This is not the first time that this blog hosts a post about monasticism, either in Egypt or in Nubia. But this is the first time that the post concerns an academic venue especially dedicated to the study of the monastic phenomenon in both Egypt and Nubia. Actually, the venue organized at the Polish Center of Mediterranean Archaeology, and which was announced in a previous post, is the first that brings together the experience of working from both sides of the Aswan border. As Jacques van der Vliet noted in his closing address to the conference, this was a historical moment, since for the first time the Nubian and Coptic monastic phenomena were juxtaposed, compared and apprehended as mutually complementary.
For Van der Vliet, this was one of the two salient features of the workshop on Monasticism in the Nile Valley. The other one was the influence of the bottom-up approach in the study of the monastic phenomena introduced at the Department of Papyrology, Institute of Archaeology of the University of Warsaw by one of the leading figures in world papyrology, Ewa Wipszycka.
Wipszycka has lead a group of scholars in building the history of the monastic communities in Egypt based on the archaeological finds produced by careful archaeological work and analysis of the material remains of this special type of life style in Early Christianity. A good sample of such important academic output opened the workshop on Monday morning with the talks of Tomasz Derda, Joanna Wegner, Aleksandra Pawlikowska, and Marzena Wojtczak.
Professor Derda is head of the Department of Papyrology and editor in chief of the Journal of Juristic Papyrology (JJP). He dedicated his talk to the very recently and too early departed Tomasz Górecki.
Derda has also been working a lot at Deir al Naqlun, and has published the Greek papyri from the site. In his talk, he offered a new view on the way the spaces for hermitages were chosen, shaped and inhabited, removing the stress on ascetism and deprivation of the material, and inviting us to see the anchorites as rich individuals who’d have the hermitages built in the best technical means possible – given the circumstances – in order to accommodate themselves and their wish to be away from the society, but not fully detached from it, since Naqlun is close to villages.
This tension between the retreat from the secular world and the continuation of being part of it, as is very eloquently exemplified by the thousands of documentary papyri and ostraka found in the Egyptian monasteries, was the focus of the presentation by Wegner.
She is a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Warsaw, who studied for her thesis the papyrological dossiers of Deir el-Naqlun, Bawit, Wadi Sarga and Deir el-Bala’izah. Her work offers an inside, “monastic” perspective on the monks’ relations with the world, but does not prove a significant influence by the former upon the latter, at least for the topics covered by the papyri.
This impression seems to be confirmed by the legal analysis offered by Wojtczak on the term δίκαιον and its use in the papyrological record relating to Egyptian monasteries.
We should keep in mind that the school of papyrology in Warsaw has a very strong juridical character, as is exemplified by the title of both JJP and the historical development of their milieu tracing its history back to Rafal Taubenschlag who gave his name to the publishing house where JJP is hosted.
More insights into the way monks may have radically affected the world around them will be provided by the progress of Pawlikowska in her PhD, which will deal with the identification of the degree that monks took up temples and other holy places of the pagan past to create their physical abodes.
The transformation of sacred spaces to serve the purposes of a new religion is a well-studied phenomenon, but quite often the definition of the “sacred” character is not easy to grasp.
The opposite approach is taken by another PhD student of Warsaw, almost in the end of his doctoral career soon insha Allah, Szymon Maslak.
Szymon, who opened the second day of the conference, is studying secular architecture, and the “non-sacral” buildings. The similarities of such buildings across the monastic sites bespeak their relations with the secular world. But also some original structures in a monastery are of particular interest, since they illuminate the everyday life of the monks. Szymon took as a case study Naqlun and I was particularly attracted by his identification of a basin-like installation as possibly a bath. No other such structures have been unearthed in Egyptian monasteries, but it is important to remember the great number of Shenoutian rules that refer to the dangers of monks and nuns washing each other, something that should be avoided unless ordered to do so. But doesn’t the presence of such rules suggest the existence of a communal space for bathing?
Similar moralization of the corporal needs was shown by Artur Obluski, in his open lecture on “Nubian monasticism. An open issue”.
Among the great discoveries his team is making at the Ghazali monastery, the largest known complex of latrines from a single site in Christian Nubia has been unearthed. Artur underlined one difference between the Ghazali-latrines and the Greco-Roman “prototypes”: the latter did not have separated latrines, but separation-walls were introduced at Ghazali. Was that a matter of privacy or of prudence?
The issue of the spiritual concerns of the monks were mainly touched by my talk, based on what we can understand by a thorough analysis of the texts found at Qasr el Wizz.
A pivotal point of my analysis was that the discovery of a fragment of the Sermo Asceticus by Stephen of Thebes, if properly contextualized in Wizz can show us that the spiritual ascesis practiced by the monks there had the characteristics of not only the practices described in the fragment preserved, but of the entire work as we know it from manuscript witnesses in Greek, Coptic, Arabic, Ethiopic, and Georgian. So, eventually there is much to say for their efforts to achieve ascetic perfection, be that in the silence of the cell, in common prayer, or in avoidance of sins, like jealousy and drunkenness.
The image of drinking monks is far from surprising for either popular views on monasticism or the scholarly world. And therefore wine is a crucial element in both the religious practices and the exchanges with the outside world, be those agricultural or economic. Dorota Dzierzbicka is always offering insightful descriptions of “the social and economic role of wine in monasteries of the Nile Valley”.
This time again she managed both to keep her audience focused and to give good comparisons between the two worlds we were examining, Egypt and Nubia. Working between ceramic studies and papyrology, Dorota is thus also part of the school of ceramologists that have come out of all these years of work of the Polish archaeologists in Egypt and Sudan.
Two representatives of that school contributed to the conference during the second day, which was dedicated to the material culture of mainly Nubian monasticism. Katarzyna Danys presented her work on the pottery finds from the monastery at Old Dongola and from Qasr el Wizz.
And Malgorzata Korzeniowska talked about the pottery finds from Ghazali.
Especially with the first talk we could see the monks at table or at work, we heard about the re-uses of pottery, we understood the restrictions of studying collections of only so-called diagnostic sherds made during the Wizz excavations in the frame of the Aswan High Dam campaigns. But both showed us how our monks had not denied the luxury of fine decorated wares of ceramic vessels despite having retreated to their monastic communities. The content of these pots can be analyzed with various methods offering insights into, among other things, the diet of our monks.
Robert Stark and Joanna Ciesielska had found other material from Ghazali and other scientific means to speak about such topics.
Their bioarchaeological analyses of the skeletons buried in the cemeteries around Ghazali were, in my opinion, the cherry on top of the cake in the very successful workshop. Ciesielska’s study of the skeletons could tell us about the diseases that troubled the monks’ lives, but also the types of tensions that their bones were receiving during their life time. It seems that the monks were often pressing their bodies in specific positions, like lifting weights or kneeling, and perhaps this is an indication that they were kneeling when praying, the commonest activity in a monastery. Stark’s analyses of the isotopes from the collagen from the bones confirmed the impression that the monks were mainly eating grains and plants, although it seems that the vast majority was also consuming proteins (e.g, milk, egg, meat). Investing more on the research of isotopic analyses could perhaps provide even more concrete information, like the length of abstinence from proteins (could that then mean prolonged fasts?), the years that each monk managed to keep up the hardships of a monastic life style etc. Ciesielska is preparing her PhD on the burial customs in medieval Nubia with a focus on the social status of Nubian monks combining anthropological, archaeological and epigraphic data. The integration of hers and Stark’s work in future Polish projects should receive further support.
Such research was achieved thanks to Obluski and his wide-perspective on how to treat the monastic phenomenon in Nubia. His presentation attracted more people than the lecture hall at the Polish center could accommodate, but they all stayed until the end, listening to a rich in information lecture that traveled us from Egypt and Wizz to Sudan and Dongola and Ghazali, across architectural traditions and particularities, textual corpora, and comparanda from all over Early Christianity. A map showing the distribution of all the possible monastic sites, combined with the ability of Artur to receive funds for his projects, as well as honorable invitations to open up new trenches in world-renown sites left all in expectation for further digs, research and presentation of results. At least for the latter, our host, to whom gratitude is due, promised to invite us back next year already for the second workshop on #Monasticism in the Nile Valley that he expressed the hope to become a reference point for related studies in many years to come. It is everybody’s hope that the director of the PCMA, Tomasz Waliszewski, came also pleased out of our meeting and feels that this is an academic venture worth supporting more.
Closing this report from #Monasticism in the Nile Valley, I should not fail to mention the special thanks due to the staff of the Polish Center in Cairo, especially Elzbieta Smolinska and Marianna Chlebowska. As well as to Tomasz Kania for sharing these photos with me and the readers of this blog.