The monastery of St. Shenouda has been referred to, in modern times, as the White Monastery. This was due to the color of the limestone walls of the surviving church. Originally the monastery, as founded by St. Shenouda’s uncle St.Pigol, occupied an area of about 5 acres that lies 4-1/2 kilometers south west of Sohag in Upper Egypt.
There were about 30 monks in the monastery when St. Shenouda became the abbot. Through his influence, the population of the monastery to 4,000 monks and nuns and occupied an area of about 12,800 acres. Such an area included cells, kitchens, storehouses, the ruins of which can still be seen to the north, west, and south sides of the church complex. Unfortunately such ruins were never scientifically excavated for the purpose of defining the original greater monastery. Based on the manuscriptal evidences, the monastery had a second church, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and even a keep during the middle ages.
Following the repose of St. Shenouda, the monastic community in the 5th century AD continued strong under the leadership of Apa Besa and later Apa Zenobius. The continued lack of charismatic leaders of the caliber of St. Shenouda, eventually caused the monastery to slowly decline. In the 6th century, we find a legal document that deeds a parcel of land to the monastery, indicating its continuing influence until then. In the middle of the 8th century, history tells of the incident of Al-Kasim Ibn Ubaid Allah, the Arab Governor, who forced his way into the monastery church with his female concubine on horseback. This resulted in the concubine falling to the ground and eventually to her death along with the horse she was riding. This showed the monastery to be in decline. If it was at its original strength then such miracles would not have been needed. The state of decline can be attributed in part to the heavy taxes that the monasteries in Egypt had to endure in the eighth century. Such taxes literally put a great number of monasteries out of existence. Only a monastery of such glorious past could have endured such economic woes.
The monastery served as a host for Armenian monks in the 11th and the 12th centuries. This is indicated in the inscriptions found on the paintings of the central apse of the church. Those are dated from the period of 1076-1124 AD. This group at one time, included the Armenian Vizier Bahram. He became a monk after he was banished from his office during the Caliphate of the Fatimide Al-Hafiz (1131-49 AD) In 1168 AD, the monastery was attacked by shirkuh
In the 13th century, in the work attributed to Abu Salih Al-Armani, there is mentioned the existence of a keep (Middle Ages construction). Also he tells of an enclosure wall around the monastery within which a garden full of all sorts of trees existed. Such historical information provides further evidence of the shrinking of the monastery in both area and population. The lack of literary manuscripts after the 14th century indicate that the monastery was in an advanced state of decline from that time onwards. This was supported by the French traveler Denon, who mentioned that he visited the monastery in 1798 on the day after its destruction by the Mamlukes.
The monastery underwent major restorations between 1202 and 1259 AD. In the latter part of the 18th century, the southwest corner of the surviving church-complex collapsed. This was then rebuilt under the direction of Muhammad Ali in 1802. In 1907, the church complex experienced another repair which included the removal of the encrustation of brick work and the undercovering of the doorways. Then in 1980’s other groups were entrusted with doing more restoration work on the walls and the columns of the church.
The monastery was visited by Wansleben in 1672 and by Pococke in 1737. Both of them made an incorrect attribution of the foundation of the monastery (i.e. the church) to St. Helena, Emperor Constantine’s mother. Then the French traveler Denon visited the Monastery during the French Expedition in 1798. He was followed by Robert Curzon in 1833, who left a written record of his visit. In 1893, Fergusson published a plan of the church complex. However the most significant contribution to the study of that monument were made by such visitors as W. de Bock (1901), C. R. Peers (1904), W. M. F. Petrie (1907), S. Clarke (1912), and Monneret de Villard (1925)
General:: What has survived from the monastery is only the church complex. This complex, which was built in the Basilica style, is oriented approximately 35 degrees North of East. It had six entrances; three centrally placed in the north, south, and west walls. The other three are located south of the west wall, east of the south wall, and east of the north wall. Its outer appearance shows an astounding resemblance to that of an ancient Egyptian Temple. It has an interesting combination of exo- and eso-narthex leading into the body of the original church. This body, which is now an open courtyard, contains a nave flanked by two isles. They are being separated from the nave by long rows of columns with a returned isle in the west to define the eso-narthex. There existed atop these isles mezzanine galleries, as evidenced by the two rows of windows seen on the walls. To realize the grand style of this 5th century basilica, one needs only to observe the dimension of this open courtyard (no roof). It measures 172 feet long by 76 feet wide, of which the nave occupies half that width
Current Church:: The current Church now occupies what used to be the choir and the sanctuary areas. This is separated from the open court by a solid red brick wall, of middle ages construction with doors and windows. The original sanctuary was built in a trefoil style with three apses. It is a step higher than the nave in the open court. The rectangular space defined by the apses to its north, south, and east sides; used to serve as the altar for the greater basilica. Now the altar is located within the central or eastern apse. The rest of the space is now integrated into the nave of the current Church. There is also a new iconstasis made with solid wood and adorned by small icons on its top register. The current sanctuary ( in the central apse is actually divided into three. The middle one is of course dedicated to St. Shenouda the Archimandrite, the southern one to the Holy Virgin, and the northern one to St. George.
Apses: The original three apses are of magnificent construction. Each contains two registers of columns separated by a decorative firese and surmounted by architraves. Between the columns there lie the niches. The horizontal cross-section of the niches in each register alternate between rectangular and circular. The semidome of each is decorated with beautiful design. Above the registers lies the majestic semidome. There paintings than can be distinguished in these semidomes. The one in the central apse has a painting of the Pantokrator and the four evangelists. In the northern apse, there is a depiction of the dormition of the blessed virgin Mary. The southern apse has a representation of the resurrection with the two Mary’s and two angels.
Annexes: The church complex has several annexes along the east and south walls. The most significant one of these is the great hall that runs alongside the south wall. This probably served the function of a woman chamber in the early days. It has a chamber at each of its east and west ends. The west chamber contains a well and it underwent reconstruction in the early 1800’s. There are also two chambers south of the central apse and a third one to the north. On the southside, one chamber is rectangular with a font which is now used as a baptistery, and the second is circular with niches. On the northside, the chamber is square. There is another rectangular chamber west of the circular chamber and it is divided in half by two projecting buttresses.
Building Material: There is a variety of building material employed in the construction of the church complex. This reflects the different stages that the monastery went through in its long illustrious history from 442 AD, year of its building, until now. The outer walls are of white limestone set in mortar with no bonding. They are sloped 6 degrees from vertical on the outside (original construction). The gargoyles and the door lintels are also of limestone with the door jambs being made of red granite. The source of these limestone is probably from ruins of nearby ancient Egyptian temples, which St. Shenouda contributed to their demise figuratively and literally. The original nave columns are made of marble or granite with few later ones being of red bricks. Many of these columns are no longer standing. The paving of the nave is of limestone or granite slabs.
The original sanctuary is now roofed with vaults of burnt bricks, originally it had a wood roof. The nave, isles, and the great South hall (lateral Narthex) are now without a roof, originally they had wood gabled roofs with galleries atop the isles. The wall between the exo-narthex and the body of the original church is of limestone. The great wall that defines the western boundary of the current church is made up of red bricks which encase the original columns and arches. This now is covered with a cream-color stucco layer. The four arches carrying the squinches of the central, original, sanctuary dome are also made up of red bricks except for the one toward the east witch is of marble construction.
Comment: It is painful to see the great Monastery of St. Shenouda reduced to such a small size. For it must have been a sight to behold in its prime. However, the church complex that remains was most likely the jewel of the monastery. There is enough remaining in it to portray how great it was. The honorable Sommers Clarke described it best as “the noblest church of which we have any remains in Egypt, the chief monument of the Christians…”
Introduction: The literacy campaign, that St. Shenouda waged in his monastery, reflected positively on the library of the monastery. With everyone capable of reading and many skilled in the art of writing manuscripts, one can only expect a great library to suit such environment. A closer look at this library can certainly confirm such expectation. In fact, the library, as it id known now, must have been one of the greatest libraries of Coptic Egypt if not the greatest. This testimony is not only in the number of codices identified, but also in the wide variety of subjects it possessed. Such was the characteristic of its founder, the Great St. Shenouda.
Fate: The library has unfortunately been scattered all over the world. Codices were dismembered with individual folios ending up in different libraries or museums. At times, even an individual folio ended up in different libraries which were thousands of miles apart. Serious efforts has been done to artificially regroup these codices from their Diaspora with photographic means. Bishop Lefort of Louvain made the first comprehensive attempt toward achieving this monumental goal. However his collection was a tragic victim of World War II in the 1940’s. Currently this task has been taken up by Prof. Tito Orlandi and his associates in the University of Rome. There, they formed the ‘CORPUS DEI MANOSCRITTI COPTI LETTERARI’. They were able to identify hundreds of separate codices with the aid of the prior works that Coptic scholars has done previously and their own meticulous and painstaking research. Thanks to their highly commendable efforts, one can get a clearer picture of this great monastic library.
Disbursement: The library contents, as mentioned above, has adorned many libraries and museums around the world from as early as the 1800’s. The following is a partial list of those places that possess such fragments:
- Berlin, Deutshce Staatsbibliothek
- Cairo, Coptic Museum
- Cairo, Egyptian Museum
- Cairo, Institute Francais d’Archeologie Orientale
- Cambridge, University Library
- Florence, Biblioteca Laurentiana
- Leiden, Rijks-Museum
- Leningrad (St. Petersburg), Public Library
- London, British Library
- London, Eton College
- Louvain, Bibliotheque de l’Universite
- Manchester, John Rylands University Library
- Michigan, University Library
- Moscow, Pushkin Museum
- Naples, Biblioteca Nazionale
- New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
- Oxford, Bodleian Library
- Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale de France
- Paris Musee de Louvre
- Strasbourge, Bibliotheque de l’Universite
- Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica
- Venice, Biblioteca Naniana
- Vienna, Osterreiche Nationalbibliothek
Categories: The library is rich in many categories whether biblical, Hagiographical, liturgical, …etc. This provides the researcher with good knowledge about what the monks were reading and what they were allowed to read at different stages of the monastery development. However, the early times are not too well represented in the surviving fragments, This can be either attributed to their frequent use or simply they were victims of time and of decline of the monastery in later times. The dialect of these manuscripts were predominately in Sahidic Coptic, which was perfected in its literary form by St. Shenouda. There were some bilingual manuscripts. The early ones were in Sahidic and Greek, while the latter ones had Sahidic and Arabic. The writing material employed were mostly parchment, because of its prevalence, but some of the later ones were found on paper.
The first Category, and most abundant, is the Biblical manuscripts. Nearly every book of the Old Testament, including the Deuterocanonical Books is represented. The only exception is some of the Historical books, which were always in short supply in Coptic Monasteries. The New Testament on the other hand is represented in its entirety though in a fragmentary shape.
A second category is the apocryphal Gospels, Acts, and Biblical lives that were frequently read in Coptic Monasteries. These include the Gospel of the twelve apostles, Gospel of St. Bartholomew, Acts of St. Thomas, Acts of Pilate, Life of Virgin Mary, and that of Joseph the carpenter.
A third category is the historical manuscripts, which are rare in any of the Coptic libraries found thus far. However in the White Monastery one finds a substantial part of an ecclesiastical history manuscript. That manuscript deals with the history of the Church of Alexandria in the 4th and 5th centuries. Also there are several fragments of codices that record the acts of the great Councils of Nice and Ephesus.
Another important category found in the library is the Hagiographic texts. These are found in relative abundance in all monastic libraries, and the White Monastery is no exception. They are primarily intended for the spiritual edification of the monks rather than being accurate historical records of those honored saints of God. They include acts and related texts of many martyrs such as St. Colluthus the Physician, SS. Cosmas and Damian, St. Mercurius, St. Psote, St. Theodore, St. Victor, and many others. Also there are the lives of many important saints of the Coptic Church like St. Antony, St. Athanasius, St. Pachomius and his disciples, St. Samuel of Qalamun, and St. Shenouda the Great to name just a few.
The richest and most significant category available is the writings of the fathers. This library has yielded a great number of manuscripts , preserving texts of the composition of Coptic writers, as well as Coptic translation of Greek writings of Church Fathers. The most significant part of it is that of the remarkable works of St. Shenouda. Other writings includes those of St. Besa’s sermons, the writings of St. Pachomius and his disciples, and the Apophthgamata Patrum. Other texts of original Coptic composition include those of Constantine of Asyut, John of Burulus, and Rufus of Shotep. The group of Coptic translations of Greek writings includes those of St. Peter of Alexandria, St. Athanasius the Apostolic, St. Theophilus, St. Cyril the Great, and St. Dioscorus. The Greek translaions of non-Coptic Fathers include St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Severus of Antioch. Works of other authors are found in that collection but time does not permit to list them all.
- Monneret de Villard, U., “Les Couvents Pres de Sohag”. 2 vol. Milan 1925-7
- Peers, C. R., “The White Monastery near Sohag Upper Egypt” Archaeological Journal 3,11 (61), 1904, 131-53
- Takla, H. N., “St. Shenouda the Archmandrite – His Life and Times”. Los Angeles 1987.
- Timm, S., “Ad-Der al Abyad” In Das Christlich-Koptische Agypten in Arabischer Zeit. Vol 2 (D-F) pp. 601-38, Wiesbaden, 1984
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