A small semi-anchoritic community that existed around 580-640 on the “Holy Hill of Djeme” (Madinat Habu) in Western Thebes in Upper Egypt. The hermits who dwelled there had, like those in Kellia, Nitria, and Scetis, formed a laura around the cell of a Monophysite Coptic anchorite. In this case, it was Epiphanius who had taken up residence in the Eleventh Dynasty tomb of the vizier Daga. The site, first identified in 1820 by Yanni Athanasi, was thoroughly excavated by the staff of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1912 and 1914. The most important of the artifacts discovered are today found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Cairo Museum.
As indicated by the terms of a seventh-century will in which a certain Jacob and Elias bequeathed the topos (site) of the monastery to another monk named Stephen, the boundaries of the whole community encompassed about 47 acres. This tract was on the southwestern slopes of what is today known as Shaykh ‘Abd al- Qurnah Hill, near the modern villages of Qurnah and Ba‘arat. It provided the hermits with a good view of the Nile River, the neighboring site of the Monastery of Cyriacus, and the major track to Dayr al-Bahari. The mouth of the Valley of the Kings near the Nile lay approximately a mile to the northeast.
Found within the boundaries of the Monastery of Epiphanius were “dwelling places” located in the entrances to, and interiors of, six dynastic tombs, as well as some twenty separate rooms with walls of brick and/or stone. During the life of the community, two towers, or keeps, were built to provide places of vigil and refuge. The first, on which Epiphanius himself had worked, was 33 feet (10 m) square at the base and some 50 feet (16 m) high. The second was not as tall. Evidence uncovered indicates that some monks dwelled in cells within these keeps. Interestingly, no traces of a church or a common eating place have been uncovered.
The entire complex was surrounded by a brick wall some 2.75 feet (70 cm) thick, to which there was later added an eastern extension. The wall had two entrances, one on the east side and the other on the north. Lying beyond these entrances were three cells that were probably occupied by members of the monastic community. Also outside the boundary wall, on the northwest side of the monastery, was a small cemetery that contained a maximum of eleven graves. Because the total population of the community seems to have been larger (some fifty- five different names are found in texts recovered), it is probable that only prominent members of the monastery were buried there, and the rest, elsewhere.
As is true of most of the anchorite settlements in Upper Egypt, a precise date for the founding of the community of Epiphanius cannot be established. Its general historical development, however, can be reconstructed. Analysis of surviving literary remains led Winlock and Crum (1926, Pt. 1, pp. xxvi, 220) to conclude that Epiphanius himself arrived at the Hill of Djeme around, or just prior to, the beginning of the sixth century. At that time, as indicated in several ostraca, his contemporaries and perhaps predecessors would have been other anchorites: Apa Moses, Apa John, Enoch, Apa Victor. Epiphanius himself may have gone there from a cenobitic monastic community in Upper Egypt that had been formed on the Pachomian model. If so, he may have been seeking a more solitary life, emulating Christ’s own retreat to do battle with temptation in the wilderness.
Epiphanius probably supported himself by various humble crafts, such as spinning, weaving, making ropes and mats, and doing leather work. Over time, his reputation for piety, wise counsel, and perhaps miracles of healing grew. Other hermits were attracted to him. Lay persons and fellow monks engaged him in a growing correspondence, seeking his help and prayerful intercession regarding such issues as sickness, bereavement, imprisonment, hunger, poverty, and salvation itself. Civic officials in nearby Djeme, bishops such as PISENTIUS of Coptos, and fellow monks increasingly addressed him as one revered and venerated, as one who had the power to benefit them. Though he is never addressed with the title of any formal office, it is clear that Epiphanius exercised some type of headship over the monastic community.
His correspondents referred to him with such appellations as “holy father,” he “that truly beareth Christ” and pneumatoforos, “perfect in all virtues,” “the new psalmist,” and “the prophet.” In turn, these correspondents often referred to themselves as his “humblest servants” who venerate the dust of his feet and even his footprints. Following his death, pilgrims to the tomb of Daga left graffiti on the walls that invoke the help of Epiphanius in seeking God’s favor.
There is also evidence, however, that the revered anchorite was not left isolated from important events in the larger world beyond Western Thebes. Three letters allude to “Persians” arriving, occupying, and then being evacuated from the Theban area. When read in light of other writings found in the monastery ruins— writings from DAMIAN (patriarch at Alexandria in 569-605), Pisentius of Coptos, and Apa Abraham (bishop of Ermont and head of the Monastery of Saint Phoibammon at Dayr al-Bahar in the early seventh century)—these allusions clearly refer to the Persian occupation of Egypt under Chosroes II in 616-628. During that period, according to his extant biography, Pisentius of Coptos fled southward to Djeme.
There he probably took refuge with his revered friend Epiphanius prior to hiding out in a rock tomb in the desert, possibly in the Valley of the Kings. Many letters addressed to the bishop were preserved by Epiphanius, who appears to have acted as a go-between and thus seems to have engaged in a form of passive resistance to the Persians.
Since the will left by Apa Jacob and Apa Elias in the first half of the seventh century speaks of both Epiphanius and his disciple and successor Apa Psan as now deceased, it is possible that Epiphanius died before the end of the Persian occupation. Complete silence about the Arabs in literary remnants from the monastery seems to indicate that after the death of Epiphanius, the community declined and the site became virtually deserted either prior to or shortly after the ARAB CONQUEST OF EGYPT.
The provision of separate dwellings for single hermits and groups, the lack of a central church or communal dining facility, and the following of individual “polity” instead of rules and canons like those of PACHOMIUS or ATHANASIUS all underscore the loose, semi-anchoritic organization of the Monastery of Epiphanius. Its informal life is further indicated by the lack of evidence for such things as a training period for monks prior to their admission to the community, preliminary tonsure, or oblates.
Resident monks seem in the main to have been Egyptians. The presence of graffiti and practice alphabets written in Syriac, however, suggest that a few Syrian monks lived there. Such would not be unnatural, given the close relations between the Egyptian and Syrian branches of the Monophysite church in the sixth and seventh centuries.
Food consumed was typical of that found among Pachomian monks of southern Egypt. The staples were bread (made from wheat), salt, vinegar, water. Letters recovered also indicate receipt of occasional gifts of green vegetables. More rarely mentioned in recovered literary remains are lentils, beans, fruit (especially figs), honey, pickles, milk, eggs. Oil was provided for invalids. Numerous amphorae indicate the use of wine, at least on special occasions and feast days.
Texts painted on the vestibules of monk cells, as well as remnants of theological books and tracts they read, provide reliable evidence of theological views. Long extracts have been found from the works of SEVERUS OF ANTIOCH, Cyria, Athanasius, DIOSCURUS, TIMOTHY II AELURUS, and Peter the Iberian. The Monophysite doctrine of Damian, patriarch of Alexandria, was dominant at the time of Epiphanius. Though preoccupation with doctrinal subtleties is not evidenced, there was interest in ascetic ideals commonly associated with the monastic life.
In addition to meditation and prayer, the hermits of the Monastery of Epiphanius engaged in several types of income- producing work: rope, mat, and basket-making; weaving and tailoring of linen; the preparation of flax and some wool for weaving; leatherwork (including bookbinding); pottery making; and baking. Both for themselves and for occasional suppliants, the monks would offer home remedies and prayers for the sick, as well as special blessings and “eulogies” to convey the blessings, such as a piece of blessed bread. They would also observe certain fasts, especially Lent, maintain vigils prior to key festivals, write letters of introduction, appeal for the poor, intervene to secure the release of prisoners, and commemorate the dead.
Literary remnants of the community include texts written in Sahidic Coptic (displaying significant subakhmimic influences), Greek, and Syriac. The largest group comprises letters, mostly on ostraca, many probably being informal communiques between monks possibly committed to vows of silence. Also found are texts that are biblical (mainly from the Old Testament), liturgical (mostly prayers), homiletic (moralizing compositions), legal (wills, deeds), epistolary (intended for circulation), patristic, and dogmatic.
Accounts (records of payments) and lists appear also, as do graffiti, school pieces, and some frescoed texts from the tomb of Daga. Materials used include parchment, wood, papyrus, and ostraca. Such a hoard of literary evidence has proven vitally important in interpretation of the other archaeological remains.
- Bouriant, U. “L’Eglise copte du tombeau de Déga.” Mémoires publiés par les membres de la Mission archéologique française au Caire I, 1 (1881-1884):33-50.
- Johann Georg, Duke of Saxony. Neue Streifzüge durch die Kirchen und Kloster Ägyptens. Berlin, 1931.
- Winlock, H. E., and W. E. Crum. The Monastery of Epiphanius at Thebes. 2 vols. New York, 1926-1933.
MALCOLM L. PEEL