Church Documentation Project

The White Monastery Church Survey has the goal of thoroughly recording and documenting the present state of the church building constructed by Shenoute in the mid-fifth century CE. The church stands on the edge of the low desert beside the village of ϲEsbet Sohag, near the town of Sohag, Egypt, on the west bank of the Nile 300 miles south of Cairo. It is a large building, approximately 75m long, 37m wide, and 13m high.

The Church Documentation Project at the White Monastery has been directed by Prof. Bentley Layton, working in close collaboration with survey architect Dr. Michael Burgoyne. On-site work began in 2006 and has involved photography, structural assessment, and architectural recording of the Church.

Preliminary report of the first season (2006)

The original roof has been missing since perhaps the seventh century, and the manner in which the building was first roofed is an unresolved problem. The nave remains a roofless ruin; but an enclosed sanctuary was recreated in the Middle Ages by walling off the eastern aisle, khurus, the trilobed apse and associated chambers, and the staircase at the east end, and constructing a series of domed vaults to cover them. Other areas of rebuilding include a domed chamber in the southwest corner. The fabric of the fifth-century church incorporates a quantity of reused Pharaonic and Roman building materials, some of which bear hieroglyphic inscriptions or scenes. The recording, formal classification, and historical analysis of these earlier materials is an important task for a future season of survey work.

Several twentieth-century conservation projects have consolidated and partly remodelled the building, starting with those of the Comité de conservation des monuments de l’art arabe. Most of the pavement of the church was renewed recently, using white clay tiles. In the course of repaving, various columns were taken down, as can be seen by comparing the present state with a photograph taken in the 1990s (Massimo Capuani, Christian Egypt, 2002, dust jacket photo and plate facing page 208).

Significant investigations of the architecture have been made by Ugo Monneret de Villard (Comité de conservation des monuments de l’art arabe) and especially Peter Grossmann (Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Cairo). A team of professors and students from Darmstadt Technische Hochschule made a detailed architectural survey of the church in 1962, producing fifteen drawings. We are grateful to Nicholas Warner for providing us with copies of these drawings.

 Figure 1. Photographic documentation of the Church, December 2006. Left to right, Rock, Burgoyne, Layton.

The White Monastery Survey team in December 2006 consisted of Prof. Bentley Layton (Survey Director), Dr. Michael Burgoyne (Survey Architect), and Dr. Joe Rock (Photographer). In the period December 11–18, 2006, the photographer, working in consultation with the architect and director, shot 257 black-and-white rectified photographs of both the interior and the exterior of the church building. The film was Ilford HP5 ASA 400 for interiors, and FP4 ASA 125 for exteriors, shot with a 5”×4” plate camera, mainly using a Schneider Kreuznach 90mm Super Angulon lens, augmented by a Schneider Kreuznach 210mm lens for distant shots. The results are black-and-white images printed on 9½”×12” Ilford Multigrade IV FB Fiber archive-quality paper. These will in the near future be digitized.

The Survey architect advised on areas to be recorded photographically and supplemented the photographic record with sketches and occasional measurements. Some areas were inaccessible to us, including the secret chamber entered and recorded previously by Peter Grossmann, the area under the stairs at the east end, which has been blocked up, and several upper-floor chambers above the sanctuary which appear in the Darmstadt drawings but have not been explored recently. None of the floors was recorded.

Lighting for the photography was a problem. In the time available, it was impossible to ensure good raking sunlight for all the exterior shots, but we did try to get raking light for all the main elevations; and interior lighting was provided where necessary by hand-held tungsten work lamps. Photographs were taken so far as possible at a fixed distance from the walls of the building, with a two-meter rod to give scale. In places where this was not possible — at the east end, for instance, where a metal fence and a retaining wall prevented the photographer from getting far enough back — alternative solutions were found.

—by Michael H. Burgoyne (Survey Architect)

Preliminary report of the second season (2007)

In the preliminary report on the first season we stated that the aim of the project was to record the White Monastery church building. Since then our aim has developed, and we now hope to make progress in understanding its construction materials and techniques and in identifying the various programs of significant repairs and alterations.

The team was led again by Prof. Bentley Layton (project director) and Dr. Michael Burgoyne (architect). In this campaign of work, from 11 to 19 December 2007, we were accompanied by Sam Price (consultant structural engineer, Price & Myers, London), Elisa Lui (surveyor), and David Klotz (Egyptologist). We were ably assisted on site by Muhammad Khalifa (archaeologist) and his energetic team of assistants.

The work consisted of several associated sub-projects, which were planned by Layton and Burgoyne and successfully carried out under Layton’s supervision.

Figure 2 (left). Inspection of the foundation course by Khalifa and workmen. Figure 3 (right). Structural analysis of the building by Burgoyne and Price.

Recent reports by the monks that new cracks might have appeared in the north lobe of the trilobate apse led us to commission a structural engineer with extensive experience of important historic buildings to accompany us. Sam Price, our engineer, assessed the condition of the building by visual inspection, making a photographic record as he went along. Scaffolding was erected in the north lobe of the apse to allow close examination of the structure. The vertical alignment of walls was measured using a Total Station theodolite and, in sheltered areas, a plumb bob. The condition of the foundation of the north wall just west of the main entrance doorway in that wall was investigated by clearing backfill from a trench excavated by Peter Sheehan and Louisa Blanke in 2006 (there was no sign of dampness, and unlike the Red Monastery church no modern concrete girdle). The backfill was replaced following our investigations.

Figure 4. Photo of Burgoyne, Father Bishai, and Lui.

On December 11, 2007, a meeting was held to discuss the physical condition of the church building. The participants were: Fr. Maximous el-Antony, Fr. Bishai el-Shinoudah, Fr. Fam el-Shinoudah, Prof. Elizabeth Bolman, Dr. Burgoyne, Prof. Layton, and Mr. Price. Mr. Price explained that he had come here to find out the physical condition of the church and that he would submit a written report to the appropriate people very soon. Fr. Maximous requested that the report be translated into Arabic. The monks agreed that in the next two years (December 2007 to December 2009) nothing will be changed in the church building, so that Prof. Layton’s team can carry on recording the building in its present state.

The task of completing and augmenting last year’s photographic survey fell to Dr. Burgoyne. Among other things, scaffolding towers were erected to allow the sanctuary floors to be photographed. The camera used was a Nikon F3 equipped with 28mm PC Nikkor, 55mm Micro-Nikkor, and 100mm Nikon lenses, with Ilford FP4 (125 ASA) and HP5 (400 ASA) black-and-white 35mm film. Our intention is to have the photographs printed on Ilford Multigrade archival quality paper at the same size (9.5 x 12 in.) as last season’s photographs and to archive the two sets of photographs together.

Figure 5 (left). Recording of Pharaonic reliefs by Klotz. Figure 6 (right). Survey of the north apse, with Lui and Layton.

The previously unexplored upper-floor rooms in the southwest area of the sanctuary were reached with the aid of a scaffolding tower in the nave. These four rooms were measured by hand and their details photographed and recorded by Dr. Burgoyne with the assistance of various team members.

A vaulted chamber (“secret chamber”) of the undercroft, located below the floor of the northeast room off the north apse, was also entered through an opening in a niche; it was recorded by Dr. Burgoyne.

The ground plan of the building was accurately recorded by Ms. Lui, assisted by various members of the team. A Topcon SPT-7005i imaging Total Station theodolite and a prismatic reflector were used to record the plan, which will be drawn up using a computer-aided drafting (CAD) program.

Cataloguing of lapidary inscriptions in pre-Coptic Egyptian and of re-used Pharaonic reliefs was undertaken by Mr. Klotz, illustrated by photographs and line drawings. Fifty-four stones were recorded.

We were grateful to enjoy the generous cooperation of Fr. Wissa, the abbot of the Monastery of Anba Shinoudah, along with other monks in particular Fr. Fam and Fr. Bishai, as well as Fr. Shinoudah; and of Fr. Maximous el-Antony.

—by Bentley Layton (Survey Director) and Michael H. Burgoyne (Survey Architect)

Preliminary report of the third season (2008)

The 2008 campaign of the White Monastery Church Documentation Project was conducted from 12 to 21 December. The aim of the Project is to provide an accurate record of the present state of the building, and to understand better the form of its original construction and the extent of various subsequent interventions. Participants included Prof. Bentley Layton (Survey Director), Dr. Michael Burgoyne (Survey Architect), Prof. Stephen Davis (Executive Director, YMAP-South), Fr. Maximous el-Antony (Operations Consultant), Prof. Stephen Emmel (Papyrologist-Conservator), Elisa Lui (Surveyor), and Dr. Gillian Pyke (Director of Excavations). The Project enjoyed the continued cooperation and collaboration of our colleagues at the Sohag inspectorate, including Mohammed Abd el-Rahim, Saad Mohammed, Rashed Mohammed Badry, and others.

Figure 7. Survey elevations in the nave by Lui.

In 2007, the Project constructed an accurate ground plan of the church, and in the 2008 season our surveyor began to produce accurate elevations of the building, replacing the old drawings made in 1962 by the Technische Universität Darmstadt. The interior of the narthex, nave, and southern long room were surveyed using a reflectorless total station (Topcon GPT-7000i). Survey of exterior walls and of rooms inside the present sanctuary will be undertaken in 2009. The ultimate products will be not only elevation drawings, but also accurate documentation of the interrelationships between the various components of the complex using AutoCAD.

In the previous year’s campaign, some 160 supplemental archival photographs were taken. In the interim, two sets of prints have been made on Ilford Multigrade archival quality paper 9.5 x 12 in. They will join the 2006 prints to form our photographic archive of the church. In December 2008 the new supplemental prints were catalogued and captioned on site.

Figure 8 (left). Burgoyne entering northeast attic room from the roof. Figure 9 (right). Emmel conserving papyri.

Our architect made considerable progress in identification and analysis of the various building phases of the church, with special attention to little known and hardly accessible rooms in the upper level of the building, which appear to have survived in unaltered form. A previously unexamined attic, located at the northwest corner of the present roofed sanctuary, was reached by ladder descent through a circular opening in the roof. The room, the floor of which is formed by the upper part of the dome of the room below, was surveyed and photographed by the architect. He also re-examined the set of upper rooms at the south end of the present sanctuary to look for evidence of the meeting of the original nave with the original apse area. The western staircase and adjacent areas were studied with regard to the arrangement of galleries above the narthex and aisles.

Some disconnected papyrus fragments (WM 1950 and WM 1951), which had been excavated in area 1 N, were reassembled and properly conserved by our papyrologist-conservator. The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale University generously provided the archival quality conservation materials. They were then photographed by the director, along with 11 ostraka (WM 1377, 1448, 1483, 1677, 1728–1730, 1735, 1804, 1849, and 1916). The camera used was a Nikon D80 SLR equipped with an 18–55mm f/3.5–5.6 Nikon lens, three Nikon SB-6000 AF Speedlights (remote flash units), and a Nikon SU-800 Speedlight commander.

The report on the present condition of the church, submitted after the 2007 campaign by our structural engineer Sam Price (of Price & Myers, London), has now been translated into Arabic (under the supervision of Dr. Nicholas Warner), for use by the appropriate authorities.

 Figure 10 (upper left inset). A capital recorded in Layton's checklist. Figure 11 (lower right). Consultation in the Church regarding the Price report, December 2008. From left to right, Father Shenouda (Red Monastery), Prof. Stephen Davis, Father Maximous (Monastery of St. Antony), Abbot Wissa (White Monastery), Father Fam (White Monastery), Father Shenouda (White Monastery), Prof. Bentley Layton, and Prof. Elizabeth Bolman.

Finally, the project director, aided by the architect, constructed a descriptive checklist of freestanding sculpted elements now lying in the roofless parts of the church (nave, narthex, and southern long room), including 30 capitals, 75 column bases/pedestals, 68 columns/column drums, and 48 other architectural fragments. Each element was assigned a number, measured, and photographed. This list will allow future users to keep track of and, we hope, to preserve the collection of freestanding sculpted elements in these parts of the church.

Altogether, this was an intense, productive, and multi-tasked campaign at the church of Shenoute. We are exceedingly grateful to the Supreme Council of Antiquities and to the monks of the monastery of St. Shenoute for their continued support of this project.

—by Bentley Layton (Survey Director) and Michael H. Burgoyne (Survey Architect)