Yale Monastic Archaeology Project South (Sohag)

On the edge of the Western Desert some 6km from the town of Sohag lies the Coptic archaeological site of Shenoute’s White Monastery (Dayr al-Abyad). The site includes a large fifth-century monastic church and an adjacent zone of monastic remains, of which about 8 hectares (20 acres) is accessible. The Coptic history of this site begins in the early fourth century C.E. and extends almost to the fifteenth, when the medieval historian al-Maqrizi saw the monastery in ruins. The monastery was renewed in the twentieth century and is now home to a modern community of Coptic monks.

 Figure 1. The site (in middle ground), with the Church of St. Shenoute at the center and the modern monastery in the foreground.

Shenoute’s Monastic Federation

The three sites identified on the map below 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 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 monumental late antique churches with extensive wall painting programs (the spectacular decorative art at the Red Monastery is currently the subject of restoration and conservation), as well as assorted buildings associated with the women’s foundation at Atripe. 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 Yale 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.

Figure 2. A map showing the monasteries of the Shenoutean Federation.

The Goals of the Project

Archaeological investigation of the White Monastery is sponsored by the Yale Monastic Archaeology Project South and directed by Prof. Stephen J. Davis. The immediate goals of the project include: mapping the site, including both surface and subsurface features; archaeological analysis of areas cleared but not recorded by previous excavators; investigation of the site’s long settlement history through excavation and interpretation, with special attention to endangered areas; architectural documentation of the fifth-century monastic church; conservation of architectural elements and wall paintings; and the design and implementation of a site management plan to serve the needs of visitors, scholars, resident monks, and the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt. In 2016, the project’s goals expanded to include archaeological work on the remains of the associated women’s monastery at Atripe.