Excavations in the Western Desert, Egypt, have uncovered a complex of structures believed to represent the oldest Christian monastery ever found.
The site of Tal Ganoub Qasr al-Agouz is located in the Bahariya Oasis, an isolated spot, far from any historic or modern-day settlements. The archaeological ruins here were known to local inspectors, but the site’s true nature was only revealed during excavations by a Norwegian-French team from the Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale in Cairo and the MF Vitenskapelig Høyskole in Oslo, Norway. The team carried out three seasons of research at the site, in 2009, 2013, and most recently in December 2020.
They discovered that the site was a type of Christian monastery called a lavra, made up of a cluster of hermitages. Six units of varying sizes are present at Tal Ganoub Qasr al-Agouz, each with between ten and 20 rooms. The structures, which include the monks’ living and dining areas and three churches, were built using a combination of architectural techniques, with some made from basalt and others from mud bricks, while several were carved directly into the bedrock.
The oldest phase of occupation at the site has been dated to the first half of the 4th century AD using radiocarbon dating and ceramic evidence, making it the earliest known preserved and securely dated Christian monastic site – not just in Egypt, but in the whole world. The monastic complex developed over time, undergoing multiple phases of construction between the 4th and 8th centuries AD, with the peak of activity probably occurring in the 5th to early 6th centuries.
The level of preservation at the site is extraordinary: many buildings are still standing with their walls preserved right up to roof-level, and even the roofs themselves are preserved in some cases, while evidence has been found for the presence of two storeys in a few structures.
Excavations have also uncovered a substantial quantity of pottery, as well as ostraca (potsherds with writing on them), including one written by a monk to the abbot about his time studying abroad in Constantinople. Inscriptions were also found on the walls of several buildings, with passages from biblical and early Christian texts written in Greek.
These discoveries are shedding new light on life at a remote lavra like Tal Ganoub Qasr al-Agouz, and have the potential to rewrite the history of the development of the earliest monasticism in Egypt. Excavations at the site are finished for now, but researchers will continue to study the material culture and archaeology of 4th-century Christianity in Egypt as part of a wider project.