DAYR ANBA SHINUDAH or al-Dayr al-Abyad (White Monastery) (Suhaj)


The church of this famous monastery still exists at the edge of the Libyan desert, on the left bank of the Nile, about 6 miles (10 km) from the town of Suhaj, often mentioned for its medieval paintings.

The name of the site is known from mummy labels, which give the Egyptian name “Atripe” (Arabic, Adribah) and the Hellenized name “Triphiou,” both of which come from the pharaonic Egyptian Hwt-Rpyt (house of [the goddess] Triphis; see Cerny, 1976, p. 343). The place has often been confused with Atrib in the Delta and also with Athlibis, which seems to have been close to it without being identified with it (as by Timm, 1984, Vol. 2, p. 602).

Very early, perhaps before the beginning of the fourth century, the mountain of Adribah was frequented by Christian hermits. The Coptic fragments of the life of the martyr-monks PANINE AND PANEU do not speak of it, but it is mentioned in the long notice of the recension of the from Upper Egypt.

This speaks of their sojourn in the region and names the town of Idfa (not to be confused with the town of Idfu) and Adribah. According to the Coptic tradition of the Synaxarion (7 Kiyahk), the beginnings of Christianity in this region date from long before SHENUTE. For later periods, we must have recourse to the information preserved for us by the Life of Shenute (in Arabic, Shinudah), written by his disciple and successor BESA.

At the age of seven, Shenute was entrusted to his uncle Anba PJOL, who gave him the monastic habit. He lived for some time with his uncle, who was a hermit in the mountain of Adribah, and also with Abshay (in Coptic, Pshoi), the titular head of a monastery near that of Shinudah. He thus in the beginning followed the life of a hermit, and it is related in his Life, especially in the Arabic Life, that he often went off alone far into the desert and gave orders that he was not to be disturbed under any pretext. We have no documents to fix the chronology of the events in the life of Shenute.

We know only that he took part with Patriarch CYRIL I in the Council of EPHESUS in 431, that he struggled violently against all the manifestations of paganism still alive at Plewit (the present Banawit) and at Akhmim, and that he died in 466 (Bethune-Baker, 1908, pp. 601-605).

His immediate successor was his disciple and biographer Besa, who died after 474 (see Kuhn, 1954, pp. 36-48; 174-87; 1955, vol. 6, pp. 35, 48). After him ZENOBIOS, who had been Shenute’s secretary, was archimandrite. It is known that he died on 6 Amshir, for he was celebrated on that day according to the Typika (calendar). The Sahidic recension of the devotes a notice to him at the same day, and says that he founded a monastery of women opposite al-Mara’igh, near Akhmim, a locality still in existence (Ramzi, 1953-1963, Vol. 2, pt. 4, p. 124).

A leaf of parchment in East Berlin (Staatsbibliothek, Oct. 1609r., tenth to eleventh centuries) preserves a list of the archimandrites to be commemorated at the time of the eucharistic liturgy. It mentions, after PACHOMIUS, Shenute and Besa (curiously, Zenobios is not named), Aaron, John, Menas, David, and Andrew.

We must have recourse to the of the papyri to find some names of abbots between the fifth and eighth centuries. We know a Peter, priest and archimandrite in A.D. 567 “of the monastery of Saint Shenute . . . situated in the mountain of Triphiou in the Panopolite nome.” In another papyrus of the sixth century (Zeretelli and Jernstedt, 1925-1935, Vol. 3, no. 48) there is mention of a pronoetes (administrator) of the holy monastery, named Koursios, son of Joseph(ius).

In another papyrus of 709 (Bell, 1910, Vol. 4, no. 1460) the monastery is called “of Saint Shenute,” with others in the nome of Panopolis (Akhmim) and that of Aphrodito (Kom Ishqaw). In a papyrus of the eighth century (no. 1471) it is mentioned again.

The festal letter (in Greek) from the Patriarch II (705-730) is probably addressed to Gennadius, abbot of the monastery (ed. Schmidt and Schubart, 1907, Vol. 6, pp. 55-109; Leclercq, 1937, cols. 1370-1520; Schubart, 1911, pl. 50). The HISTORY OF THE PATRIARCHS, in the notice on the patriarch II, names the holy and remarkable men and places among them “Apa Seth, archimandrite of the monastery of Saint Shinudah, on the mountain of Adribah.”

We have thus the period (eighth century) of this saint, indicated in the Typika of the monastery of Shenute and the Sahidic recension of the at 29 Tobe (Coquin, 1978, p. 361).

The History of the Patriarchs also relates in the time of KHA’IL I, the forty-sixth patriarch (744-767), an event that happened to the governor al- ibn ‘Ubayd Allah. He came to the monastery and wanted to enter the church on horseback with his troops and his favorite concubine. The superior, whose name is not given but who is said to have been aged, wished to forbid the woman to enter the church, but the governor pressed on.

Then their horses fell and the concubine died. The governor understood, and gave the monastery 400 dinars as an offering. He wanted to carry off a wooden chest, the property of the monastery, but thirty men could not move it. In the face of this miracle, he made a gift to the monastery of a further 300 dinars.

In the same notice of the patriarch Kha’il I there is mention of Paul, bishop of and “second superior of the monastery of Saint Shinudah.” The formula is obscure. It could indicate a bishop who had been deuterarios (prior, i. e., the second in rank after the abbot) before becoming bishop. This is not impossible. It could also refer to a bishop who was also superior of the monastery. It is well to note that the text uses the imperfect “was,” or better “had been,” and that the oldest manuscript (Hamburg Orient. 26) does not have the adjective al-thani, “second” (see Seybold, 1912, p. 204, ll. 1ff.).

The fratricidal war waged between al-Mu‘tazz and al-Musta‘in (about 866) affected many places, among them, according to the History of the Patriarchs, “the monastery of Abu Shinudah,” without specifying the site. It is no doubt the monastery of Saint Shinudah, the best known of those dedicated to this saint.

In the eighth or ninth century, according to the Synaxarion (Sahidic recension) at 23 Kiyahk, Qafri, nephew through his father of a king of Nubia, after spending three years in a Pachomian monastery, obtained permission to visit a friend at the monastery of Shinudah (probably that of Adribah). This story also appears in a collection of forty stories of monks, of which those concerning this Qafri have been and translated by Crum (1932; Graf dates these stories to the seventh or eighth century; 1944, Vol. 1, p. 385).

For the period from the tenth to the thirteenth century, we have valuable information in the colophons of the manuscripts written for the library of this monastery or deposited in it. These codices have been divided up and dispersed among the libraries of the world, but the colophons have been patiently reunited, though without translation, but with numerous notes by A. van Lantschoot (1929). The most ancient of these codices, written “for the monastery of Shenute at Atripe,” mentions Chael (Michael) as archimandrite; the manuscript is dated to 927-928 (van Lantschoot, 1929, p. 82).

Another manuscript also names this archimandrite in 939-940 (van Lantschoot, 1929, pp. 84-86). The colophon of another manuscript, dated toward 1000, names the donor as Kolthe (Colluthus), superior of a monastery of Shenute, but although the leaf that contains the colophon comes from the library of the White Monastery, it no doubt refers to a monastery of the same name established at Rifah, near Asyut (van Lantschoot, 1929, pp. 112-13).

In another colophon, which the author dates from about the eleventh century, we cannot know who was the donor because of a lacuna, although the scribes were of the monastery of Karfunah (an imitation of the Greek graphon or scribe) near Asyut; the leaf was found in the library of the White Monastery. The name of the donor has been scratched out (van Lantschoot, 1929, pp. 114-15). The same fate befell a colophon in van Lantschoot’s collection (pp. 116-17).

First written for the monastery of Severus at Rifah, it later passed, for an unknown reason, into the library of the monastery of Adribah. A manuscript dated about 920-950 was written by Basil, steward of the White Monastery, for his monastery. The same thing is noted for the following manuscript (van Lantschoot, 1929, pp. 126-27). The manuscript next cataloged was copied by a monk of the White Monastery with a view to being given to the Monastery of the Virgin “in the desert of Apa Shenute, at Atripe.” Van Lantschoot thinks (fasc. 2, p. 51) that it refers to a topos (church or monastery) situated not far from the White Monastery.

The same colophon contains a prayer for the patriarch CYRIL II (1078-1092), which allows us to know the relative date of the manuscript, and also for the bishop of and the superior at the time, Klaute (Claudius; the manuscript is dated 1091). The colophon cataloged under the number LXXIX (van Lantschoot, pp. 132-33) also comes from the library of the White Monastery, to which it was given, but it supplies no further information. The following number (LXXX, pp. 133-37) is more loquacious. It indicates as contemporaries the II (1102-1128), the bishop of Akhmim, John (the name is partly erased), the archimandrite Paul, known from other sources, and the deuterarios Pecosh. It is dated 1112.

The colophon numbered LXXXI by van Lantschoot (pp. 137-39) mentions a church dedicated to Saint Seth (probably, for the proper name is in a lacuna), to the south of the White Monastery. This topographical indication is interesting; this manuscript, a lectionary, is dated 1118. The colophon of the manuscript numbered LXXXV by van Lantschoot (pp. 145-47) indicates the donor of the codex, the White Monastery, and the name of the superior of the time, Victor. The manuscript is dated 985.

Colophon number LXXXVII is notable, for it indicates that it was written for the house of the stewards of the White Monastery, and that this was in the eighth year of Apa Seth’s rule as superior. We thus learn the date of the beginning of his rule. Van Lantschoot dates this manuscript to the tenth century, but we know that Apa Seth, unless it is another man of the same name, lived under the patriarch II.

The codex whose colophon is numbered XCII by van Lantschoot (pp. 155-56) was made for the Church of the Virgin in the Desert of Apa Shenute (such was the true primitive title of the church; Shenute could not give his church any other titular). The manuscript whose colophon is cataloged by van Lantschoot under the number XCIII (pp. 157-58) was given to the church of the Monastery of Saint Shenute at Atripe.

The colophon cataloged under the number XCI (pp. 153-55) indicates the archimandrite then in office, Apa Ioustos, “having power over the holy synagogue [community].” This codex would be of the tenth century. The manuscript with colophon number XCVI (pp. 161-62) was given to the monastery of Apa Shenute, at Atripe.

Colophons CI and CII are particularly interesting for the history of the monastery of Shenute and for that of all Egypt. They note, in fact, that the two codices of which they formed part were carried off as booty by the Ghuzz troops who under the leadership of Shirkuh made an incursion into Egypt in 1167, pillaging the monasteries. The manuscript of colophon CII is a Coptic Life of Saint Pachomius.

In the notice devoted to the patriarch Cyril II, the History of the Patriarchs gives a list of relics preserved in Egypt, and notes that the monastery of Anba Shinudah near preserves the relics of two apostles, Bartholomew and Simon the Zealot.

ABU SALIH THE ARMENIAN (beginning of the thirteenth century) devotes a long notice to the monastery. He mentions the relics of the two apostles and those of the founder Shenute, which are said to have been carried off at the time of Shirkuh’s invasion, hence in 1167. Then he mentions the episode of al- ibn ‘Ubayd Allah, indicating as his source the History of the Patriarchs.

Later he reports the story of Bahram, the Armenian minister who ended his days at the White Monastery. Abu Salih’s is precious here, for the Muslim historians use the plural “the white monasteries” for Bahram’s final residence. One might thus have some doubt that by this expression they meant the monastery of Anba Shenute.

Thanks to the inscriptions from the church that have been published by Crum (1904, pp. 552-69) we learn some interesting dates. The apse fresco representing a maiestas Domini is accompanied by a bilingual notice in Coptic and Armenian saying that this fresco was executed in the time of the archimandrite Paul, Ezekiel being the deuterarios in 1124.

Another speaks of the patriarchate of LAQLAQ (1235-1243), the name of the archimandrite appearing to be John. He seems to be named in another inscription, dated this time 1258. The badly damaged painting of Saint Michael to the left of the left apse indicates the name of the archimandrite, Phoibammon, but unfortunately is not dated.

In a passage that gives access to the south lateral apse, a table indicating the movable feasts associated with Easter for the years 1095 to 1219 was discovered in 1973, and another text mentions the rebuilding of the cupolas in 1259, as well as a history of the Coptic church in Coptic, beginning with Benjamin, unfortunately with many lacunae. The inscriptions in Armenian testify to the influence of the Armenian community in Egypt thanks to the power of Bahram, who has already been mentioned.

Three Armenian inscriptions on the fresco of the central apse bear witness to this influence (Strzygowski, 1918, pp. 731-32, 781; Clédat, 1910, Vol. 2, cols. 209ff.). An inscription, regrettably undated, mentions the painter Mercurius, no doubt the same who left a graffito dated 1301 in the neighboring Dayr Anba Bishoi. He was a monk at Adribah, and left inscriptions at ISNA (see Coquin, 1975, pp. 275ff.) and at Aswan (see Clédat, 1910, p. 51). That of is dated 1315-1316, that of Aswan 1317-1318.

The story of Bahram, which is reported in summary form by Abu Salih, has been studied in detail by M. Canard in two articles (1954, pp. 84-113, and 1955, pp. 143-57). His power lasted from 1135 to 1137, and during this time the influence of the Armenians became very important in Egypt. The History of the Patriarchs also makes reference to Bahram (Vol. 3, pt. 1, p. 31 [text], p. 50 [trans.]).

Canard considers that we must follow Abu Salih and hence that Bahram became a monk at the White Monastery and not in another monastery of the same name near Aswan. He thinks that the plural indicates the two neighboring monasteries, that of Shenute and that of Pshoi, the popular name of the one being applied for convenience to the second. Canard also presents a discussion of the date of the fresco of the central apse.

Al-MAQRIZI (d. 1441) gives a fairly long notice in his roll of the monasteries of Egypt (1853, Vol. 2, p. 507). He knows the “Coptic” name “monastery of Saint Sinuthius,” but he also knows the popular name, “also called the White Monastery.” He situates it correctly “to the west of the province of Suhaj.” He knows that it is ruined and that nothing remains but the church, which is built of dressed stone. He reports a rumor that the monastery possessed 4¾ feddans (about 7.5 acres).

Finally he notes its antiquity. It will be gathered from this description that already in his time (fifteenth century) nothing remained but the famous church. We cannot say when and how the monastery disappeared. We may remark in passing that the name “White Monastery” was already known to Yaqut (d. 1229), who gives it in his geographical dictionary (Yaqut, 1866-1873, Vol. 2, p. 641), but we do not know the source of Yaqut’s information.

We must link with the sixteenth century an Ethiopian inscription that was in a square before it was demolished at the time of the restorations in 1907, in the nave of the church and sheltering the pulpit (Lefebvre, 1916, Vol. 4, col. 493). It has been studied by Conti Rossini (1923, pp. 461-62), who dates it to 1563 and thinks that it was made by a member of a caravan of pilgrims visiting the holy places. V. de Bock at the beginning of this century wrongly dated it to 1730 (1901, p. 64).

Conti Rossini thinks that a small Ethiopian community lived, at least for some time, at the monastery of Shenute, which would not be surprising since the Ethiopians had staging-posts at DAYR AL-MUHARRAQ, in the Wadi al-Natrun, and in Cairo on the road to Jerusalem.

A manuscript was written in 1587 for the monastery of Shenute on the mountain of Adribah (Crum, 1905, no. 866).

We have a final witness in an undated act of waqf (legacy); the writing of the codex is of the seventeenth century (National Library, Paris, Arabe 4761; Troupeau, 1972-1974, Vol. 2, p. 18). With the same century we must link the Miracles of Ptolemy (this is at least the date [1606] of the sole published manuscript), which mentions a monastery of women near that of Shinudah at Atripe (PO 5, fasc. 5, p. 791).

Thereafter we have the reports of European travelers. The first among them to press his investigations so far into Upper Egypt appears to have been J. VANSLEB, describing the “monastery of Saint Sennode the archimandrite, called the White [Monastery]”; he was to note at the entrance of the choir two very fine columns of granite, and on the one on the left an epitaph to a certain Heliodorus. Though neither G. Lefebvre nor U. Monneret de Villard was able to find it and declared it vanished, it was indeed visible in April 1973.

This is the more astonishing in that Lefebvre was to find at a similar column bearing the same epitaph with the same engraving. It is, without doubt, a case of a pair of columns from a pagan temple. It is astonishing that Lefebvre did not make the connection and note this reuse (Vansleb, 1677, pp. 372-74; English ed. 1678, pp. 223-25). He remarks that the church is demolished and that only the sanctuary is intact, which is still the present state.

We may also draw attention to the observations of other travelers. C. SICARD in 1722-1723 named it “monastery of Saint Sennodius,” but did not linger there (1982, Vol. 2, pp. 225, 270). R. POCOCKE also mentioned it in A Description of the East (Vol. 1, pp. 79-80), as did Granger (1745, pp. 92-96) and F. L. Norden (1795-1798, Vol. 2, pp. 69-70 and pl. 89). Jean Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville noted it in his map of Egypt. Finally V. Denon accompanied Napoleon there (1802, Vol. 1, pp. 157ff.).

For the nineteenth century, it is appropriate to mention G. Wilkinson (1843, Vol. 2, pp. 19, 98-102) and R. Curzon (1857, pp. 121-26). Butler described it in his Ancient Coptic Churches of Egypt (Vol. 1, pp. 351-57). For the beginning of the twentieth century we must cite the works of de Bock (1901, pp. 39-60, 68-70, 80-84), C. R. Peers (1904, pp. 131-53), W. M. F. Petrie (1908, pp. 13-5), and S. CLARKE (1912, pp. 145-61).

The Comité de conservation des monuments de l’art arabe gave all its care to this jewel of Coptic art, as its Bulletin proves. Thus one may consult the numbers of 1898 (pp. 67-72, “Notice sur les monuments coptes de la vallée du Nil,” by de Bock), 1901 and 1903 (watercolors by Clédat of the frescoes of the Dayr al-Abyad; reproduced in Simaykah, 1932, in Arabic, Vol. 2, p. 129), 1904 (p. 28, projects of restoration), 1906 (pp. 68, discovery of manuscripts), 1907 (pp. 26 and 36, discovery of gold dinars and of manuscripts), 1908 (p. 59, Herz’s report), 1910 (p. 39; photos available), and 1912 (pp. 191-98, Simaykah’s report).

These projects were to be made use of by Monneret de Villard in his two volumes, Les couvents près de Sohag, a study at once historical and architectural. This was followed by A. L. Schmitz, “Das weisse und das rote Kloster” (1927).

The monastery is a popular place of pilgrimage, especially on 7 Abib, the feast of Saint Shinudah (1979, Viaud, pp. 55-56). [See also Abu al-Makarim.]


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Little is as yet known of the layout of the monastery. Through digging in 1908 south of the church, Flinders Petrie was able to identify a large building complex surrounded by a mud brick wall, which he rightly recognized as part of the former monastery. The ground plan of the area corresponds roughly to a triangle, in which the west walls once continued farther to the north beyond the end now visible. The present north wall, which in its main section, follows an obliquely curving course, appears to have been merely an internal part wall to separate one section. The final extension to the north cannot be determined. In the same way, the boundary on the side toward the wheat fields has not survived. A large gate was identified on the south side, while on the west there is a smaller one.

In the 1980s the Egyptian Antiquities Organization started to conduct some excavations in the area of the ancient monastery. One of the major buildings is a rather well-preserved lodging house situated about 656 feet (200 m) to the west of the church at the western side of a large central square. Originally it comprised several floors, each with a number of long halls of equal size for the accommodation of the monks, for storage rooms, and for two staircases.

All outer doors are nicely decorated with framing pilasters. At the eastern side of the same square, and thus closer to the church, stands a four-pillar building, in which a refectory can be recognized. The ruins to the north of it point to the existence of a large kitchen. Traces of buildings that might be identified as latrines are visible in the southern area.

Among the constructions outside the walls of the monastery are a quarry northwest, from which the majority of the material for the church probably came. On the upper desert plateau there is a small completely buried with sand, which can be reached after a walk of about two and one-half hours.

The Church

The church of the monastery consists of an immense blocklike structure, widely visible, which recalls the form of a pharaonic temple (Deichmann, 1938, p. 34). Inside, it comprises several large spatial units, of which the area belonging to the church proper is on the north side. It may be divided into the western narthex, the naos, developed as a three-aisle basilica with a western return aisle and galleries, and in the east the group of rooms forming the sanctuary.

In the autumn of 1984 the naos was cleared of its modern civilian structures by the Egyptian Antiquities Organization, and it again presents some impression of its original greatness. The sanctuary of the church is developed as a triconch, the walls of which are adorned with niches and applied columns.

The altar must have stood in the center of the triconch. The slightly elevated presbytery extends for a small distance beyond the triumphal arch into the nave. At its western border two columns were once standing, belonging, as in the church of Dayr Anba Bishoi, to a second triumphal arch. The remaining rooms of the sanctuary fulfill subsidiary functions. On the north side is a staircase; in the octagonal southeast side room were the remains of a baptismal font. The significance of the rooms lying on the south side of the church is not clear. The eastern domed room with its many large niches could have been a library, while the long so-called south with its large west apse was perhaps a chapter house.

There is scarcely any doubt that Shenute was the founder of this church. It is accordingly to be dated before the middle of the fifth century. At a date not exactly fixed, perhaps on the occasion of the Persian conquest of Egypt in 619, the church suffered severe damage by fire, after which the parts that had collapsed were rebuilt in ordinary fired bricks, but in exact conformity with the original plan. Even the lost granite pillars in the nave were built up again in bricks.

Somewhere about the ninth century—corresponding to the usage of the time—a three-part khurus (room between naos and sanctuary) with a high central opening was placed in front of the sanctuary. The domed vaulting over the center of the sanctuary derives from the middle of the thirteenth century (Grossmann, 1982, p. 120, n. 501). The domed vaulting over the khurus is even later.

On the basis of its construction this church is beyond doubt the most important monument of early Christian architecture in Upper Egypt. It had a high architectural influence on church building in this region.


  • Bock, V. de. Matériaux pour servir à l’archéologie de l’Egypte chrétienne, pp. 39-60. St. Petersburg, 1901.
  • Clarke, S. Christian Antiquities in the Nile Valley, pp. 145-61. Oxford, 1912.
  • Deichmann, F. W. “Zum Altägyptischen in der koptischen Baukunst.” Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts—Abteilung Kairo 8 (1938):34-37.
  • Evers, H. G., and R. Romero. “Rotes und Weisses Kloster bei Sohag, Probleme der Rekonstruktion.” In Christentum am Nil, ed. K. Wessel, pp. 175-94. Recklinghausen, 1964.
  • Grossmann, P. “Sohag.” Archiv für Orientforschung 25 (1974-1977):323-25.
  • . Mittelalterliche Langhauskuppelkirchen und verwandte Typen in Oberägypten. Glückstadt, 1982.
  • . “New Observations in the Church and Sanctuary of Dayr Anba Sinuda.” Annales du Service des antiquités de l’Egypte 70 (1984):69-73.
  • Monneret de Villard, U. Les couvents près de Sohag, Vols. 1 and 2. Milan, 1925-1926.
  • Petrie, W. M. F. “Athribis.” British School of Archeology in Egypt 14 (1908):13-15.


Architectural Sculpture

The architectural sculpture of the Church of Saint Shenute is one of the most important complexes of early Christian art in Egypt. Since this sculpture is unusually manifold in terms of materials, composition, and artistic impression, it has often had a confusing effect, has been variously assessed, and down to modern times has repeatedly been incorrectly dated (e. g., Akermann, 1976, pp. 7-9, following Drioton, 1942, pp. 10-11).

The complete wallwork of square limestone blocks seems to consist of reused, newly dressed material. The decorated pieces of work are to be divided into four groups: (1) older pieces that have been reused unchanged; (2) older pieces that have been worked over extensively or in part; (3) pieces made specially for the building itself; and (4) pieces later inserted into the remains of the original ensemble as a result of repairs (these include pieces deriving from the building and foreign material from other buildings). As a rule, the pieces in granite belong to the first two groups, those in marble to groups 1 and 4, those in limestone to groups 3 and 4.

In the entrances, older unchanged pieces in granite and newly cut pieces have been combined with isolated newly wrought decorative pieces in limestone (pilaster capitals) to form a new shole (foundation) (for details, see Deichmann, 1975, pp. 56-57). The granite columns and imperial granite capitals on the ground floor of the nave were taken over unchanged, as were the granite half- columns of the wall niches of the south narthex.

On a granite slab in the floor of the nave, traces of hieroglyphs are still visible on the upper surface. Since they could have been chipped away, or the slab let in upside down, the ideological intention can be clearly grasped: to profane signs formerly regarded as sacred and to provide conspicuous proof of the Christian victory over paganism. In addition to these elements of granite architecture, marble pieces (e.g., capitals for the gallery story and column shafts) were reused in the church.

Alongside these reused pieces, which at least in part were quite clearly put on display as spoils or trophies of Christian victory, the church had an extensive amount of architectural sculpture in limestone made for this building. The reuse of older pieces was not simply a question of economy, utilitarian considerations, or lack of ability. Some of this rich decoration, wrought about the middle of the fifth century, is found in situ, for example, in the west narthex, wall niches and northern pillar setting; in the south narthex, niches and pilasters of the east facade and impost moldings; in the nave, wall niches and impost moldings; in the baptistery, the entire decoration, and further pilaster capitals at individual entrances.

The architectural sculpture in the sanctuary of the triconch was particularly splendid: columns with entablatures and cornices on two levels in front of the wall, and behind them an alternating system of wall niches (barrel-vaulted rectangular niches flanked by pilasters interchanging with hemispherical-vaulted semicircular niches flanked by half-columns, each crowned by a “broken” gable). This decoration was, however, severely damaged as a result of a partial collapse, and little remains in place other than some wall niches.

The composition of the columns with entablatures and columns is the result of extensive repairs and contains the wreckage of the original decoration put together in makeshift fashion and complemented by the insertion of foreign material, including marble pieces. The original decoration of the triconch must in any case have been a homogeneous ensemble of contemporary local limestone sculpture (without the use of spolia). One can form a rough estimate of its effect by comparison with the well-preserved but much more modest decoration in the triconch of the church of DAYR ANBA BISHOI.

The architectural sculpture in the church of the monastery of Shenute is thus a unique, self-assured mixture of old pieces triumphantly pressed into the service of the Christian cult and of monumental contemporary decoration. The remains of the original decoration in limestone are an addition of considerable significance, since they provide a fixed point for many categories of architectural sculpture.


  • Akermann, P. Le décor sculpté du Couvent blanc. Niches et frises. Bibliothèque d’études coptes 14. Cairo, 1977.
  • Deichmann, F. W. Die Spolien in der spätantiken Architektur, pp. 54-60. Munich, 1975.
  • Drioton, Etienne. Les Sculptures coptes du nilomètre de Rodah. Cairo, 1942.
  • Monneret de Villard, U. Les Couvents près de Sohag, Vols. 1 and 2, pp. 121ff. Milan, 1925-1926.