Homepage Timeline Maps A-Z index Learning

Monasticism in Egypt

The word monasticism comes from the Greek 'monachos' (solitary) - monks are people who want to live in solitude and devote all their energy to the service of the Lord. The earliest history of monasticism is not recorded. There are several possible influences, such as the Therapeutae; Jewish ascetics living in the neighbourhood of Alexandria (first century AD). Monasticism may also have been influenced by the Manichaeans and by the Gnostic sects. Finally there are numerous references in the Roman Period to individuals who fled from the burden of taxes (or after having committed a crime), and withdrew into the desert to live there. Egypt has often been regarded as the mother country of monasticism, but it seems to have spread at about the same time in several countries in the Levant (Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia). However, Egypt seems to have provided particularly favourable conditions for monasticism: according to one report, at the time of the Arab conquest (AD 639-642) 70,000 monks lived in Egypt (this number may rely on a looser definition of 'monk' than that usual in Western Christianity).

Saint Anthony (about AD 251- 356) is regarded as the father of monks. Instead of remaining near the village, which had been the practice, he went deeper into the desert to live there alone. Saint Pachom (about AD 300 - 346) is considered as the father of monasteries . He also lived in the desert, but he set up strict rules for monastic life. The rules were tightened by Shenute (about 332/350 to 451/466). Monks living in a monastery shared everything: prayer, meals, work. Manual work was an important aspect of life in a monastery. Monks lived in small cells. Monasticism is attested for men and woman, but while monks often lived in the desert, the nuns never went to the desert. Monasticism was no longer such a central institution in Egypt after the Arabic conquest, although numerous important monasteries still flourish in parts of the country today.


the archaeology of monasteries in Egypt

Despite the importance of monasticism in Coptic Egypt, there are few well excavated and documented monasteries. Petrie worked at a number of abandoned monastic sites, but only seems to have collected objects which he found on the surface. For example, there was a monastery at the site of Lahun: Petrie did not record any architectureal features, but there are many finds from the monastery and/or its cemeteries in the Petrie Museum - indeed, for the plainest forms of daily life objects from Lahun, it can be difficult to decide whether they belong to the Middle Kingdom or Coptic Period. The same is true for the monastery at Deir Balyzeh (near Rifeh): Petrie published a selection of the objects found, but no plan of the site. Better excavated monasteries include St. Jeremias at Saqqara and Abu Fano (Howr, near Antinoopolis).

Monasteries on Digital Egypt

Further reading:


Copyright © 2003 University College London. All rights reserved.