The lodging or dwelling house of a hermit, “one living in the desert,” or anchorite, “one living far removed.” They were probably at first only single-roomed huts that were built, according to geographical circumstances, of stone, wood, or bricks; but at an early time they had already developed into houses with several rooms. Early descriptions are those of Palladius (Historia Lausiaca 8, hermitage of Amun; 18, of Macarius of Alexandria; 35, of John of Lycopolis), and the Historia monachorum (20.9, hermitage of Ammonius).
Many anchorites settled in tombs (Historia Lausiaca 5, 45, 49) or caves in abandoned quarries. In the neighborhood of Isna, furthermore, some monks dug subterranean caves for themselves. If several hermitages became linked together in a loose association, with due regard for more or less intervening space between them, we speak of a laura. Famous lauras are those of SCETIS (today Wad al-Natrun), NITRIA, KELLIA, and ENATON. Other lauras have been identified at ABU MINA, in KOM NAMRUD, and on Sinai, in the neighborhood of Saint Catherine’s monastery (see MOUNT SINAI MONASTERY OF SAINT CATHERINE).
The oldest hermitages so far, belonging to the beginning of the fifth century, were excavated in the Kellia. These are brick buildings half sunk in the ground and containing several small rooms, but they do not yet allow us to recognize any definite system in the arrangement of the individual rooms. Only in the course of the sixth century does a certain regularity in the form of the ground plan begin to prevail. The buildings developed into large rectangular courtyards with living quarters usually accommodated in the northwest corner. These quarters were in each case intended for two hermits, an old father and his disciple, and contained a sleeping room with cupboard rooms for each, as well as a common devotional room for both, or oratorium. This oratory was equipped with a bench in front of the west wall and a prayer niche set into the east wall.
To the east in front of this group of rooms, on a somewhat wider basis, there was a kitchen with a storeroom and also a visiting room. Finally, there are in the courtyard a small garden, a washing place, and a toilet. With increased need for space owing to the arrival of more monks, or even just occasional visitors, further rooms were added. Some of these hermitages grew into stately buildings, several of which even possessed churches of their own.
Very similar complexes, although divergent in their detailed arrangement, have been excavated in Kom Namrud (northwest of Samalut). The main building in each case consists of a wide room furnished with niches, to which are attached two smaller rooms as well as a staircase on the east side. Later a courtyard was added on the south side, with several single rooms arranged on the side lying opposite.
The hermitages of Scetis may have had a different appearance, but these have not so far been investigated. From the rubbish heaps that can be seen, they were built of quarried stone instead of bricks, and had flat roofs of wood.
Substantially simpler are the hermitages that have been identified in the laura in the east of Abu Mna. They have two rooms, of which the larger front room served as a reception room and workroom, while the smaller back room was for sleeping and for prayer. In several cases the latter room was divided yet again, in order to make space for a staircase for an upper story.
- Daumas, F., and A. Guillaumont. Kellia I Kom 219. Fouilles de l’Institut français d’Archéologie orientale 28. Cairo, 1969.
- Grossmann, P. “Die Siedlung im Komring A.” Archäologischer Anzeiger (1967):463-73.
- Kasser, R. Survey archéologique des Kellia. Rapport de la campagne 1981, Vols. 1, 2. Leuven, 1983.
- Sauneron, S., and J. Jaquet. Les ermitages chrétiens du désert d’Esna, 2 vols. Cairo, 1972.