The word cell is very common in monastic texts, but it does not always have the sense given it in Western languages. Because monks inhabited various places, such as tombs, caves, or constructed hermitages, it is necessary to distinguish between them. We find in Greek the words kella (derived from Latin) and its common diminutive kellion. In Coptic it is translated as ri (ri), and in Arabic, as qallayah (pl., qalali), by way of Syriac.

It is also known that the ascetics often made use of the tombs of ancient Egypt, which explains the use of the Greek words taphos (tomb) or nekrotaphion and the Coptic mhaau (mhaau, grave), or of caves that they fitted up. For this reason, one often finds the words to describe the habitation of a hermit in Greek or transcribed into Coptic characters as cp/lion (spelion) and b/b (beb), which designate a grotto or cavern. It is therefore proper to specify the senses that the word “cell” has received in our texts, in order to avoid possible confusion.

If words like topos (place) or its Coptic equivalent, ma (ma), can be applied just as well to a Pachomian monastery as to a center of hermitages or even to a simple church, in the same way the Coptic expression manswpe (manshope, habitation) is indifferently applied to any place where monks live. It is the same with the terms oros (Greek) or toou (toou), which describe in the first place the mountain; then, by reason of the geography of Egypt, the desert; and, by derivation, since the monasteries were established there, a monastery. Thus, oros tou (followed by a proper name) designates a monastery.

It is, however, important to indicate the senses that the word “cell” has taken on in a monastic context.

The words kellion and ri (ri) designate first of all a room in a larger whole where monks live, a monastery or a prison. In this sense, it appears appropriate to the Pachomian monasteries, where each monk had the use of a “cell.” The texts that show this are numerous: the texts, the Rule, and the precepts of Saint Pachomius preserved in Saint Jerome’s Latin translation often speak of the cella of the Pachomian monk (e.g., Koch, 1933, p. 190 at the Latin cella or p. 185 at the Greek kellion). Few archaeological excavations have revealed these cells, although M. Grossmann (1986, pp. 33-40, esp. figs. 1-2 with a plan of the excavations) has discovered some on the site of the DAYR AL-BALAYZAH.

Unfortunately we do not know how these Pachomian cells were furnished, for nothing has been preserved; everything that was in wood has been carried off or has disintegrated. It is not known if niches (in Greek thuris or in Coptic soust shousht) were fitted up in the walls to serve as cupboards, sometimes provided with a door. The famous kathismation, translated by Saint Jerome as sellula, which Lefort renders in French by sellette, small seat (1943, p. 343 and n. 56), is known to us only from the texts. Draguet comments on this kathismation, saying that it was a kind of chaise longue or deck chair, such that the monk occupied a position half sitting, half lying (1944, pp. 87-90).

On occasion the words kellion (Greek or transcribed into Coptic) and ri are used to describe a hermitage. But in this case its structure is better known, whether it has been built of unbaked bricks and provided with cupolas, as at ISNA or KELLIA, or whether the hermits have fitted up a tomb or a natural cave (Badawi, 1953, pp. 67-89). What interests us here is how the monks’ quarters appeared to the visitor. It seems indeed that very early there was a room separate from that reserved for work or for sleep. This room was distinguished from the others because a niche was hollowed out in the east wall.

We know that from the time of ORIGEN the Eastern Christians had the custom of praying turned toward the east—hence, this prayer niche in the east wall, which indicated the direction that the believer ought to face for prayer. This niche was often adorned, sometimes by a simple cross or a crucified Christ (Guillamont, 1968, pp. 310-25). This use of a special room for prayer is attested from the fourth century (Amélineau, 1894, p. 76, with reference to MACARIUS THE EGYPTIAN). It seems that at Isna in the seventh century there were even two oratories, although the reason for this has not been determined (Sauneron et al., 1972, Vol. 1, pp. 15-17).

At some point, probably in the sixth century, the hermitage—or rather the lodging of a hermit—was composed of three rooms: one for prayer, one for sleep, and one for work. The last, when it was for an elder, was equipped with an acoustic tube opening in front of the door of his lodging. This was done so that, if he wished, he could keep his door bolted and yet converse with someone outside. The sleeping room had a small chamber, the silo or storeroom, in which he kept his provisions.

Add to these rooms of the elder an equal number for each of his disciples, usually disposed to the south of those of the elder and also controlled by a door with a bolt. Moreover, one must take into account that the disciples might have been very numerous: one of the hermitages excavated at Kellia consisted of fifty-eight rooms.

Not all of these rooms served for the lodging of the hermits. There were a certain number of common rooms, rooms thought to have been reception rooms in front of those reserved for the elder but that perhaps served at first as workrooms. Where recent coatings of plaster have fallen, animal bones have been discovered wedged into the walls at a low height. No doubt these were intended to stretch the web for a weaving operation. We must add as common rooms the kitchens, offices, storerooms, and latrines, not to mention the courtyard, with its hydraulic installations (well, basins, and channel system for a garden).

This is mentioned in texts from the fourth century on. Thus, the hermitage of EVAGRIUS was provided with a well. We are therefore far from the first sense of the kella of the Pachomian monk, and the sense habitually given to the word cell. The archaeological evidence for the hermitage as here briefly described is manifold, whether it is fitted up in a tomb or a cave (Badawi, 1953), has been constructed (as in the Kellia hermitages), or hollowed into the tufa of the plateau (as in those of Isna; Sauneron et al., 1972).

We must mention a final sense of the Arabic-Christian word qallayah. Since the bishops had to be celibate, they were chosen very early. That seems common, although not obligatory, from the period of ATHANASIUS, as his festal letters testify. A former monk or hermit who had become a bishop continued to live the cenobitic or hermit life; hence, his residence, or episkopeion, was quite naturally called qallayah. It was the same for a patriarch.

If his dwelling was called kellion, the name qallayah came naturally to describe not only his place of residence but also the whole body of persons who formed his entourage, as one speaks of the “court” of a king. This sense appears to be attested from the tenth century but only in Arabic, not in Coptic.


  • Amélineau, E. Histoire des monastères de la Basse-Egypte. Annales du Musée Guimet 25. Paris, 1894.
  • Badawi, A. “Les Premiers établissements chrétiens dans les anciennes tombes d’Egypte.” In Tome commémoratif du millénaire de la Bibliothèque patriarcale d’Alexandrie, pp. 67-89. Publications de l’Institut d’études orientales de la Bibliothèque patriarcale d’Alexandrie 2. Alexandria, 1953.
  • Draguet, R. “Le Chapître de l’Histoire lausiaque sur les Tabennesiotes dérive-t-il d’une source copte? Le Muséon 57 (1944):54-145; 58 (1945):15-95.
  • Grossmann, P. “Die Unterkunftsbauten des Koinobitenklosters “Dair al-Balayza’ im Vergleich mit den Ermitagen der Mönchen vor Kellia.” In Le Site monastique des Kellia, pp. 33-40. Geneva, 1986.
  • Guillaumont, A. “Une Inscription copte sur la “prière de Jésus.'” Orientalia Christiana Periodica 34 (1968):310-25.
  • Koch, H. Quellen zur Geschichte der Askese und des Mönchtums in der alten Kirche. Sammlung ausgewählter Kirchen- und Dogmengeschichtlicher Quellenschriften 6. Tübingen, 1933.
  • Lefort, L. T. Les Vies coptes de saint Pachôme. Bibliothèque du Muséon 16. Louvain, 1943.
  • Sauneron, S., et al. Les Ermitages chrétiens du désert d’Esna. Fouilles de l’Institut français d’Archéologie orientale . . . du Caire 29. Cairo, 1972.


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