Shenoute’s Monastic Federation


Shenoute was the first outstanding writer of the Egyptian language in its Coptic form, and his literary importance was never equaled; he lived from A.D. 348 to 465. The ancient monastery of Shenoute is one of the most important historical sites, both for scholars and for the Coptic Orthodox Church. It was founded about A.D. 350 by Pgol, who was then succeeded by Ebonh. Its third leader was the great saint Shenoute, who led the monastic federation from A.D. 385 to 465. Shenoute’s name is now attached to this site. His miraculous life is recorded in an ancient biography written by his successor Besa.

Shenoute assumed the leadership of his monastic federation in A.D. 385. As a monastic leader, he was a strict reformer of monastic moral life, an energetic administrator, a fiery preacher, and a great spiritual guide. He accompanied Coptic Pope Cyril I to the First Ecumenical Council of Ephesus (A.D. 431). He defended the poor and used the monastery to shelter refugees in time of crisis. He engaged in polemics against Christian heretics. He was an enemy of traditional Egyptian pagan religion in the region of Sohag and Akhmim — attacking it both by word and by deed. In Shenoute’s day, pagan temples began to be closed and dismantled, and their architectural members were reused in other buildings. Some of the material used to build the great church of Shenoute’s monastery was taken from ruined buildings; thus some of the blocks built into the church are inscribed with non-Christian religious scenes or hieroglyphic texts. The relationship of these reused blocks to the ruins of the nearby temples awaits further investigation.

Figure 1 (left). Image of St. Shenoute adapted from a Paris Manuscript. Figure 2 (right). Reused Pharaonic blocks in the western staircase of the Church.

The Editing of Shenoute’s Texts

The works of Shenoute are now being transcribed, edited, and translated by an international team of scholars led by Prof. Stephen Emmel (University of Münster) as editor-in-chief. The editorial project was founded at Yale in the year 2000, and hosted by the Yale Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Subsequent editorial meetings at Yale have been sponsored by the Beinecke, the William K. and Marilyn M. Simpson Endowment for Egyptology, and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

 Z. Pleše, S. Torallas Tovar, T. S. Richter, H. Behlmer, J.-L. Fort, F. Wisse, A. Crislip, A. Boud'hors, W.-P. Funk.

Life in the Ancient Shenoutean Federation

Shenoute’s monastery was a koinobion​, a monastery of the common life. In ancient times, a koinobitic monastery was a highly organized community of monks who worked together, ate together, and prayed together. The monastery provided spiritual direction, written rules and policies, and an elaborate chain of command. It was economically self-sufficient. The White Monastery was one of the very earliest koinobitic monasteries.

Shenoute was the leader of a federation consisting of three monastic communities: two monasteries for men and a nunnery for women. With only a few exceptions, the monks and nuns had no contact with one another; the White and Red Monasteries contained only men. Each of the three communities was headed by an abbot or abbotess, who received orders from Shenoute. Each community — the two monasteries and the nunnery — was surrounded by an enclosure wall and operated more or less independently. Each contained a number of dormitory buildings called “houses”; each house was headed by a housemaster or housemistress, who provided both administrative and spiritual guidance to the monks or nuns. The houses contained “cells” (rooms) where the monks or nuns lived. They also contained an assembly room for weaving and prayer, and workshops. Besides the houses, other important buildings in each congregation were: a central dining hall, a kitchen, an infirmary, an infirmary kitchen, a bakery, a central storage building, the church, a library and scriptorium, a gate house, workshops, and a laundry. Outside the walls were fields, vegetable gardens, palm groves, and fruit orchards, with their farm animals, equipment, and irrigation systems. These details are known from the writings of Shenoute; as archaeologists excavate the physical remains of the monastery, part of the scholars’ task is to compare the archaeological discoveries with Shenoute’s description of the monastery.

The monastic population of each congregation contained a wide range of people: not only mature adults but also young children, adolescents, the simple, and the elderly. Special arrangements were made to care for each group according to their abilities and needs. The routine life of each monk or nun was carefully regulated by rules, policies, and traditions — including how they walked, talked, dressed, ate, prayed, and what they were to think about. Their style of life was very disciplined and ascetic. Monks or nuns had to follow a daily schedule, which was signaled by the ringing of wooden bells:

  • Before dawn: a meeting in each congregation of all the houses, for prayer and weaving
  • 6 a.m.: a session of prayer and weaving in each of the houses
  • 9 a.m.: a session of prayer and weaving in each of the houses
  • 12 noon: a communal meal for all the houses together
  • 3 a.m.: a session of prayer and weaving in each of the houses
  • Evening: a meeting in each congregation of all the houses, for prayer and weaving

In between these events, they either worked and prayed alone in their cells or performed tasks assigned to them by their housemaster or housemistress. The monks or nuns in each congregation shared a communal meal at midday, consisting of bread and a strictly vegetarian diet with no milk products, fish, or wine. At night, they ate a simple meal alone in their room. Special fast days were observed on Wednesday and Friday. The mass was celebrated twice a week, on Saturday evening and on Sunday morning early. Sick monks or nuns received expert medical care from male or female monastic doctors. Professional nursing care was provided in the infirmary, and richer food could be medically prescribed for the sick. Visitors to the monastery were housed and fed in a special place near the main gate.

The federation was nearly self-sufficient, like a large farm estate. Because they produced a surplus, the monks and nuns were able to buy or barter for materials and services that the federation could not itself produce. Surplus products of the two men’s monasteries were plait work (baskets, mats, rope), sacks, and books; the nunnery produced woven goods of wool and flax.

Select bibliography
  1. Besa, St. The Life of Shenoute. Translated by David N. Bell. Kalamazoo [Michigan, USA] 1983.
  2. Coquin, René-Georges. “Dayr Anbā Shinūdah: History.” The Coptic Encyclopedia. New York 1991. Volume 3, pp. 761–66. Emmel, Stephen. Shenoute’s Literary Corpus. 2 volumes. Louvain 2004.
  3. Grossmann, Peter. “Dayr Anbā Shinūdah: Architecture.” The Coptic Encyclopedia. New York 1991. Volume 3, pp. 766–69. Grossmann, Peter. Christliche Architektur in Ägypten. Leiden 2002.
  4. Grossmann, Peter, Darlene Brooks-Hedstrom, Mohammed Abdal-Rassul, and Elizabeth Bolman. “The Excavation in the Monastery of Apa Shenute (Dayr Anba Shinuda) at Suhag: With an Appendix on Documentary Photography at the Monasteries of Anba Shinuda and Anba Bishoi, Suhag.” Dumbarton Oaks Papers. Volume 58 (2004), pp. 371–99.
  5. Krawiec, Rebecca. Shenoute and the Women of the White Monastery. Oxford 2002. Layton, Bentley. “Rules, Patterns, and the Exercise of Power in Shenoute’s Monastery: The Problem of World Replacement and Identity Maintenance.” Journal of Early Christian Studies 15 (2007), pp. 45–73.
  6. Layton, Bentley. The Canons of Our Fathers: Monastic Rules of Shenoute. Oxford 2014.
  7. Layton, Bentley. “Social Structure and Food Consumption in an Early Christian Monastery: The Evidence of Shenoute’s Canons and the White Monastery Federation A.D. 385–465.” Le Muséon 115 (2002), pp. 25–55.
  8. Leipoldt, Johannes. Shenute von Atripe und die Entstehung des national ägyptischen Christentums. Leipzig 1903.
  9. Monneret de Villard, Ugo. Les couvents près de Sohag. 2 volumes. Milan 1925, 1926.
  10. Shenoute, Canons. Books 1–9. Discourses. Books 1–8. Text in Coptic. Stephen Emmel, general editor. In preparation. To appear in Corpus Scriptorum Orientalium Christianorum (Leuven).

Life in the Modern White Monastery

The ancient monastery was physically destroyed some time before 1441 CE. In the twentieth century (in A.D. 1975), Coptic Orthodox monks reoccupied the site. In 1997, under the leadership of His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, the Holy Synod of the Coptic Orthodox Church gave official recognition to a new, modern monastery on the ancient site, named “The Monastery of St. Shenoute” (Dayr Anbā Shinūdah). This is a modern successor to the ancient monastery of Shenoute. The modern monastic buildings are now mostly located at the extreme western edge of the site, near the desert (see figure 1). Shenoute’s feast day falls on Abib 7 in the Coptic calendar (July 1, Western calendar). Every year a large number of Coptic Christians come to this site from the neighboring towns of Sohag and Akhmim as pilgrims, celebrating the annual festival (mawlid) of St.Shenoute.

We are extremely grateful to the monks of the Monastery of St. Shenoute, especially Fathers Wissa, Shinudah, and Fam, for giving us unlimited access to the ancient church.