Egypt's Western Desert: World’s earliest Christian monastic site discovered

Nevine El-Aref , Thursday 18 Mar 2021

Victor Ghica, director of the mission, told Al-Ahram Weekly that he believed that all the evidence suggested that the monastic remains were not only the oldest ever found in Egypt, but also in the world as a whole

An ostraca with Greek text
An ostraca with Greek text

A Norwegian-French mission from the Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale (IFAO) and the MF Vitenskapelig Høyskole in Norway working at Tel Ganub Qasr Al-Agouz in the Bahariya Oasis in the Western Desert has succeeded in uncovering what is believed to be perhaps the oldest archaeologically attested monastic site in the world.

Victor Ghica, director of the mission, told Al-Ahram Weekly that he believed that all the evidence suggested that the monastic remains were not only the oldest ever found in Egypt, but also in the world as a whole.

He said that the site, the object of three seasons of excavations, consists of six sectors constructed predominantly of basalt blocks and mud and mud bricks, as well as a number of buildings dug partially or completely in the geological substratum.

The closest Roman period archaeological sites are between 2.4km and 3.8km away, making the site somewhat isolated. It is this isolation, as well as the organisation of the internal areas of each sector, the presence of three churches, and the graffiti on the walls in sectors one and six, which indicate the monastic nature of the community that once lived here.


The first sector was the first to have been excavated and comprises a hermitage constructed in five phases spanning from the first half of the fourth century to the seventh century CE.

The nucleus of the sector is the rock-cut areas, comprising a church as well as adjoining liturgical spaces. Four additional areas were then constructed comprising two cells, a kitchen-refectory, and a distribution room, followed by subsequent extensions and renovations consisting of four more rooms, one of which was a church.

Based on stratigraphy, radiocarbon analysis, ceramic assemblages, and coins, the foundation can be dated in its earliest stage of the hermitage to around the mid-fourth century CE, Ghica said, making it the oldest preserved Christian monastic site that has been dated with certainty.

During the recent season, the excavation of the sixth sector was completed, revealing a total of 19 rooms, including a church, attached to which were two rock-cut annex rooms, similar to those seen in sector one. These three rooms, as well as an independent living space and a corridor or vestibule, comprise the nucleus around which the sector was built and represent the first of four phases of construction.

“The walls of four of the rooms, including the church, were covered with a variety of biblical and patristic texts written in Greek,” Ghica said, adding that a number of Greek ostraca were also uncovered making explicit reference to monks. Absolute dates are not yet available for this sector, he said, but much of the ceramic and written materials found suggest a final occupation in the fifth or sixth century.

The planimetry of the buildings in each of the sectors, as well as the construction techniques employed, make this an atypical laura, a semi-anchoretic type of monastic setting comprising clusters of living spaces for monks. The only archaeological or architectural parallel available is in the earliest structures of Kellia, located in the Nitrian Desert, which are now lost and which were never dated precisely.

Most of the ceramic material dates from the fifth and early sixth centuries, indicating that this was likely the peak of activity, at least in the first, second, third and sixth sectors. Traces of later occupation dating from the seventh to eighth centuries have also been identified in the first, second and sixth sectors, probably correlating with the pastoralist re-occupation of the site.

The fourth-century foundation date of the first sector, and perhaps of other sectors at the site, is just one of many remarkable features of the whole. “It is perhaps the most important site ever found, inviting a new understanding of the beginnings of monasticism in Egypt,” Ghica concluded.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 March, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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