Archaeologists Discover Traces of Early Christian Community in Egypt

Active between the fourth and eighth centuries A.D., the vast site housed multiple churches, monastic cells and other structures

Ruins of Christian community
The site is comprised of six sectors, the last of which was recently excavated. Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities

Excavations in Egypt’s Western Desert have unearthed the ruins of an early Christian monastic site, reports Agence France-Presse (AFP). Highlights of the discovery include three churches and a set of monks’ cells, or living quarters.

Per a statement from Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, a joint French-Norwegian team found the basalt and mudbrick structures at Tel Ganub Qasr Al-‘Aguz in the Bahariya Oasis, some 230 miles southwest of Cairo. Some of the buildings were carved directly into the bedrock.

Ancient Egyptians occupied the site between the fourth and eighth centuries A.D., notes AFP. Activity likely peaked during the fifth and sixth centuries.

The dig marks the third round of excavations at Tel Ganub Qasr Al-‘Aguz. Split into six sectors, each of which contains multiple rooms, the archaeological site is located in a “somewhat isolated” area, according to Nevine El-Aref of Ahram Online. This remote location, coupled with the Coptic Christian symbols and scribbles seen on several walls, supports the scholars’ theory that the complex housed an early monastic community.

Work in sector six—the last section to be excavated—took place during the 2020 season, reports Ahram Online. It features 19 rooms, including a living area, a vestibule and a pair of rock-cut chambers connected to a church. The walls of these last two rooms are covered in lines of yellow text, some of which appear to be biblical verses written in Greek. The inscriptions may help elucidate what monastic life in the region looked like at the time, writes Mohammed Abu Zaid for Arab News.

In the statement, lead researcher Victor Gica says that the finds represent a key step in understanding the formation of the region’s first monastic settlements. Based on radiocarbon analysis of a church in sector one, construction dates as far back as the mid-fourth century, making the complex “the oldest preserved Christian monastic site that has been dated with certainty,” per Ahram Online.

Inscriptions found on the walls of the site
Inscriptions found on the walls of the site Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities

Other intriguing discoveries include a dining area and fragments of ostraca, or shards of pottery engraved with Greek writing.

As Darlene L. Brooks Hedstrom pointed out in the 2019 Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Archaeology, scholars trace the origins of Christianity in Egypt to first-century A.D. Alexandria. The bustling cosmopolitan center proved to be an apt incubator for the religion; its Great Library attracted a diverse group of Christian intellectuals, including Clement of Alexandria and Origen.

Previous excavations at Tel Ganub Qasr Al-‘Aguz have shown how inhabitants of the area manufactured wine, bred cattle and traded with civilizations across the Byzantine Empire.

“The isolated position of the site, in the desert, outside the known Roman villages, as well as the organization of the internal spaces of the entirely excavated sectors, … the arrangement of the built groups and the graffiti engraved on the walls [in sector one] leave little doubt as to the semi-anchored nature of the establishment,” wrote Ghica in an earlier research summary.

As Nafisa Eltahir reports for Reuters, the discovery comes at a time when Egyptian officials are eager to highlight archaeological findings. Due in large part to the Covid-19 pandemic, the number of tourists who visited the country dropped from 13.1 million in 2019 to 3.5 million in 2020.

Other recently announced finds include a 2,000-year-old mummy with a gold tongue, a 5,000-year-old large-scale brewery and a 13-foot long Book of the Dead scroll at the Saqqara necropolis. Saqarra’s story will be told in the Smithsonian Channel docuseries “Tomb Hunters,”​ scheduled to air later this year.

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