A Late Antique Monastery in Upper Egypt at Naga ed-Deir


Ms. Elizabeth O'Connell is a Doctoral Candidate at the University of CA, Berkeley. She received both her BA and MA from Berkeley, and was a student curator for the Coptic Section of the 2000-2001 Egyptian Exhibition at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology. Her specialty is Late Antique religions.

Ms. O'Connell opened her lecture by giving the audience a bit of background surrounding monastic orders in Egypt, noting that as early as the 3rd century AD early Egyptian Christians began to translate literally the guidance, "If you would be perfect, go, sell all you have, give it to the poor, come follow me and you will have treasures in heaven". The Coptic title "monaxo/j" was applied to those who assumed the monastic life. In the late 4th/early 5th centuries, the church defined two models from which monks could choose when determining to follow the monastic life. The first, the anchorite, such as St. Anthony, lived apart in the desert. The second, the cenobite, lived communally in monasteries, based on those established by Pachomius. The latter are traditionally assigned to "deserted" villages within the cultivated land of the Nile Valley. Over time less physically isolated, more socially integrated monastic orders evolved.

The concept of Egyptian Monasticism as a desert movement was largely defined by 4th century texts that circulated throughout the Greek and Latin-speaking world. Two distinct desert categories - the far or further desert inhabited by St. Anthony and some of his followers, and the near desert close to the cultivation. Monasteries such as those at the Wadi Natrun or in the Eastern Desert, which are near the cultivation have been continually occupied or reoccupied, thus providing both historical and architectural data for understanding the monastic world. Ms. O'Connell noted that, "the abundance of monasteries that have lent their Arabic equivalent, "deir", to countless villages in Egypt, emphasize that many Egyptian monasteries were not physically isolated at all.

The Coptic word most often used to describe the location of a monastery is "toou" which translated to "mountain" or just "monastery", and refers to anything beyond the band of cultivation irrigated by the Nile River. It is also the regular designation for the steep grade or escarpment that marks the transition from river valley to desert. The Coptic word "aOnaxore/w" translates as "withdraw" or "ascend". To "withdraw" from society and become an anchorite, literally implies "ascending" up from the valley to the desert escarpment. The rocky escarpment was used for millennia by the Egyptians for the burial of their dead, thus the escarpment above many towns is honey-combed with rock cut tombs. Ms. O'Connell advised that "When the first ascetics sought removal from their contemporaries, that is exactly where they went." Both Anthony and Pachomius are depicted as having occupied tombs during their early days as monks. The tombs are represented as temporary stopping places and metaphoric symbols of monastic renunciation and passionlessness. In some cases the tombs may not have been just transitional, as the great necropolis of ancient Egypt were consistently adopted by ascetics as their earthly residence. "As the perceived dwellings of demons the mastabas and rock-cut tombs of the ancient Egyptians would present a apt challenge to ascetics striving toward perfection!", noted Ms. O'Connell.

The monastery at Naga ed-Deir, is located in the 9th [Thinite] Nome of Upper Egypt across the Nile River from the ancient nome capital, This. The city was occupied throughout late antiquity and there is documented evidence that there were Christian communities living there. Thus, the town and monastery provide an opportunity to study a monastery at the edge of the cultivation, which was never entirely isolated, but neither did it meet the true definition of a cenobitic monastery. The monastery was excavated by George Reisner early in the 20th century, but his work has never been published, though field notes, photos, etc., are available in the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology archives.

Naga ed-Deir, translated, is "The Village of the Monastery". Reisner used the term to include both the ancient and late antique necropolis as well as the monastery. On the monastery side of the river, there is no evidence that a town existed until the Muslim town, also called Naga ed-Deir, came into existence. The necropolis is bordered on the east by the desert escarpment, on the west by the river and by a sheer limestone cliff on the north. Reisner postulated that the Greek city of Lepidopolis, which was superceded by the Muslim town of Mesheikh, some distance to the south, might have been the source of the late antique burials, though Christian grave stela at Meshiekh would indicate that the town had its own cemetery. Reisner found more than 400 "Coptic" burials in cemeteries 500-900, 1500 and 2000. Ms. O'Connell believes that the size and composition of the burials in the late antique cemetery suggest that it was populated by residents of a city or town rather than the occupants of the monastery. She suggested that the necropolis did, in fact, serve the people of This.

While the residents of This buried their dead among and between [and often in] the pit and shaft graves of the ancient Egyptians at the base of the escarpment, the Christian ascetics took up residence in the rock-cut tombs of the ancients which had been cut into the escarpment itself. These residents composed the original monastic settlement.

Monasteries themselves are often designated as "walled" or "unwalled", though this definition is sometimes misleading, as some evolved from communities of scattered cells across the landscape. As the number of disciples increased common facilities for food production, eating and worship became centralized, culminating in the construction of an enclosure wall around the common area. Often the original tomb dwellings were even overwhelmed by the built structures. Ms. O'Connell noted that, "the built monastery [at St. Anthony's] was constructed on a terrace below the famous anchorite's cell".

At Naga ed-Deir, there are a series of scattered tomb dwellings [laurae] among which are four distinct areas of monastic activity. The process of incorporation didn't include the original tomb dwellings into the nucleus. Rather Naga ed-Deir resembles the monastery of St. Anthony's where the built monastery is separate from the Saint's cell. The monastery at Naga ed-Deir is located on a strip of land adjacent to the cultivation in front of the southern most location of late antique monastic activity. The church of the monastery does not date from earlier than the 12th or 13th century CE, though there may have been an older church erected earlier at a different location. As noted, the cliffs above Naga ed-Deir are honey-combed with rock-cut tombs that were ideal for the solitary monks. Arthur Mace, who prepared some of the field reports for Reisner, noted that, "Many of the tombs had, of course, been covered over and concealed before Coptic times, but a number stood open, and these seem in every case to have been taken into use. In the usual Coptic fashion, [they are] sadly disfigured, walls being cut about to suit the convenience of the new occupant, and rough graffiti scrawled in all directions." Ms. O'Connell advised that today it is only possible to locate three of the late antique monastic habitats in the rock-cut tombs. A few of the tombs were recorded in the 19th century, particularly by A. H. Sayce, but it is no longer possible to match his records with the tombs. One of the locations north of Naga ed-Deir near the limestone cliffs, which Sayce recorded, is described alternately as a quarry or a natural cave. Nine lines of inscription inside the dwelling asks Jesus Christ to remember Samuel the Small, son of Apa Joseph. Outside the dwelling, Sayce recorded graffiti that read, "I am pious; the Father, the Son" and the name "Jeremias".

At a second location in Cemetery 500-900, a tomb drawing remains and notes indicate "Coptic" occupation, along with Reisner's 1932 map. The cemetery extends from the cultivation, along the north side of the wadi that stretches toward the plateau. Tomb 73 was originally a small, Old Kingdom tomb consisting of a burial well, roofed with stone slabs plastered with mud. A Coptic inscription on the ceiling consists of the names of 6 Apas and what seems to be the trunk of a palm tree. In two cases in cemetery 500-900 "Coptic Kitchens" are recorded, consisting of mud plastered structures with pots set into them. Wide, flat pavements of mud, surrounded by retaining walls in front of two sets of tombs are recorded as "Coptic floors". Another tomb, No. 111, is identified as having "Coptic rubbish" in it. Excavation notes for Tomb 89 indicate that the tomb had a "Coptic" superstructure built in front of it, and contained 12 coins all of which appear to be from the reign of Heraclius, Roman emperor from 610-641 CE. The inscriptions, remodeling and coins found in cemetery 500-900 give a reasonably comprehensive view of life in and among the tombs. At the third location of habitation, in the amphitheater of cliffs behind the village and monastery, Sayce found rock cut tombs that were converted into what he called a "Coptic Shrine". Near the entrance were several names and a short prayer, which ends with the admonition, "pray for me the brother Djane. Amen".

Remains of daily life were found on the surface of Cemetery 7000, including pot sherds, millstones, ashes from fires and a second set of coins - which may or may not have anything to do with the monastery. One coin appears to be from the reign of Heraclius as were the coins of Tomb 89. The other 6 exhibit a late Roman profile, two of which may date from the reign of Majoran [457-461CE]. Unfortunately, there is no way to tie these coins to a monastic context, which would help with dating the monastery. As it stands the earliest positive date for the monastery is 7th century.

The evidence from the tombs, shine and the material from Cemetery 7000, indicates that the probable nucleus of monastic activity occupied the escarpment ascending from the wadi. The modern village is situated on a broad terrace in the center of the nucleus, thus there may well be further monastic remains beneath the village itself.

Three monastic stelae provide a bit more information but there is no record indicating where the individuals to whom they were dedicated are buried. Two of the memorials, possibly dating to the 6th century, are in the Hearst collection but there is no indication of exactly where they were found. The third is recorded in photos showing it incorporated into the structure of the monastery over a gateway. This third stela has been tentatively dated to the 7th or 8th century using the chronology developed by Munier who worked with grave stela at Deir Anba Hadra.

The first of the Hearst stela is dedicated to the Brother Joseph, and is inscribed in Greek, "In peace of the one who has been put to rest, Brother Joseph", followed by the month [Pharmuti], and day [27] of the "6th (?) indication year". Ms. O'Connell noted that, "dating by the 'indication year' vice by the 'year of the martyrs' probably indicates that the stone was carved before the Arab conquest". In 315CE, Constantine introduced the 15-year indication cycle, during which the cost of goods was standardized. After Egypt passed from Byzantine to Arab control, this system became irrelevant. The "year of the martyrs" was an independent dating system developed by Egyptian Christians and counted from the ascension of Diocletian in 284 CE and commemorates the "era of the martyrs" that resulted from his "Great Persecution".

The second Hearst grave stela belonged to one Takhumis, a female monk, and the Greek inscription reads: "One God [or God is One], the monache Takhumis". Her name is the feminine of Pachomius - "the eagle"- one of the most common names in Egypt at the time. We know that double monasteries accommodating both males and females existed throughout the 6th century, but Justinian forbade the founding of new ones, when he came to power, and dissolved those that already existed. Thus it would be most interesting to know the original placement of this stela. The third steal, set into the arch above a gateway at the monastery, belongs to the "presbyter", Apa Enoch. The monastery's dedication to the Archangel Michael may well have resulted from the inscription on this stela, which reads, in Coptic: "Jesus Christ, O holy father Michel, O holy father Gireal [Gabriel], all you angels of Christ who will pray to Christ for the soul which went to its rest on the 8th day of Mechir, which was Apa Enoch the priest ("presbyter")".

Ms. O'Connell concluded her remarks by noting that "the late antique monastery consisting of tomb-dwellings at Naga ed-Deir demonstrates a form of monasticism that does not fall into the literary and ideological constructions that assign the anchorite to the desert and the cenobite to the cultivation. What we appear to have is a semi-anchorite community, living in the tombs, just outside the local civil community." The practice of living in tombs was a widespread response to the requirements of the new martyrdom, in which ascetics physically interpreted Apa Moses' recommendation to live in passionlessness as if "already three days dead in the tomb". Those who lived in a state "as if dead", a state of passionlessness, bridged the time honored physical distinction between the city of the living and the city of the dead. The monks of Naga ed-Deir received both practical and ideological benefits; food and shelter as well as ascetic challenges to stiffen their moral fortitude through continuous combat with the demons who were thought to dwell in the tombs. The city of This also benefited from having the monastery across the river, as the people of the city depended on the prayers of the monks "as if on God himself" [per the
Historia Monachoum].

Nancy Corbin

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