In Photos: Oldest archaeologically attested monastic site discovered in Egypt's Bahariya Oasis

Nevine El-Aref , Saturday 13 Mar 2021

The site consists of six sectors constructed predominantly of basalt blocks and mud, mud bricks, and a number of buildings which are dug partially - or completely - in the geological substratum

Oldest archaeologically

"A new discovery at the site of Tel Ganub Qasr Al-‘Aguz, is perhaps the oldest archaeologically attested monastic site, not only in Egypt, but in the world," said Victor Ghica, Professor in Antiquity and Early Christian Studies and the Head of the Norwegian-French archaeological mission.

The site is located some 370km southwest of Cairo in the Bahariya Oasis and has seen three seasons of excavation in partnership between the Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale (IFAO) and MF Vitenskapelig Høyskole, Norway.

Director of the Islamic, Coptic and Jewish Antiquities sector Osama Talaat said that the site consists of six sectors constructed predominantly of basalt blocks and mud, mud bricks, and a number of buildings which are dug partially - or completely - in the geological substratum.

Victor Ghica, the director of the mission, explains that the closest Roman-period archaeological sites are between 2.4 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 the remains of three churches and the graffiti and dipinti on the walls in sectors one and six, that indicate the monastic nature of the community that lived here.

He went on saying that the first sector is the first to have been excavated and that it comprises a hermitage constructed in five phases, spanning from the first half of the fourth century to the seventh century. 

The nucleus of the sector are the rock-cut areas, comprising a church as well as adjoining liturgical spaces. Four additional areas were then constructed: 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 date of the earliest stage of this hermitage can be situated around the mid-fourth century, making it the oldest preserved Christian monastic site that has been dated with certainty.

He continued that during the 2020 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 the first one. 

These three rooms, as well as an independent living space and a corridor or a 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 of the sixth sector, including the church, were covered with a variety of biblical and patristic texts written in Greek. In addition, a number of Greek ostraca were also uncovered, which make explicit reference to monks. Absolute dates are not yet available for this sector, but much of the ceramic and written material found therein 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/architectural parallel available was 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 from the site dates from the fifth and early sixth centuries, indicating that this was likely the peak of activity - at least in six sectors - while traces of later occupation, dating from the seventh to eighth centuries, have also been identified in first, second and sixth sectors, probably correlating with the pastoralist re-occupation of the site.

“While the fourth century foundation date of the first sector and perhaps other sectors of the site, is just one of many remarkable features the site has to offer, it is perhaps the most important, inviting [people] to a new understanding of the beginnings of monasticism in Egypt,” said Ghica.

Oldest archaeologically

Oldest archaeologically

Oldest archaeologically

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