The Monastery of John the Little

In late antiquity, the desert settlement called Scetis (Wādī al-Natrūn) was a center for Egyptian monastic communities. One of the most prominent of these was the Monastery of John the Little.

The archaeological remains of the Monastery of John the Little is located in Wādī al-Naṭrūn, some 100 km north/northwest of Cairo, close to two ancient but still functioning monastic foundations, the Monastery of the Syrians and the Monastery of St. Bishoi. The monastery takes its name from the fourth-century desert father, John Kolobos (“the Dwarf”), known in Arabic as John the Little (Yūhannis al-qaṣīr), who lived as a hermit in the region and who was renowned for both his humility and his short physical stature. The monastery was perhaps founded after his lifetime and remained one of the most active foundations at Scetis until the medieval period when its population dwindled and it became defunct in the fourteenth century. The site was never reoccupied and today many of the buildings of the monastery still lie largely undisturgbed beneath layers of desert sand, awaiting further archaeological investigation (fig. 1).

Figure 1. Satellite map of the John the Little site.


Brief Arch​aeological History of the Site

The earliest archaeological interest in the site was in the 1920s, when Hugh Evelyn White made a basic map of the site as part of his documentation of the four still-functioning monasteries for the Metropolitan Museum of Art (fig. 2).[1] An Egyptian team excavated the so-called Monastery of the Armenians in the 1980s and 1990s but their work remains unpublished. In 1992, a general survey of the area assessed the potential value of the site for future excavation and was used as a preliminary report for the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) in Egypt.[2]

Systematic archaeological investigation at the Monastery of John the Little was restricted to three seasons conducted by the Michigan-based Scriptorium Center for Christian Antiquities and Calvin Theological Seminary in 1995, 1996, and 1999. These survey and excavation, under the direction of Bastiaan Van Elderen, uncovered the enclosed main Church as well as a hermitage (Residence A) similar to the type of dwellings found at ancient Kellia. Unfortunately, the work of the Scriptorium team was interrupted and their results were never fully published. An architectural study of the Church and Residence A conducted soon after their excavation was published by Bishop Samuil and Peter Grossmann.[3]

These limited explorations showed the potential of this archaeologically-rich desert site to yield new information about a monastic settlement of the late antique to early medieval period in one of the most important monastic centers in Egypt. In addition, the increasing development of the Wadi al-Natrun for agriculture, involving intensive irrigation, indicated that archaeological investigation was urgently needed. Although the site had entered the protection of the SCA in 1983, the 2000s saw the rapid conversion of the desert around the monastery into heavily irrigated fields. 

The Yale Monastic Archaeology Project (YMAP-North), led by Stephen J. Davis (project director and principal investigator) and Darlene Brooks Hedstrom (archaeological director), started work in 2006. Its aim was to document the extent and layout of the monastery through archaeological and geophysical surveys, and to establish the nature of its dwellings and lived experience of monasticism by excavating a midden (trash deposit) and a contiguous building (Residence B). A further goal was to complete the recording and documentation of another monastic dwelling (Residence A) and the Church, which had both been excavated previously by the Scriptorium team. YMAP fieldwork concluded in 2012 and was followed by study seasons for excavated materials in 2013, 2014 and 2017.


Archaeological and Geophysical Surveys

One of the main goals of YMAP’s work was to produce a detailed map of the archaeological remains at the Monastery of John the Little that showed both the archaeological remains, including any visible architecture, and the local topography. The archaeological survey of the site’s 265 hectares and around 80 mounds was completed by Dawn McCormack, with the assistance of Elizabeth Davidson and Sean Urrutia (fig. 3). It showed that the monastery was densely populated with multi-room buildings that are now very low mounds topped with pottery scatters. A survey of surface ceramics by Gillian Pyke identified sherds spanning the sixth to thirteenth centuries CE, provided a broad time frame for activities at the site.

Figure 2. General map of the Monastery of John the Little. Survey and mapping by Dawn McCormack.

A geophysical survey by Tomasz Herbich, assisted by Artur Buszek and Jakub Ordutowski, focused on eight areas covering a total of 6.86 hectares, approximately 2% of the total site (fig. 4). Magnetometry was used to detect mud brick walls and burnt materials, which have higher magnetic values than the surrounding desert sand.[4] Several areas showed signs of ovens or kilns and it was possible to trace both the outlines and internal features of several buildings. A building located in Area A to the south of the church mound was found to have a wall that was 85 m long, suggesting that it was similar in size to the main enclosure of the nearby Monastery of the Syrians.

Figure 3. Geophysical map of areas selected for magnetometry, with general site key map. Geophysical survey and mapping by Tomasz Herbich.


YMAP-North Publications

In order to document YMAP’s work at the Monastery of John the Little comprehensively, four volumes are currently in preparation, with an additional fifth volume planned. These volumes will be published in the Yale Egyptological Publications (YEP) series under the title, Dwelling in the Desert. Their organization is as follows:

Volume 1: Archaeology, Finds, and Survey

Brooks Hedstrom, Pyke (with Gardiner), Davis, McCormack, Herbich, Ikram, and Nenna

Volume 2: Ceramic Culture

Pyke, with Ownby and Brooks Hedstrom

Volume 3: Plasters and Mortars

Pyke, with Ownby

Volume 4: Archaeobotany

El Dorry

Volume 5: Visual and Textual Cultures

Davis, Pyke, Szymanska, and Kotsifou

In addition to these volumes, a number of studies have already been published, documenting aspects of YMAP’s archaeological work in Wādī al-Naṭrūn:

Brooks Hedstrom, Darlene, Stephen J. Davis, Tomasz Herbich, Salima Ikram, Dawn McCormack, Marie-Dominique Nenna and Gillian Pyke. “New Archaeology at Ancient Scetis: Surveys and Initial Excavations at the Monastery of St. John the Little in Wādī al-Naṭrūn (Yale Monastic Archaeology Project),” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 64 (2010), 217–227.

Davis, Stephen J. “Completing the Race and Receiving the Crown: 2 Timothy 4:7–8 in Early Christian Monastic Epitaphs at Kellia and Pherme.” In Asceticism and Exegesis in Early Christianity, ed. H-U. Weidemann. Novum Testamentum et Orbis Antiquus, 334–373. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013).

Davis, Stephen J. “Curriculum Vitae et Memoriae: The Life of Saint Onophrius and Local Practices of Monastic Commemoration.” In From Gnostics to Monastics: Studies in Coptic and Early Christianity, ed. D. Brakke, S. J. Davis, and S. Emmel. Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 263, 383–391; Leuven: Peeters, 2017).

Davis, Stephen J. “Shenoute in Scetis: New Archaeological Evidence for the Cult of a Monastic Saint in Early Medieval Wādī al-Naṭrūn.” Coptica 14 (2015), 1–19.

Davis, Stephen J., with Elizabeth Bolman, Darlene Brooks Hedstrom, and Gillian Pyke. “Life and Death in Lower and Upper Egypt: A Brief Survey of Recent Monastic Archaeology at Yale,” Journal of the Canadian Society for Coptic Studies 3 (2012), 9–26.

Davis, Stephen J., Darlene Brooks Hedstrom, Gillian Pyke, and Dawn McCormack, “Yale Monastic Archaeology Project: John the Little, Season 2 (May 14–June 17, 2007),” Mishkah: The Egyptian Journal of Islamic Archaeology 3 (2009), 59–64.

Davis, Stephen J., Darlene Brooks Hedstrom, Tomasz Herbich, Gillian Pyke, and Dawn McCormack, “Yale Monastic Archaeology Project: John the Little, Season 1 (June 7–June 27, 2006),” Mishkah: The Egyptian Journal of Islamic Archeology 3 (2009), 47–52.

El Dorry, M.-A. “Monks and Plants: Understanding Foodways and Agricultural Practices in an Egyptian Monastic Settlement,” in Work in Progress. Work on Progress. Beiträge kritischer Wissenschaft. Doktorand_innen-Jahrbuch 2015 der Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, ed. L. Doppler, P. Fischer-Schröter, and M. Schröder, 218–227. Hamburg 2015.

Pyke, Gillian, and Darlene Brooks Hedstrom, “The Afterlife of Sherds: Architectural Re-use Strategies at the Monastery of John the Little, Wadi Natrun.” In Functional Aspects of Egyptian Ceramics in Their Archaeological Context, ed. B. Bader and M. F. Ownby, 307–326. Leuven: Peeters, 2013.


Further Reading

Apophthegmata Patrum. Greek text in PG 65.71–440. English translation by Benedicta Ward, The Desert Christians: Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Alphabetic Collection. New York: Macmillan, 1975.

Evelyn White, Hugh G. The Monasteries of the Wadi ’n Natrûn. 3 volumes. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1926–1933.

Grossmann, Peter. “On the Church in the So-Called Kôm of John the Little in Wadi Natrun,” Bulletin de la société de l’archéologie copte 49 (2010), 21–28.

Samuel el-Souriani. “Bâtiments monastiques anciens au Wadi Natroun,” Le monde copte 21–22 (1993), 245–253.

Samuil, Bishop, and Peter Grossmann, “Researches in the Laura of John Kolobos (Wādī al-Natrūn).” In Ägypten und Nubien in spätantiker und christlicher Zeit: Akten des 6. Internationalen Koptologenkongresses, Münster 20.–26. Juli 1996, ed. S. Emmel, 360–364. Wiesbaden: Reichert, 1999.

Zacharias of Sakhā, Life of Saint John the Little. Coptic Bohairic text and Sahidic fragments edited by E. Amélineau, “Vie de Jean Kolobos.” In Histoire des Monastères de la Basse-Égypte. Annales du Musée Guimet 25, 316–413, 414–25; Paris: Leroux, 1894) ; translated by M. S. Mikhail and T. Vivian, in The Holy Workshop of Virtue: The Life of John the Little by Zacharias of Sakhā. Cistercian Studies 234, 612–200, 270–283. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2010. Syriac text edited by F. Nau, “La version syriaque de l’histoire de Jean le Petit,” Revue de l’Orient Chrétien 17 (1912), 347–389; 18 (1913), 53–68, 124–136, 283–307; 19 (1914), 3–57; and translated by R. Greer, in The Holy Workshop of Virtue, 201–257. Arabic text edited and translated by Stephen J. Davis, in Coptica 7 (2008).

[1] H. G. Evelyn White, The Monasteries of the Wadi ‘n Natrûn. Volume 3. The Architecture and Archaeology. New York: 1933, reprinted 1973), pl. lxxix.

[2] Samuel el-Souriani, “Bâtiments monastiques anciens au Wadi Natroun,” Le monde copte 21–22 (1993), 245–253.

[3] Bishop Samuil and P. Grossmann, “Researches in the Laura of John Kolobos (Wādī al-Natrūn),” in S. Emmel, ed., Ägypten und Nubien in spätantiker und christlicher Zeit: Akten des 6. Internationalen Koptologenkongresses, Münster 20.-26. Jul 1996, Wiesbaden: Reichert, 1999, 360-364; P. Grossmann, On the Church in the So-called Kom of John the Little in Wadi Natrun, Bulletin de la Société d’archéologie copte 49, 2010, 21-28.

[4] For more on this technique, see: J. W. E. Fassbinder, “Magnetometry for Archaeology,”, in: Encyclopedia of Georarchaeology, ed. A. S. Gilbert, P. Goldberg, V. T. Holliday, R. D. Mandel and R. S. Sternberg (Heidelberg 2016), 499-514.