The Red Monastery is located 21 kilometers west of Sohag province. It is considered one of the most important monasteries established during Christianity’s early history. Because of the red bricks that make up most of its masonry, it is known as the Red Monastery. White limestone was employed in the building’s construction as well as were several pink and black granite columns.
The monastery was founded by Saint Bishoy in the beginning of the fourth century AD, but suffered two fires, the first was during the Roman Period, and the second was as a result of Berber attacks.
All that remains of the Red Monastery is its church and surrounding fortification walls to the south. Remains of a structure north of the church also survived and are thought to belong to an industrial area.
The main church is composed of a long rectangular space composed of three wings. The middle wing is the largest of the three. A church known as the “Church of the Virgin Mary” is attached to its southwest corner. On its eastern end, the monastery’s church terminates in a tripartite structure decorated with murals done with tempera paint depicting Biblical scenes that include Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, the Four Gospels, and the Apostles.
The fort occupies the area south of the church, to which its structures are attached. It likely dates to the reign of Empress Helena.
It is a roughly square building that consists of four floors, the ground and first floors of baked brick
s, and the top two of simple sun-dried mud brick. The fort itself contains several units that allowed the monks to reside in it for long stretches of time, including a church, cells, a storage room, and a water source.
The White Monastery (Dayr al-Abyaḍ), or the Monastery of St. Shenoute (Dayr al-Anbā Shinūdah) is located at the edge of the desert 8 km to the west of the modern city of Sohag.
The ancient monastery was the primary member of a federation that also included the Red Monastery (Dayr al-Ahmar) to the north and the women’s foundation to the south at Atripe.
The heyday of the White Monastery began under the leadership of the charismatic Shenoute, who was head of the federation from the late fourth to the mid-fifth century, and under whose auspices the church was built. Shenoute’s writings, which survive in two collections (the Canons and the Discourses), provide insights into many aspects of late ancient monastic life. The monastery continued to flourish into the medieval period when an Armenian artist called Theodore was commissioned to paint the eastern semi-dome composition of Christ in Majesty. When the historian al-Maqrīzī visited in the early fifteenth century, he notes that the monastery was “destroyed,” with only the church standing. The earliest depiction of the monastery, a seventeenth-century sketch by the German theologian and linguist Johann Michael Wansleben, shows the church surrounded by mounds of ruins and suggests that the monastery had not been repopulated.
By the late nineteenth century, the standing Church of St. Shenoute had come to be
identified as the monastery itself. It was inhabited by Christian villagers who had built their houses inside the now roofless nave of the church, as well as by the resident priests who continued to perform services within the sanctuary. These houses were cleared during a major conservation project in the early twentieth century. New houses were later built but were finally removed in the mid-1980s by the Egyptian Antiquities Authority (EAO, later the Supreme Council for Antiquities) as a prelude to their excavations, which have continued episodically up to the present day. In 2002, an international consortium of scholars began a project of the survey, excavation, and conservation. In 2008, the commission was transferred to the Yale Monastic Archaeology Project (YMAP-South), which continues to sponsor archaeological work on site.
Since its resettlement by monks from the Monastery of St. Antony at the Red Sea in 1975, the monastery has flourished, becoming a hub for the local Christian community and an active place of visitation for pilgrims, with thousands of visitors attending the festival (mūlid) of St.
Shenoute, held in July every year.
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