monastery Project
Fig. 1 Site of the Project (in Middle Ground) Seen from Western Valley Wall, with Ancient Church at the Center. In Foreground, the Modern Monastery of St. Shenoute and Modern Cemetary. In Background, Sohag, the Nile, Akhmim, and Eastern Valley Wall.
Documentation of the Monastic Church / Excavation of Monastic Remains
On the edge of the Western desert some 6km from the town of Sohag lies the Coptic archaeological site of Shenoute’s White Monastery (Deir el-Abyad). The site consists of two elements: a large fifth-century monastic church, which is still standing to a height of 43 feet above ground (L 75m x W 37m x H 13m) and which is presently used by modern Coptic monks; and next to it, a field of monastic remains, of which about 8 hectares (20 acres) is accessible. The Coptic history of this site begins in the early fourth century A.D. and extends almost to the fifteenth, when the Medieval historian al-Maqrizi saw the monastery in ruins. The Church Documentation Project aims to create a thorough record of the fifth-century monastic church in its present state. Archaeological investigation of the White Monastery remains next to the church has as its immediate goals to map the site, both surface and subsurface features (ground penetrating radar mapping was used); to scientifically document areas that were cleared but not recorded by previous excavators; to investigate the long settlement history of the site through excavation and interpretation, with preference for endangered areas; to conserve and document fragments of wall paintings; and to design and implement a site management plan to serve the needs of scholars, resident monks, the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt, and site visitors.
Shenoute’s Monastic Federation
The three sites identified on the map are components of Shenoute’s monastic federation, which originally comprised two men’s monasteries (the White Monastery and the nearby Red Monastery with its own well-preserved late antique church) and an urban nunnery (presumably located in the ruins of Atripe), along with male and female hermits who lived in the wilderness adjacent to the monastery. Nowhere else in the ancient world does one find such a multivalent and extensive documentation of Christian monasticism all from the same place, consisting of archaeological remains, standing architecture with decorative art, and texts. The archaeological remains include buildings, streets, large and small objects, a subterranean tomb chapel, and organic remains from the White Monastery over centuries of history. The standing architecture includes two late antique churches with extensive wall painting programs (the spectacular decorative art at the Red Monastery is currently the subject of restoration and conservation). The texts include a vast corpus by Shenoute, in which he describes monastic life, spirituality, and relations between the monastery and the external world. Several thousand pages of Shenoute’s Coptic writings have survived (mostly in European libraries and museums, acquired in the nineteenth century). His writings provide Egyptologists with a very detailed picture of the life and activities of ancient Coptic monks and nuns at this site in the fourth and fifth centuries. For this reason they are an extremely important source of historical information about Egypt in the Coptic period, along side the equally important material remains. The White Monastery Project of the Yale Egyptological Institute in Egypt is made possible by support of the William K. and Marilyn M. Simpson Endowment for Egyptology of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations of Yale University.