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date: 06 December 2021

Archaeology of Early Christianity in Egypt

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter discusses the evolution of scholarly interest in Christian antiquities in Egypt after 1900. The archaeology of early Christianity developed much later than the field of Egyptology and initially focused only upon the clearing of monumental churches. Growing interest in Byzantine art and archaeology in the mid-1920s fostered greater support for excavations of expressly Christian settlements, which were primarily monastic communities. The wealth of archaeological evidence preserved in Egypt’s arid climate, such as documentary evidence (ostraca and papyri), textiles, manuscripts, and small finds such as items made of leather, reeds, ivory, and wood, helped foster a greater appreciation for Egypt’s history after the age of the pharaohs.

Keywords: Archaeology, Egypt, Coptic church, monasticism, churches, textiles, papyrus, New Testament


The historical roots of Christianity in Egypt are often linked to Alexandria in the first century. Although there is scant physical and documentary evidence for this period, later tradition identifies St. Mark the Evangelist as the first patriarch of Alexandria and the apostle attributed with introducing the religion. The first fully developed account of Egypt’s Christianization does not appear until the fourth-century history of Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, who tells the story about Mark the Apostle establishing churches in Alexandria and the later episcopal successors to Mark (Hist. Eccl. 2.16, in Davis 2004). There is in fact growing support to see Alexandrian Christianity spawning from the missionary activity of Palestinian Jewish Christians, who first evangelized the Hellenized Jews in Alexandria (Davis 2004, 6–8). Whether based upon the presence of Jews in Jerusalem during Pentecost (Acts 2:10, 6:9) or the natural transmission of ideas between the two major cities, Christianity does appear to have taken hold in the Greek-speaking, urban center of Alexandria and other cities before spreading to the countryside or chōra (Papaconstantinou 2012).

As Egypt’s largest cosmopolitan city, Alexandria was a fitting environment for the growth of the Christian religion (Figure 34.1). The multiethnic community of Egyptians, Greeks, Jews, and Romans made the city religiously diverse, while its Great Library, the largest library in the ancient world, would be the catalyst for the Christian intellectual community that attracted Christian theological teachers such as Clement of Alexandria and Origen in the late second and third centuries. However, only the Late Roman and Early Byzantine site of Kom el-Dikka, in the heart of Alexandria, provides physical evidence of lecture halls where a diverse group of students and teachers could meet (Figure 34.2) (Haas 1997, 152–58).

Archaeology of Early Christianity in Egypt

Figure 34.1 Map of sites and toponyms noted in the text in Egypt, based on Natural Earth Data, and the Ancient World Mapping Center: “Mod_Elevation,” <

(Map: Courtesy of David K. Pettegrew)

Archaeology of Early Christianity in Egypt

Figure 34.2 A Late Antique lecture hall with seating at Kom el-Dikka in Alexandria, Egypt.

(Photo: Darlene L. Brooks Hedstrom)

(p. 666) Archaeological discoveries have contributed directly to scholarly knowledge of the theologically complex divisions of early Christianity of the second and third centuries, which developed in Alexandria’s rich educational environment. The Nag Hammadi codices, a collection of Judeo-Christian texts discovered in 1945, vividly illustrate that the Christianization of Egypt was extremely complex, with a variety of Gnostic communities (e.g., Sethainsim, Mandaeism, Hermeticism, Valentinianism) existing alongside diverse Christian communities (Brakke 2010). The works of Clement and Origen, paired with the writings of the bishops and patriarchs of Alexandria, such as the fourth-century Athanasius, fostered a distinctly Alexandrian, and eventually Egyptian, Christian identity that was shaped by conflict with other Christian leaders (Watts 2010). While Christian literary sources speak of the religious diversity and tension present within Christian Alexandria, it is nearly impossible to find traces of these schools of thought in the material remains from the third and fourth centuries—the main exception, of course, being the physical remains of codices and papyri.

Indeed, in comparison to other regions of the Christian East, Egypt’s arid climate offers a unique body of sources for considering the history of early Christianity in the form of papyrological evidence (Choat 2006). The earliest fragments of the New Testament are from Egypt and date to the second century (e.g., P.Oxy. LXIV 4404; P.Oxy. (p. 667) L 3523; P.Ryl. III 457). By the mid-third century, we have the Egyptian libelli, or certificates, attesting to one’s participation in the public sacrifice to the Roman gods during the Decian persecution, but the requirement was not aimed solely at Christians (Choat 2012, 481–82). Since we have little evidence of expressly Christian objects and monuments before the fourth century, Christian literary papyri, personal letters, and expressly Christian books, including works related to liturgical matters, become critical for glimpsing the formation of Christianity in Egypt (e.g., P. Bas. 1.16; SB XVI 12497) (Bagnall 2009; Goehring and Timbie 2007). The lack of recognizable Christian remains before the fourth century is counteracted by the presence of papyrological sources from the second century onward. However, it is a vexing position for the archaeologist and historian, as Late Antique textual sources, whether literary, historical, or documentary, are frequently silent on the Christianization of Egypt, the location of Christians in Roman Egypt, and the responses to the adoption of a new religion (Frankfurter 2017; MacCoull 2011). Scholarly questions about how Christianity came to be a component of Egyptian culture are not easy to answer from the paucity of the archaeological sources until after the fourth century, when obviously Christian material remains became part of daily Christian life.

While the popularity of various Gnostic communities had started to wane by the fourth century, a variety of other groups such as the Manicheans, Melitians, Arians, and Nestorians developed alternative theological positions to challenge Alexandrian Christianity (Bagnall 1993, 303–7; Behlmer and Tamcke 2015). The Alexandrian patriarchs (p. 668) were able to assert an independence from the wider Christian community of Byzantium with the support of an increasingly powerful monastic movement in the chōra. By 451 Egyptian and Syrian Christians declined to support the theology of Chalcedon and elected to stand by the authority of the Alexandrian patriarchs. The severing of ties between Constantinople, Rome, and Alexandria marked the separation of the miaphysite community found in Egypt and Syria and the pro-Chalcedonian or Melkite community, which supported Constantinople. While ethnicity did not necessarily predetermine the alliances, the Egyptian and Syrian churches would develop an identity entirely separate from the imperial, predominately pro-Chalcedonian church as espoused by the Melkites (Farag 2014, 23–38).

The deep theological differences that are narrated in the ecclesiastical histories, canons of the councils, and other Christian sources are rarely imprinted in the archaeological record (Alston 2007). For example, the discovery of the Melitian archive of Nepheros found during the modern excavations in Herakleopolis speaks of the existence of several Melitian monasteries, such as the monastery of Hathor, but Melitian monasteries cannot be identified with any certainty in the archaeological record (Kramer et al. 1987). With the limits of archaeological material to express particular veins of early Christianity in Egypt’s history, the evidence described later in this chapter is usually interpreted to reflect Coptic Egyptian Christianity unless otherwise noted. The majority of the material does not, admittedly, allow for more robust scrutiny that would articulate ethnicity, gender, or particular theological leanings.

An additional challenge in studying the archaeology of Christian Egypt is the current debate about periodization, regarding how material is dated by archaeologists, art historians, and historians. The period of Late Antiquity in Egypt extends from the time of Diocletian’s reign (284) until the Arab conquest (641), which has blurred the lines that once demarcated the Late Roman or Early Byzantine period from other eras in Egypt’s history (Mikhail 2014). Only recently, with increased interest in Christian Egypt, are we able to refine the dating of material that was earlier attributed to periods on the basis of weak, stylistic evidence. In many cases, we are simply not able to offer concrete dates, as many objects were not collected from controlled, stratigraphic excavations. With increased study of Egypt’s Christian material remains, we can now present a more nuanced reading of earlier dating, attributions, and periodization by illustrating that the Christianization of Egypt was not at all as swift or as comprehensive as once thought (Frankfurter 2017, 32).

History of Early Christian Archaeology in Egypt

Archaeological interest in Christian Egypt developed relatively late in comparison with the archaeological investigations of Egypt’s pharaonic history. Egypt’s pharaonic past was deemed exceptional, whereas Christian and later Islamic Egyptian antiquities were (p. 669) regarded as rudimentary, unrefined, parochial, and even regressive. The pejorative attitude toward post-pharaonic remains by excavators, collectors, and museums led to a general disregard for Christian remains until the early twentieth century, when museums, wealthy patrons, and archaeologists realized the value of Byzantine material and the relatively smaller costs for purchasing these objects in contrast to Classical or pharaonic art (Brooks Hedstrom 2012; Reid 2002, 125–30).

Despite the general disregard for Christian antiquities and monuments in earlier centuries, the discovery of Christian manuscripts in still active Coptic Christian monasteries attracted the curiosity of several European scholars, collectors, and antiquarians. Fueled by the academic study of the textual transmission of the Bible, monastic libraries offered some of the first clues to the production of the New Testament in Egypt. Robert Curzon and Henry Tattam aggressively acquired manuscripts for later donation to the British Museum in the early nineteenth century. Since many medieval Coptic, Ethiopic, and Syrian texts were copies of early Greek or later Coptic manuscripts, the acquisition of manuscripts became an essential priority for those interested in documenting the history of writing and the transmission of the Bible. By the early twentieth century, many Egyptian monastic libraries saw their collections dispersed into foreign museums and private libraries (Reid 2015).

In addition to a passion for manuscripts, the late nineteenth century gave birth to the hunt for papyri and textiles since both were easily transportable and less expensive than other artifacts for museums and private collectors (O’Connell 2014). The first substantial discovery of papyri was at Oxyrhynchus in 1897, where the first page of the Gospel of Thomas was found along with portions of Matthew’s Gospel. The discovery of a pseudo-canonical Gospel in a trash deposit, or midden, fueled interest in rapid excavations for discarded papyri. Some archaeological directors even paid extra rewards or baksheesh to local workmen for any discovery of papyri or ostraca. This system separated papyri and artifacts from any particular stratum or settlement and disconnected the material from its provenance.

The first scholars to dedicate substantial time to documenting Egypt’s Christian architecture were not archaeologists by training. Alfred J. Butler was a historian of Egypt when he first traveled to Egypt in 1880. Once in Cairo and Alexandria, he found himself fascinated by the Coptic churches and later published The Ancient Churches of Egypt (1884), the first comprehensive documentation and study of Christian architecture. His work drew broader attention to the historical value of Egypt’s still standing Christian monuments. Almost ten years later, a British church architect named Somers Clarke, who was the architect for St. Paul’s in London, traveled to Egypt (Warner 2014). After contributing his skills as a specialist in masonry and architectural planning and as an honorary member of the Comité de Conservation des Monuments de l’Art Arabe, Clarke eventually retired to Egypt after 1902 and dedicated his time to research for his Christian Antiquities in the Nile Valley (1912). He, along with Butler, paved the way for a much more careful study of existing Christian churches that would not be surpassed until 2002. Peter Grossmann’s Christliche Architectur in Ägypten (2002) is now the standard reference work that catalogues most of Egypt’s churches and (p. 670) reflects Grossmann’s long career in mapping and excavating numerous churches in the country. Together, these works represent a comprehensive analysis of Egypt’s ecclesiastical architecture.

The history of Christian archaeology in Egypt as a field was uniquely shaped by a variety of factors, including the preferential attention to pharaonic remains over Christian remains; competition among wealthy collectors visiting Egypt to acquire manuscripts; and the rise of national museums in Europe and America (O’Connell 2014). While Christian archaeology thrived in Italy and especially in Rome, the interest in Christian antiquities and archaeology in the Middle East developed much later, when more foreigners with an interest in Christianity’s history started to visit Egypt, Palestine, and Syria with greater frequency (Bowes 2008). The increased interest and attention to post-pharaonic Egypt in the past three decades has provided better archaeological material for outlining the multifaceted nature of Late Antique Egypt, establishing the first typologies of Christian material, and writing a more nuanced history of the region’s Christianization (Bagnall and Davoli 2011). These historical developments explain why we lack substantive material for securely dating material that relates to Christianization.

Monumental Church Architecture in Egypt

The material evidence for early Christianity in Egypt first becomes visible during the third and fourth centuries. Although the evidence from Alexandria itself is scarce—for example, we have no remains of the city’s twelve churches noted by Athanasius and Epiphanius (Gabra and van Loon 2007; McKenzie 2007)—other areas of Egypt have produced monumental churches in urban, rural, and monastic contexts, a wide variety of objects, and an unparalleled array of documentary evidence, which was mostly recorded on ostraca and papyri (Badawy 1978; Gabra 2014).

The range of archaeological evidence suggests that the presence of Christians in urban centers (mētropoleis) and the countryside (chōra) was simultaneous. The first Christian gatherings in Egypt likely happened in private homes, as they did elsewhere in the Roman Empire. The earliest examples of Christian churches, in fact, are found far removed from the center of ecclesiastical power in Alexandria, at locations such as Kellis (modern Ismant el-Kharab) in Dakleh Oasis, Pharan (modern Firan) in Sinai, and Antinoopolis (modern Sheikh ‘Ibada) in Upper Egypt. Christianity existed alongside older Egyptian and Hellenistic religions in the third and fourth centuries, as they would remain until the early sixth century, when the last Egyptian temple at Philae was officially closed (Dijkstra 2008). Numerous Christian and monastic sources reference encounters with the older religious tradition and symbols, suggesting that Christianity’s predominance was not immediate (Frankfurter 2017).

(p. 671) The earliest archaeological evidence of churches in Egypt is found at Kellis, a Roman village in Dakhla Oasis (Aravecchia 2015). The oasis settlement has three churches. Based upon the dating of numismatic and ceramic evidence recovered during the excavation of the churches, the earliest church is a converted domus ecclesiae (Small East Church), built in the early fourth century. Next to this church a later, Constantinian, large three-aisle basilica was built, which was also dated by numismatic and ceramic material. Side chambers (pastophoria) flank a raised apse. The presence of the side rooms became a common feature in Egyptian churches. On the west edge of the village a third church sits amidst an impressive Christian cemetery. These early Egyptian churches illustrate the importance of an east-west axis, the placement of the east sanctuary, and the swiftness with which new church construction followed Constantine’s patronage of Christian institutions. A fourth-century church at nearby Ain el-Gedida in Dakhla also demonstrates the speed with which even oasis settlements began building churches (Aravecchia 2015).

Although no early churches are preserved in Alexandria, the southern city at Antinoopolis, the capital of the Lower Thebaid province, provides the best and earliest example of a monumental basilica built in the late fourth century, like those that may have existed in Alexandria. The church is a five-aisle basilica located in the south cemetery of the city. With an east apse the church measures 20 by 60 meters; it is highlighted by applied columns (McKenzie 2007). Two other churches date to the later fifth century and contain features such as baptismal fonts, painted panels, and cruciform plan. The examples from the Dakhla Oasis and Antinoopolis represent how architects modified the Roman civic basilica plan into a form conducive for Christian liturgical events.

Late fourth-century churches built at newly established monastic centers differed from community churches in a significant way (Grossmann 2007). The east sanctuary was rectangular in shape rather than semicircular. The apse was replaced by a small aedicula, or recessed niche, that included a ledge, molded plaster columns, and niche heads. Excavated between the late 1960s and 1980s, the site of Kellia, or the Cells, includes a modest church at Qusur Isa with pastophoria and three churches at Qusur al-Waheida. Based upon the recovery of extensive ceramic remains at Kellia, the sanctuaries are dated to the late fourth century. The Kellian sanctuaries are flanked by the required pastophoria in which one chamber on the north holds a baptistery. The square sanctuaries possessed an altar table as indicated by the still visible depressions for the table legs for the altar (Grossmann 2002, 262–66).

The fifth century ushered in the age of Egypt’s monumental church construction with two distinct styles reflecting regional preferences. The modifications to the public basilica form offered an ideal gathering space while still maintaining the relative intimacy of a small sanctuary with pastophoria. The churches in northern Egypt, and primarily along the Mediterranean coast, included three- and five-aisled basilicas. The west and east ends usually lacked a transverse or return aisle. In contrast, the churches in the south, or in Middle and Upper Egypt, were distinguished by the presence of a complete ambulatory formed by a colonnade around the entire perimeter of the building (Grossmann 2007). In the east, the colonnade received particular attention, with wider or more decorative (p. 672) columns to carry a triumphal arch, which usually indicated the presence of the sanctuary behind it. The addition of a west return aisle to the three-aisle basilica created a walkway around the space. The church built within the second courtyard of the pharaonic temple of Medinet Habu demonstrates how Christian builders reused select areas of abandoned structures for Christian use (Figure 34.3).

Archaeology of Early Christianity in Egypt

Figure 34.3 Standing church columns in the Second Courtyard of Medinet Habu in Thebes, circa 1860s.

(Photo: Courtesy of The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library)

The Great Basilica at Hermopolis Magna (modern Al-Ashmunein) is an excellent example of a large basilica in a Roman Egyptian city. The Great Basilica (120 by 160 m) is located on the south side of the main lateral street and was initially excavated in the 1940s (Grossmann 2002, 441–43). The entire building is set within a larger colonnade complex with major entrances on the south and east sides of the main roads of the city. Its spatial placement signifies its relative importance as it sits literally at the crossroads of Hermopolis Magna. Dated to the mid-fifth century on the basis of excavated ceramic and numismatic evidence in foundation trenches, the church is one of the largest in all of Egypt. It is a rare example of a transept basilica with semicircular arms on the north and south ends. A colonnade around the interior creates a three-aisle basilica with an entrance to a crypt in the apse. The adoption of a transept plan is found exclusively within more urban environments, such as at Marea (modern al-Hawariya), and at the pilgrimage center at Abu Mina, both found in the west Delta (McKenzie 2007, 286–87). The grandeur of the Great Basilica at Hermopolis Magna overshadows a much more (p. 673) modest church in the southwest quadrant of the city. The three-aisle basilica has a simple east apse, a small baptistery on the south side, and an underground chamber for holding relics. Inscriptional and documentary evidence from the site offers contextual evidence to observe how the city was Christianized over several decades (Török 2006; Westerfeld 2012).

The creativity and monumentality of fifth-century Egyptian church construction is also visible at the upper Egyptian monastic settlement at Dayr Anba Shenouda (more commonly known as the White Monastery) near the modern city of Sohag. By the fifth century a complex federation of male and female communities was led by a prolific Coptic archimandrite, Shenoute. He modified earlier forms of communal monasticism espoused by Pachomius. The existence of at least four thousand pages of his sermons, letters, and treatises make Shenoute the most important figure for Late Antique Coptic Christianity. During his tenure as leader, he was inspired to build a church, which is still in use today by monks, making the basilica the oldest functioning church in Egypt. Shenoute wrote about the construction of “this Great House” or the “House of God” in several sermons in which he articulates how the church is a reflection of the monastic community and its relationship to God; the church still stands and is the subject of a current architectural survey. Described in the fifth century writings of its main official, Shenoute, the church offers one of the most unique monuments in all of Egypt to study (Schroeder 2007).

Built of dressed limestone blocks, it includes a unique triconch apse, a style seen at the New Basilica in Nola. The triconch style was adopted elsewhere also at Dayr Anbā Bishoi at Sohag; at Dendera; at Dayr Abū Mattā in Dakhla Oasis; and at Dayr as-Suyrān at Wādī Natrūn. Several of the blocks used in the church’s construction are pharaonic spolia, likely from the nearby site of Athribis (Grossman et al. 2009, 2004). The exterior of the church follows an ancient Egyptian temple design rather than the form of a Roman basilica. The cavetto cornices along the roofline mirrors the exterior of a temple wall, whereas the interior is a three-aisled basilica with a west return aisle. The church had two narthexes, on the south and west sides. Such additions are rare in early Coptic churches and may reflect the fact that the church served both a monastic community and a lay congregation. A stone pulpit, or ambōn, is still visible in the nave; it consists of a set of stairs that terminate in a seat. Since 2002 an American team has documented the church and surrounding archaeological remains of the monastic settlement, which include domestic quarters, a kiln, and industrial areas for washing and cooking alongside a fifth-century well (Blanke 2014). A remarkable component of the site is the tomb chapel of St. Shenoute, which has the same triconch apse as seen in the large church (Bolman, Davis, and Pyke 2010). It is the first monastic settlement to contain the tomb of its most revered leader. Further north is the site of the monastic church at the Red Monastery, which was part of Shenoute’s community. Although the archaeological remains of the community are significantly smaller than at the White Monastery, the existing church preserves its Late Antique paintings—the largest painted program from the Late Antique world—and therefore provides a vital visual record of how monastic communities commemorated their monastic founders and decorated the interior of Egyptian churches (Bolman 2016).

(p. 674) By the sixth century all the older Egyptian temples that are visible throughout Egypt were closed and no longer home to Egyptian cults. A sign of the supremacy of Christianity over the older religious traditions is most evident in the adaptation and conversion of abandoned pharaonic temples for Christian liturgy. Not all temples were modified, and when Christians remodeled them, it was only small sections of the complexes, likely reflecting an economical approach to appropriation of standing structures. Open air courts, such as the second court of the Great Mortuary Temple of Ramesses III at Medinet Habu, required little work except for the addition of an ambulatory and the modification of the east end to include an apse and possibly the construction of the pastophoria. Karnak Temple, located in Luxor, is the largest sacred precinct of pharaonic Egypt, and several churches or chapels were built into the massive pylon gates and colonnade spaces. The most evident one today is the Festival Hall of Thutmose III, in which the pharaonic columns were repainted with monastic saints, still visible today, and the east end was equipped with an apse (Coquin 1972). In many cases, the state of the standing architecture likely helped determine what was needed by Christian builders to modify the structures.

After the seventh century, Egyptian churches included a new architectural feature called the khurus (Gk. choros), which is a room built between the nave and the sanctuary. The space is designed to add an area for the clergy that separates the sanctuary proper from the laity and also limits the visibility of the altar from the congregation. The earliest designs of the khurus reflect the placement of a transverse colonnade to delineate the entrance to the sanctuary. Rather quickly builders shifted to enclose the space with a transverse wall that had one to three entrances, with each giving direct access to the sanctuary space behind the khurus. The physical addition of the khurus is an important architectural feature that assists in dating church structures (Grossmann 2002, 71–76). The khurus would later become a key component of post-conquest churches such as those found in Wadi Natrun and in most medieval churches until it was abandoned after the Mamluk period (after 1250). As the khurus does not appear in any of the pre-seventh-century churches, its appearance in excavated churches helps establish a structure as being built or remodeled after the seventh century.

The Archaeology of Pilgrimage Centers and Monastic Centers

In addition to the presence of monumental churches and Christian papyri, the construction of new Christian pilgrimage centers and monastic settlements offers additional evidence for the archaeology of Christian Egypt. Pilgrimage centers honored regional martyrs such as St. Menas at Mareotis (modern Abu Mina); St. Epimachos, east of Pelusium (modern Tall al-Makhzan); SS. Cyrus and John at Menouthis (modern Abu Qir); and sacred locations linked to biblical stories such as Moses on Mt. Sinai (p. 675) (St. Catherine’s Monastery) (Frankfurter 1998). For example, excavations in the Sinai at Pharan (modern Firan) and Raitou (al-Rayah, near modern al-Tur) revealed the presence of expressly Christian baths and housing facilities for Christian pilgrims.

The largest and most popular pilgrimage center in Egypt was at Abu Mina in the Delta, 45 kilometers south of Alexandria. Commemorating Menas, a soldier martyred during the Diocletian persecutions in Asia Minor, the Egyptian center quickly evolved into the largest pilgrimage town of the Late Antique Mediterranean. Mena’s relics were placed in a crypt, which had signs of pharaonic use for the god Horus-Harpocrates, and quickly stories of miraculous cures drew Christian pilgrims from around the Mediterranean world (Grossmann 1998, 282). The site expanded into a fully Christian settlement that included a wide array of Christian structures and artifacts, such as small ampullae which were produced on site.

Partially excavated throughout the twentieth century and then extensively investigated and mapped in the late twentieth century by Peter Grossmann, the site holds the largest transept basilica in Egypt, thereby surpassing the large basilica at Hermopolis Magna. Decades of documentation and excavation have shown the earliest structure at Abu Mina is a late fourth-century tomb and martyrion that presumably held the body of Mena. Ceramic evidence points to a fifth-century Martyr Church built over the martyrion. The church includes an east apse and a separate baptistery room on the west side (Figure 34.4). The church was remodeled a few times to include a colonnade to accommodate more pilgrims. By the sixth century the Martyr Church was remodeled into a rare tetraconch basilica ringed by a colonnade thereby highlighting Abu Mina’s importance as a site for Christian pilgrimage (Grossmann 1998). Abutting the Martyr Church on the east side is the Great Basilica. Ostraca dating to the fifth and sixth centuries speak of church cleaners hired to tend to the upkeep of the basilica (Wortmann 1971). Built in the fifth century, the large three-aisle transept basilica follows the design of the Constantinian basilica of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople. The basilica’s close proximity to Alexandria is important, as it may follow styles no longer preserved in the city of the patriarchs.

Archaeology of Early Christianity in Egypt

Figure 34.4 View of basilica at Abu Mina, Egypt.

(Photo: Darlene L. Brooks Hedstrom)

New monastic centers, designed specifically for Christian living, offer substantial archaeological evidence for the study of early Christianity in Egypt. Unlike the pilgrimage centers, which were few in number, monastic settlements are found throughout all of Egypt. Early monastic communities, like early Christian churches, were located in the homes of ascetic individuals. By the fifth century, collections of individuals relocated to underutilized buildings or abandoned temples as part of an effort to take advantage of loose building regulations in Late Antiquity to lay claim to land (Brooks Hedstrom 2017). Still other monastics elected to adapt naturally formed caves or long-abandoned tombs to be retrofitted for long-term habitation, complete with chapels, kitchens, and gardens (Jones 1991; van Loon 2014).

The first archaeological discoveries of Egypt’s rich monastic remains begins in the early twentieth century with excavations at the Monastery of Apa Apollo at Bawit and at the Monastery of Apa Jeremias at Saqqara (Cledát 1999; Quibell 1907–12). The Bawit excavations revealed two churches, a number of monastic buildings, Late Antique wall (p. 676) paintings, and large communal halls within a densely built area of 40 hectares. The recovery of metal objects, elaborated painted rooms with scenes of saints and monks, and artifacts made of wood, stone, and ceramic provided the first collection of Christian remains from an excavated site. Dated dipinti, extensive archives, and a rich corpus of finds reflect the site’s occupation from the sixth to ninth centuries. The British excavations at the Step Pyramid at Saqqara shifted researchers’ attention from the exploration of pharaonic material to a full-scale excavation of the Monastery of Apa Jeremias. Founded in the fifth or early sixth century, the community rapidly expanded to include one monumental central church, three smaller churches, two-story monastic residences made of mud brick, storerooms, an infirmary, a refectory, bakehouses, and an area for pressing oil (Quibell 1907–12).

(p. 677) The Topos of Epiphanius is an example of how a few Christian monks modified an abandoned pharaonic tomb for use as a small community in the sixth and seventh centuries (Behlmer 2007). Based upon the excavated ostraca, papyri, and ceramic material, the Christian settlement was part of a large interconnected monastic landscape in the heart of ancient Thebes (Winlock and Crum 1926). The monks used the tomb as the central residence and then built extensive mudbrick towers, work areas, and bakehouses on the natural terrace to create a complex that was entirely self-sufficient. From the graffiti at the site we see that Christians visited the monks and left their petitions for prayer by the monks. The three loom pits provided the first clues to how monks participated in the textile trade, and their letters attest to their participation in a diverse community of monks and laity in the Theben region.

Since the 1970s, the excavation of newly discovered monastic settlements has greatly increased our knowledge of Christian Egypt. For example, the monastic site at Naqlun, on the east edge of the Fayyum Oasis, contains extensive evidence of fifth-century monasticism based upon excavated papyri and impressive assemblages of Byzantine ceramics and glasswares. The shale cliffs hold more than ninety independent monastic residences built of mud brick into the natural landscape (Figure 34.5) (Godlewski 2007; Wipszycka 2009). As the community increased in popularity, the settlement changed to include facilities of the laity and even a cemetery for laymen, which shows the continuity and vitality of the monastery into the medieval period.

Archaeology of Early Christianity in Egypt

Figure 34.5 View of hills at Naqlun, in the Fayyum, with monastic residences.

(Photo: Darlene L. Brooks Hedstrom)

(p. 678) Material Remains of Daily Christian Life

In addition to the remains of monumental architecture of ecclesiastic churches, pilgrim centers, and monastic settlements, the material culture of Christianity in Egypt is also visible in a collection of small artifacts made for Christian use. The objects bear signs of Christian iconography: crosses, saints, biblical scenes, and vignettes from saints’ lives. They reflect a wide array of daily items used within the home or within a liturgical setting. Objects excavated from a variety of fourth- to seventh-century sites include bronze censers used during the liturgy, silver spoons and plates, carved stone lintels, wooden combs for weaving linen, bronze keys and stamps with Coptic inscriptions, personal combs made of bone, magical papyri, and linen and woolen clothing, curtains, and shrouds. The number of magical papyri vividly illustrates how early Christians drew upon a variety of religious traditions to find protection from illnesses, secure the affection of a lover, protect a mother during childbirth, and ensure an enemy’s suffering (Meyer and Smith 1999).

The most recognized artifacts of Christian Egypt are the colorful and complex embroidered textiles recovered from a series of Roman and Byzantine cemeteries (Hoskins 2003; Noever and 2005; Thomas 2007). The Christian dead were dressed in a variety of linen garments, often with wool-embroidered borders and colorful ornamentation, and then covered by a burial shroud. Strips of linen crisscrossed the body to secure the limbs of the deceased and then were covered entirely with various garments (Riggs 2005). The decorative and figural motifs on garments and curtains included pagan mythological characters as well as Christian motifs (Figure 34.6). The adoption of both traditions demonstrates that even after the Christianization of Egypt, the stories of Heracles, Europa, and Dionysius were still popular themes.

Archaeology of Early Christianity in Egypt

Figure 34.6 A Late Antique textile on display at the Greco-Roman Museum in Alexandria, Egypt.

(Photo: Darlene L. Brooks Hedstrom)

Egyptian Christian iconography was influenced in clear ways by the appropriation of images from ancient Egypt. For example, the hieroglyphic sign of the ankh, meaning “life,” was adopted and transformed into a Christian looped cross. Numerous wall reliefs at temples and tombs throughout Egypt showed gods and goddesses holding the ankh before the mouth of a human, offering life. Even when the knowledge of reading Egyptian hieroglyphs diminished, the visual message was clear: the looped cross was a gift from the gods and could be adopted by Christians. The looped cross appears on numerous Christian funerary stelae (Figure 34.7). Another example of Christian appropriation is the conversion of Egyptian motifs into biblical or Christian scenes. Isis nursing Horus-Harpocrates was adopted for images of the Virgin Mary nursing Jesus and highlighted the importance of the Eucharist for Christians (Bolman 2005). Early twentieth-century art historians and archaeologists were frequently perplexed by the continuity of Greco-Roman mythology alongside Christian motifs. Their interpretations of Coptic art as derivative or parochial led to a diminished view of Byzantine Egypt in light of the material culture from the heart of the Byzantine Empire, and are being revised to illustrate the fluidity between periods (Thomas 2000).

Archaeology of Early Christianity in Egypt

Figure 34.7 A funerary stela with a looped ankh from the Graeco-Roman Museum in Alexandria, Egypt.

(Photo: Darlene L. Brooks Hedstrom)

(p. 679) (p. 680) Other objects such as bronze lamps, ivory boxes, limestone funerary markers, and carved niches were decorated with Christian symbols or inscriptions in Coptic or Greek.1 Christian iconography with images of angels, peacocks, crosses, shells, and vines began to appear on a variety of objects and conveyed the promise of Christian resurrection (Figure 34.8). Smaller objects, such as the ampullae of St. Menas from Abu Mina, were purchased to hold sacred oil or water from the saint’s shrine and then were carried throughout the Mediterranean Christian world (Davis 2001). However, much of the material excavated from non-monastic settlements is difficult to classify as expressing any particular Christian theological view. The wide array of objects reflects the gradual process of Christianization of Egypt that involved the adoption of older, pagan motifs in conjunction with biblical iconography.

Archaeology of Early Christianity in Egypt

Figure 34.8 Architectural stone lintels from the church at Medinet Habu stacked outside the temple after removal to display the pharaonic monument for tourism.

(Photo: Darlene L. Brooks Hedstrom)


The archaeology of Christian Egypt is a field with a promising future after its somewhat difficult beginnings, when it was overshadowed by papyrus and textile hunting and the allure of Egypt’s pharaonic remains. With the advent of Late Antiquity as a field of study and the increased interest in Byzantine and Islamic history, Egypt’s position as a region at the center of numerous changes in the first millennium makes it an important area for the study of early Christianity. Archaeology helps to correct the view espoused in ecclesiastical sources that Christianization was a rapid process. Papyrological evidence shows how Christian themes and beliefs were slowly adopted, as we see the names of biblical (p. 681) figures in magical spells that also mentioned pagan gods and goddess, and the eventual replacement of pagan names with Christian names. The construction of the first churches in the fourth century demonstrates how Egyptians modified earlier communal spaces to provide the necessary liturgical spaces for small Christian communities. The later fifth-century development of pilgrimage centers and monastic settlements demonstrate how Christianity transformed Egypt’s sacred landscape from one with monumental temples to one with monumental basilicas and numerous monastic villages. In looking at the objects of daily religious and private life, we can see how Christians wished to have a variety of symbols of resurrection around them. More importantly, archaeological evidence explains how pagan symbols and temples coexisted alongside Christianity for centuries after the religion’s establishment.


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(1) Mosaic pavements are not common in Egypt, as plaster flooring was preferred. When mosaics are found it is usually within the context of urban settings such as Kom el-Dikka or in baths at Trimithis in the Dakhla Oasis.