History of the Site

The Kellia is one of the most important and most celebrated monastic groupings in Lower Egypt. Its location long remained uncertain. In 1935 Omar Toussoun wrongly believed he had discovered its ruins near the northwest extremity of the Wadi al- Natrun. It was the exact location of the ancient Nitria by H. G. Evelyn-White (1926-1933, Vol. 2, p. 1932) in the Delta that made it possible to identify the site of the Kellia, which the ancient texts situate between Nitria and Scetis. This identification, already proposed by A. F. C. de Cosson in 1937, was definitively established in 1964 by A. Guillaumont. The site is at the entrance to the Libyan desert, some 11 miles (18 km) south of al-Barnuji, the ancient Nitria, two miles beyond the Nubariyyah canal.

A foundation story reported in the APOPHTHEGMATA PATRUM makes plain the link that existed between Nitria and the Kellia. The new habitat was founded by AMMON, on the advice of Saint ANTONY, for those monks who wished to live in a greater solitude than at Nitria. The monks, who lived in cells scattered in the desert, practiced a semi-anchoritism: on Saturdays and Sundays they all assembled at the church, celebrating the liturgy or synaxis together and sharing a meal taken in common. According to PALLADIUS, nearly 600 monks were living in the Kellia at the end of the fourth century.

The priest-monk who officiated at the church exercised a certain authority over them all, particularly a spiritual authority; he was assisted for serious matters by a council formed from the oldest. The best-known priest of the Kellia at the end of the fourth century was MACARIUS ALEXANDRINUS. Within this fairly loose organization, the monks could group themselves into “fraternities,” the most widely known of which is the one that gathered around EVAGRIUS and AMMONIUS.

This was the community of monks considered as Origenists, against whom a disciplinary expedition was directed at the beginning of 400, under the orders of the patriarch THEOPHILUS (385-412). Among the monks who were then forced into exile, and who were later able to return to the Kellia, was Apa ISAAC, who when he became priest of the Kellia added a hostelry to the church for passing strangers and for sick monks, as was already the case in Nitria. At this period there was still only a single church in the Kellia.

The ecclesiastical dissensions that arose in the course of the fifth century following the Council of CHALCEDON were the cause of other troubles and more serious divisions among the monks of the Kellia. As we learn from an apothegm under the name of Phocas, it was necessary to build another church, in order that Chalcedonian and anti-Chalcedonian monks might each have their own. As this apothegm also shows, it was in the course of this century that the cells, while remaining hermitages, tended to become grouped into monasteries, the most remote being gradually abandoned. This was probably to escape the dangers to which the monks were exposed by the incursions of the nomads, who devastated Scetis several times during the fifth century.

Important evidence about the Kellia in the seventh century is furnished by the Book of the Consecration of the Sanctuary of Benjamin, an account of a journey of the patriarch BENJAMIN I (622-661) to the Wadi al-Natrun to consecrate the new church of the DAYR ANBA MAQAR in the winter of 645-646 or 646-647 (Coquin, 1975, p. 59). During this journey, as narrated by his companion, the priest AGATHON (Benjamin’s successor), the patriarch stopped for two days with the monks of the Kellia, some of whom thereafter guided him on the road to the Wadi al-Natrun. This text, preserved in Coptic and in Arabic, has been summarized by SAWIRUS IBN AL-MUQAFFA‘ in his HISTORY OF THE PATRIARCHS; in the Coptic text the Kellia is called niri (niri), “the cells,” which is the translation of the Greek name.

The corresponding term in the Arabic text of Sawirus is al-Muna, which is probably a transcription of the Greek moné, a synonym of kellion. It is in fact under this appellation of al-Muna that the Kellia is mentioned in Arabic authors. According to the same work, Benjamin had already visited al-Muna in 631. When fleeing before the Melchite patriarch Cyrus, he went first to the Wadi al-Natrun and then to Upper Egypt. The same work affirms elsewhere that it was thanks to the patriarch Benjamin that “the reconstruction was undertaken of the monasteries of the Wadi Habib [Wadi al-Natrun] and al-Muna,” which had been destroyed in unknown circumstances in the period of the patriarch DAMIAN (569-605) or his successor ATHANASIUS (605-616).

The same History of the Patriarchs informs us about the Kellia in the course of the eighth century. It is related that under the patriarch II (705-730), John, bishop of Sais, charged by the Muslim governor with collecting the taxes due from the Christians, came to al-Muna, where he won back to orthodoxy the Gaianite and Barsanuphian monks who were there, proof that the divisions which arose in the Coptic church during the sixth century had a lasting effect among the monks of the Kellia, as among those of Scetis (Evetts 1904-1909, vol. 3, pp. 62-63).

The evidence concerning the ninth century leads one to think that in this period the monasteries ceased to be inhabited. This is affirmed by Ya‘qubi (d. 900), who knew the sites. In the eleventh century, Bakri, probably using a much earlier source, says that the site was covered with imposing ruins, where, however, some monks were still living. In the fifteenth century al-Maqrizi makes no mention of the Kellia or of al-Muna, proof no doubt that the ruins of the monasteries were already covered by the sands.

These ruins have survived to our time. Unfortunately the site is on the way to being completely destroyed, in consequence of the works of irrigation and of extending the arable land undertaken since before 1964 by the Service of Agrarian Reform. To the destruction thus caused must be added the damage effected by the construction in 1977 of a railway line from Tanta to Alexandria, crossing the site from one side to the other (Guillaumont 1981, pp. 195-98).


French Archaeological Activity

At the time of the discovery of the site of the Kellia in the spring of 1964 following the investigations conducted by A. Guillaumont, it had the appearance of a scattering of koms (hillocks), Arabic, the result of the collapsing of the vaults and walls and the progressive leveling of the constructions as a whole. Those in the center had offered greater resistance, and the sand had gradually filled the empty spaces. Some elements of the materials had come to the surface again in such a way as to form a solid crust, giving to each the appearance of a nipple. Sometimes a building was so greatly leveled that it was not marked by any elevation.

These koms extend in an east-west direction over more than 7 miles (12 km) and in a north-south direction over about 2 miles (3 km). The majority of them were grouped in agglomerations that in the Arab period received designations compounded of the word qasr (pl., qusur; from the Latin castrum, fortification).

The Institut français d’Archéologie orientale carried out a first campaign in March-April 1965 on kom 219 of Qusur el-Ruba‘iyat, with the collaboration of the University of Geneva. Since the site is immense, it later appeared more advantageous to divide the groups of koms between the two institutions. Of more than 1,500 listed in 1972 (Kasser), about 900 remained still intact after the beginning of the works of the agrarian reform (1964). The Swiss mission was to devote its efforts to the eastern part: Qusur el-Izeila (al-‘Uzaylah), Qusur el-‘Abid, Qusur ‘Isa, to which R. Kasser (1969) later added two groups found further to the southeast: Qusur el-Higeila (al- Hijaylah) and Qusur el-‘Ireima (al-‘Uraymah). The French institute would work on the western sector: Qusur el-Ruba‘iyat and Qasr Waheida (al-Wahaydah).

Between 1966 and 1968 the French institute accomplished an exhaustive topographical survey of Qusur el-Ruba‘iyat (later published in Daumas-Guillaumont, 1969). From 1965 to 1968 and then after an interruption due to the state of war in Egypt, from 1979 to 1984, it cleared eleven koms of types varied both in their dimensions and in their plans, which we may classify as follows:

Type A. Hermitages of Small Dimensions

For a single occupant. This kind of appears to have been rather rare in the Kellia, or at least there are only a few examples. One of them bears the number 166 in the survey of Qusur el-Ruba‘iyat, and measured only 50 by 40 feet (15 by 12 m) in its primitive state and then about 72 by 40 feet (22 by 12 m) in its second phase. It could have had only a single inhabitant, for it had only a single oratory and a single storeroom, even in its second stage. Of the two other rooms, one to the east of the oratory was reserved for manual work, as is shown by some cavities in which bones of camels or cattle are wedged about 1 foot (0.30 m) from the ground, four of them symmetrically arranged opposite to one another.

In the first phase of occupation there was neither well nor kitchen nor latrine. The pottery collected, dating probably from the last occupation, gives a general dating to the sixth and seventh centuries. This would show that alongside very developed hermitages, in which the hermits grouped together, there were entirely isolated hermits who lived the anchorite life as the texts describe it.

For two or even three occupants. Five koms of this type have been cleared at the western extremity of Qusur el-Ruba‘iyat, to which must be added the small primitive found included in a later extension of kom 167. These hermitages have a surrounding wall measuring on the outside between 50 and 65 feet (15 and 20 m) wide (north-south) and 65 to 100 feet (20 to 30 m) long (east-west). Their plan is rather varied, but in the habitations placed to the west we can clearly distinguish two (sometimes three) cells: that of the elder containing three rooms, the oratory in the northwest corner, and two chambers of which one gives access to a small storeroom, the whole being closed by an entrance door with a bolt.

The cell for the disciple (or disciples) is situated to the south of the first one, and most often contains only two rooms, one of them an oratory. Large rooms, apparently communal, are set to the east of these two (or three) cells: in front of the elder’s cell, a hall with two bays accessible from the courtyard by a door (in the oldest hermitages the north bay of this hall was appropriated for artisanal work and appears to have been converted into a reception lobby).

To the east of the disciple’s cell are placed the kitchen (which contains a bread oven) and a room that could have served as a pantry. The purpose of the other large rooms, to the south and also against the north wall, remains unknown. The well was dug in the southeast corner of the courtyard and surrounded by one or several basins from which channels ran, no doubt irrigating a vegetable garden. One of these channels often ended in a basin on the outside of the surrounding wall. This wall encloses the whole hermitage, including the courtyard, but its original height is difficult to estimate. Latrines are constructed against the south wall, sometimes the east. In several small hermitages, no gateway has been brought to light.

Type B. Hermitages of Medium Dimensions

Their surrounding wall, rectangular as in the preceding type, measures on the outside 80 to 90 feet (25 to 28 m) by 80 to 130 feet (25 to 40 m). In Qusur el-Ruba‘iyat, such hermitages are the koms bearing the numbers 88, 167 (in its final extension), and 171. One characteristic of this type is the multiplication of the habitation units: up to five in the three koms cleared by the French institute. The very large dimensions of the halls are another feature; the largest, which is always the oratory of the elder’s cell, reaches 23 by 23 feet (7 by 7 m), whereas in the preceding hermitages it did not exceed 13 by 13 feet (4 by 4 m).

Moreover, the decoration becomes very rich, with imitations of sculpture (capitals and columns), in fine materials like marble, and mural paintings which can hardly be the work of the hermits alone. The plan is distinguished from type A by the addition of large rooms, including a habitation unit, against the north wall and even the south wall, where we sometimes notice an assembly room (chapel, or refectory). We also see towers of refuge appearing in these hermitages (kom 88) in the south. The water installations are more extensive and complicated, and there is an entrance gateway in the surrounding wall, on the east side, sometimes also—at least in an early phase—in the north wall.

Type C. Hermitages of Very Large Dimensions

A single example of this type has been cleared, in Qusur el- Ruba‘iyat, kom 219. It seems to have been occupied by some ten hermits, and probably represents the most developed stage of the Kellia hermitages. Its dimensions, 145 by 195 feet (45 by 60 m), are imposing. It is difficult to specify the limits of each cell, but we find here the same elements as in the of type A: the elder’s apartment in the northwest and disciples’ cells to the south of it. However, these last (about ten) are lodged almost everywhere.

As in type B, a large hall, here against the south wall and originally of three bays, may have served as a chapel. This may have been Gaianite, by reason of two inscriptions, no doubt down to the conversion of these schismatics by John of Sais in the eighth century. Excavations have shown the evolution of this hermitage, starting with a building of type B, by progressive extension to the final stage.

Type D. Center of Communal Services

The site in question is Qasr Waheida to the southwest of Qusur el-Ruba‘iyat, cleared in 1967-1968. This is not a hermitage, for we have found neither the plan nor the constitutive elements such as individual oratories or chambers with storeroom, but on the contrary, buildings which to all appearance served the inhabitants of a cluster of hermitages. This is clear from the presence in particular of two churches in juxtaposition, the apse of the one being backed on to the west wall of the other. Each is of basilical plan, with a sanctuary in three parts and three aisles separated by pillars or columns (only the bases were still in place). The altar of the small church, to the west—the older—was square in form, and the north annex of the sanctuary was occupied by a baptistery with steps to east and west, as well as an aperture for emptying at the bottom of the piscina.

The large church had a circular altar on small columns, but did not possess a baptistery. In each, an ambo was backed against the south side of the sanctuary, with three steps to give access to it. There was a kind of peristyle on the south face of the large church, and a marble fountain-basin was placed to the right of the entrance door under this peristyle, probably for the washing of hands (and face) before the synaxis. A cistern constructed in the northwest corner of the small church collected the rainwater, for unknown use. The large church fell out of favor at some period and was transformed into a cemetery.

This complex of communal services also included inside a surrounding wall a very large hall with three aisles, no doubt a hostelry, with a kitchen adjoining and different rooms in juxtaposition, and also a refuge tower. A second tower of the same type had been built, backing on to the surrounding wall but on the outside and in proximity to the first. The independent staircase that gave access to the first floor was, it seems, common to the two towers. Water installations around two wells allowed the irrigation of the gardens.

This series of French excavations on the site of the Kellia was of limited character compared to the exceptional extent of the agglomerations. Still, by reason of the very diversity of the koms cleared, it nonetheless brought confirmation of information supplied by historical sources, and also new data. The inhabitants of the Kellia were hermits, not cenobites, living an almost autarchic life within their hermitages. They assembled only on Saturday and Sunday for the eucharistic synaxis in the communal church.

However, the archaeological data show that this primitive ideal was gradually weakened. With larger numbers in the same hermitage, the hermits regrouped behind walls and with the possibility of taking refuge in a tower. The churches multiplied, sometimes even within the hermitages. It appears that life became less eremitic and less harsh. All the same, some appear to have remained faithful to the unwritten rule of the earliest times.


Swiss Archaeological Activity

The Swiss mission in Coptic archaeology from the University of Geneva carried out its activities in the Kellia on three different and complementary levels. Between 1965 and 1971 (with extensions down to 1978), it accomplished a topographical survey of the site of the Kellia as a whole, covering more than 49 square miles (126 square km). The east, north, and west parts have been published (Kasser, 1972). This survey sought to locate all traces of ancient constructions showing on the surface of the ground, either from remains still standing or from the presence of the debris of buildings or of terra-cotta.

More than 1,500 Coptic buildings were rapidly recorded on the general plan (koms still well preserved or already leveled by the works in progress for agricultural development). In the areas affected by the agricultural works, hundreds of buildings were leveled toward 1964 to half the height of their elevation. In the fields not yet under cultivation, morning dew marked on the ground the outline of the walls, through spots of dampness which lasted for several hours. A rapid survey of these traces was undertaken in 1967, although archaeological analysis was not possible. This enabled the publication in 1972 (Kasser, 1972, fols. 24-27) of a relatively detailed plan of the agglomerations of monasteries of Qusur ‘Isa (about 550 buildings) and Qusur el-‘Abid (about 30 buildings). If the exact organization of these monasteries cannot always be seen, these plans give an excellent account of the dimensions of the dwellings, their orientation, and some internal developments.

The ever increasing constraints of agriculture stirred the mission into searching for methods of archaeological and architectural investigation, which could be applied to groups of koms still intact, without requiring complete excavation of all the structures. The end in view was to compile a plan of the buildings and analyze their internal development through the relative chronology of the architectural additions. These investigations were fulfilled by a superficial clearing of the kom, bringing to light only the upper part of the walls preserved. The functions of certain areas, the nature of the pictorial decoration, and the presence of inscriptions were ascertained by more or less extensive soundings at various points.

Methodical collection of the pottery in terms of its conformity in surface and an examination of its architectural reuse provided a dating, sometimes approximate, for all the constructions and their modifications. Application of this procedure to the whole of the agglomeration of Qusur el-‘Izeila (al-‘Uzaylah) in a single excavation campaign in 1981 produced the essentials of the data required, with practically no damage to the substance of a sometimes fragile architecture.

Detection by this method of particularly interesting buildings or structures allowed their methodical exploration in the course of later campaigns planned to this effect. This method of analysis was applied in 1982 to a group of fifty-five koms of the Qusur el-Ruba‘iyat, a group including several buildings of very large dimensions. In this area, where destruction was considerable between 1982 and 1985, these investigations made possible the detection of the particularly remarkable architectural ensembles. Excavation of various items whose function had been identified allowed the preservation of pictorial and decorative material of great importance.

The topographical work and the surface analyses carried out by the Swiss mission between 1964 and 1985 have brought to light numerous points of interest in the site, some of which have been the objects of partial or complete archaeological excavation.

The longest, most thorough, and most complete investigations have had as their object a particularly large and complex kom (Qusur ‘Isa 1), where it was hoped to find chronological and typological references reflecting the history of the site as a whole. The discoveries made in this very special building, rich in a long history, have supplied the essential basis for the chronology of the pottery of the Kellia, a tool for dating and analysis indispensable for any further study. Apart from this special case, in the face of the immensity of the site and the abundance of the problems posed, the investigators of the Swiss mission have been very selective in choosing their objectives. The results are sufficiently conclusive to provide the state of our archaeological knowledge in the areas explored and an appreciation of the physical factors that conditioned the various forms of monastic settlement in the Kellia.

Site of the Kellia: Geological and Geographical Criteria

The monastic site of the Kellia was founded in a desert milieu, a quarter of the distance between Nitria and Scetis. The occupation developed on a strip running from northwest to southeast, parallel to the edge of the Delta and thus remaining at an altitude less than 33 feet (10 m) above sea level. In the most southerly low-lying area, one could easily reach the table of freshwater by digging a well. Desert conditions became established in the final Pleistocene period, shaping the site in undulating dunes on an axis from north and northwest to south and southeast.

This formation was later hardened by a saline upsurge linked to a pre-Neolithic climatic variation. In the Coptic period the isolated hermitages, and later the agglomerations, were founded for preference in the low-lying areas, to take advantage of the proximity of the water table while escaping the notice of distant neighbors.

In a vast area, one could thus find all the requisite conditions for raising isolated constructions in a desert milieu, where one could live and even cultivate a soil that was fertile if it was suitably watered.

Construction Materials

The only construction material available on the site is the alluvial and briny sand that can be extracted from the subsoil at any point. Moistened with water and molded in the trenches from which it was dug, it takes on the consistency of a thick concrete, which allows the making of crude molded bricks, which dry almost without shrinkage. No vegetable or mineral additions have been observed. The bricks are bound together by a mortar of briny mud of the same provenance. The massive brickwork was placed directly on the sandy ground. Sometimes the buildings were slightly hollowed out in the subsoil.

The roofing of the buildings of the Kellia is very original. By far the majority have a system of graduated vaulting, mounted without any shoring. Hyperbolic or semicircular arches, built of unbaked brick wedged with shards of pottery, were piled up against the support of a backing wall.

The density of the local bricks and the weak adhesiveness of the mud mortar limit the slope of the vaulting to a maximum of 45 degrees. The vaults were formed by two sets of brickwork supported on the opposing walls of the room and overlapping one another at their junction in the center. The general appearance is that of a very low vault resting on the backing walls. The rooms are for the most part rectangular, and are then covered by elongated and flattened domes. Spans of more than 23 feet (about 7 m) have been observed.

There was a less common system reserved for important buildings (churches, reception halls). Four spherical triangles forming a pendentive were established simultaneously by the graduated vaulting technique, resting on the corners of the room. In the new angles resulting from their junction, four new spherical triangles were set in place, and the process continued until the dome was completely closed. To roof an elongated room with two bays, the springs of the two neighboring vaults were supported on a median arch resting on two pillars. The rooms making up the buildings were added one to another as need required, and the vaults mutually buttressed one another.

Hinged wooden doors furnished with bolts ensured the closing of the entrances. Windows with sloping frames or loopholes pierced in the vaults supplied light and ventilation. A very large number of niches was contrived in the walls.

The walls were plastered with clay-mortar, then washed with white lime or coated with lime mortar. Like the baked bricks, the few hewn stones and the wood, this last material was entirely imported from the Delta. The floors and sometimes the plinths were carefully covered with lime cement mixed with crushed baked brick. The upper part of the walls and the vaults were generally washed with lime, and this was the foundation for painted decorations and inscriptions.

Unbaked brick being very susceptible to humidity, the outer curves of the vaults were rendered watertight by layers of clay, and sometimes lime-mortar. Installations connected with water (wells, basins, latrines) were constructed of baked brick and coated with lime or mortar mixed with chips of bricks.

Wood was rare, reserved for the frames and flaps of doors, shelves in some niches, or sets of shelves, and the recovered pottery was abundantly used in construction. Amphorae and pots were sunk into the floors and the walls (there is controversy about their function: acoustic vases, drains, niches, hiding-places?). Piping was made of amphorae placed end to end. The bricks of the vaults were wedged with the aid of countless shards of pottery.

Typology of the Monastic Habitation

The traces of the most ancient constructions observed in the Kellia were discovered in the kom Qusur ‘Isa 1 in the form of very small rooms deeply excavated in the subsoil and roofed by graduated vaults made of small bricks (17 x 14 x 7 cm). These constructions belong to the second half of the fourth century at the earliest.

These shelters must scarcely have risen above the surface of the desert, and were entered by a short flight of steps, through a door sheltered from the prevailing winds. The use of lime mortar is not attested during this early period. Some niches are fitted into the walls, and there is a kind of cylindrical silo or hiding place sunk into the floor of most of the rooms; its function remains unknown. There is evidence that benches or bunks were placed along the walls, in the form of brickwork uprights that could support planks or a wooden panel. The progressive addition of similar rooms, sometimes interconnected, shows that several people lived together in a complex of a gradually expanding type, although no specific organization is apparent.

At the beginning of the fifth century, a southern addition displays the first features of an architectural model that was to have a considerable development in the history of the site of the Kellia. This is a chamber with a silo and a bench-bed, with an important niche in the east wall adorned with a painted cross. It connects with a smaller secondary room. Here we find lime mortars and bricks of a large size, and the first indication of the enclosure of the building by a wall delimiting a courtyard with a well. A first church is associated with this building.

Traces of craft and culinary activity have been noticed outside the dwelling, in the courtyard. The complex of Qusur ‘Isa 1 stands apart from the other buildings excavated at the Kellia through the construction of three churches of large dimensions, dating to the fifth to seventh centuries. The adjoining constructions—such as enclosures, courtyards, and chambers—had functions quite certainly linked to the service of the churches, and are not the most characteristic of the current monastic habitation.

The investigations carried out by the Swiss mission between 1965 and 1984 in various zones of the site and particularly in Qusur el-‘Izeila in 1981 (surface analysis of 120 buildings of an agglomeration) have allowed us to grasp the recurrent characteristics of the monastic habitation current in the sixth and seventh centuries, and the way in which the hermitages developed through progressive increase in the strength of the community around the cell of some elder.

If the plans of the buildings dated to the fifth century are rare and variable, a model often repeated appeared from the sixth century on: one described by de Cosson (plan A) when he identified the site of the Kellia in a 1937 article (pp. 247-53) in which he presents the essentials of the west building of a which he briefly excavated at Qusur el-Ruba‘iyat. The French excavations have cleared and analyzed several of these constructions in detail.

The great majority of the buildings examined, with few exceptions, present common characteristics that attest the presence of several successive and barriers between the outside world and the monk. The mutual relationships of the occupants of the same and between them and visitors could be very subtly controlled by the use of numerous doors.

For the individual retreat, the hermit had in the first monastic times his primitive cell. Later in Kellia, the cell developed into a chamber, still simple, with whitewashed walls pierced with niches and furnished with a leaved door. The oratory niche was placed in the east wall of a large room communicating with the cell in the northwest corner of the hermitage. Described as an oratory, this room was distinguished by its decorated niches, ventilation skylights, windows, pictorial decorations, and inscriptions.

There was sometimes another small unfurnished room opening upon it, lit by small windows but without a storeroom, in which one could shut oneself away in the same manner as in the “monk’s chamber.” No archaeological evidence—and no inscription—has made it possible to determine its function. This first group of rooms, with an optional passage in front of them, always formed a separate apartment, closed off by a leaved door. This door opened on a circulation and service area, the core of which was a hall with two bays.

The northern part sometimes showed traces of artisanal activity (weaving or the making of mats). In the east wall of the southern part, which was a reception hall, the entrance door of this main block opened on to the courtyard. To the south, one passed through a pantry, then into the kitchen. In the Kellia, this was invariably a room with earthen walls blackened by smoke. A vault raised above, fitted with vents, took the place of a chimney over one or more hearths arranged against the wall on a raised bench. There was also a bread oven of a somewhat cylindrical shape placed vertically or obliquely; this had a removable cover.

Beside the kitchen, we very often find a chamber with a storeroom identical to the monk’s chamber. The person who lived there evidently had some function in relation to the kitchen, with use of the vestibule and control of the entrance door and the courtyard space. The principal resident or elder thus ordinarily had at his service a subordinate charged with managing part of the contacts with the outside world and probably also with stewardship.

The garden-courtyard is the fourth enclosure of the hermitage. In the southeast corner of the enclosure are the latrines, which run off to the outside. In the same sector a well of baked bricks is surrounded by basins and drainage channels, probably for artisanal use, the surplus water from which could irrigate a few planted areas. The entrance gate to the opens in the south enclosing wall, sometimes in the east. Visitors could be received in a room which formed a vestibule or gatehouse. Outside the hermitage at some distance from the gate was a rubbish heap where kitchen waste, building rubbish, and broken pottery were thrown.

The hermitages rarely preserved this structure throughout their history. Apartments or other buildings, either separate from the elder’s dwelling or communicating with it, were installed one after the other inside the enclosure and along its length. We can recognize them in general rooms that have the same functions and decoration as the apartment in the northwest: a chamber with a storeroom, an oratory, a reception room, sometimes a kitchen. We can thus observe the successive installation of up to five apartments in the larger hermitages.

Another architectural solution in response to the increase in the strength of the small community was to knock down some of the enclosing walls and extend the enclosure in one or two directions in order to install more or less important blocks of buildings. The growth of the hermitages was effected through successive additions of monastic dwellings, and it is only rarely that we observe demolitions and reconstructions on the same site.

Thus the vast majority of the hermitages of the Kellia from the sixth to the eighth centuries reproduce a very restricted number of very closely related plan types, which are carried out in a more or less spacious or luxurious manner according to the means of the residents. Each had its own internal evolution, yet in to principles that appear to have been the rule.

Amid the apparently multiple and variable architectural forms which the monastic habitation may take in the secondary apartments, certain constants stand out which no doubt reflect important aspects of the monastic organization. The cell or monk’s chamber with its indispensable store room remains the most remote and private place in every residence. In front of the cell are one or more rooms, one of which always has in its east wall an oratory niche. This arrangement allows the association of the functions of this room with those of the oratory in the elder’s apartment. The separation of the functions of the rooms, however, appears in a less rigid fashion in the secondary apartments. New architectural solutions, combining the functions with one another, make clear the probable hierarchical difference between the elder and other occupants.

The Two-Bay Hall

The most remarkable construction in the secondary blocks of buildings is the hall with two (sometimes three) bays, a juxtaposition of rooms communicating through a wide arcading that recalls the vestibule in the principal apartment. The bays are amply lit by openings or windows. This room becomes the largest in the hermitage, with direct access to the courtyard through one or several leaved doors.

The eastern niche with its special decoration is very rarely lacking. Kitchens with or without a pantry are often clearly associated with the two-bay halls, which thus suggests a possible function as a refectory, although the oratory niche is, nevertheless, not absent. As in many of the oratories, the floor of these halls sometimes has blocks of stone set in the smooth lime cement, or carpets painted on the floor in front of the oratory niche.

The development of two-bay halls in the developed hermitages is a remarkable phenomenon in the Kellia. The oratory niche here takes on an increasing importance, and in some cases is replaced by a third eastern bay in which all the characteristics of the choir of a sanctuary are sometimes brought together. We note in particular the presence of an altar. These chapels or monastery churches were the object of frequent transformation or modification; these imposing constructions required either the extension of the primitive enclosure or profound modification of the ancient main building.

Five buildings of this type have been discovered among the 120 hermitages of the agglomeration of Qusur el-‘Izeila. They may be attributed to the second half of the seventh century in the same way as the basilica attached to a conventional hermitage, excavated in 1968 at Qusur ‘Isa (no. 366 bis northwest).

The Towers

The towers are important constructions that appear sporadically in the second half of the seventh century and particularly in the northern half of the agglomeration of Qusur el-‘Izeila (19 towers in a total of 120 hermitages). Their substructures are very thick and carry high walls which one finds collapsed in compact masses at the foot of the foundations. Access was by an independent staircase and a movable gangway leading to an upper floor door pierced in the tower.

The base of the towers contains only storerooms, hiding places, and flights of internal stairs. The tower is most often backed on to the enclosure wall of the hermitage, or on the outside in such a way that access is possible from the top of the wall and the roofs of the hermitage, and this in proximity to the entrance gates.

No tower in the Kellia has been sufficiently preserved to show the arrangement of the upper stories. Piping and water outlets attest the presence of latrines.

The towers are generally associated with hermitages which have been extended or enlarged, or include important annexes (double- bay halls, refectories, or churches).

The existence of a much earlier tower has been attested in the complex of the churches of Qusur ‘Isa: subsequent to the building of the second church and built outside, a tower measuring 26 by 30 feet (8 by 9 m) at its base was erected toward the apse or choir of the church. Access was by an independent staircase and a removable bridge. In contrast with the towers of the seventh century, this construction was set up in the center of the monastery and not on the enclosing wall.

Special Buildings

A building of about 260 feet (80 meters) square was erected on the southern edge of the agglomeration of Qusur el-‘Izeila (nos. 141-42). The building comprises a simple enclosure wall, in the interior of which nineteen identical and rooms are aligned on the north, with a door and two niches. This vast whole was probably an enclosure for commercial functions, an interpretation reinforced by the presence of numerous fragments of amphorae.

The Complex of the Churches of Qusur ‘Isa 1

A kom situated at the southern limit of the agglomeration of Qusur ‘Isa was the subject of methodical excavation from 1965 to 1968 and 1976 to 1977 by the Swiss mission from the University of Geneva. It became apparent that this complex was quite exceptional among the hundreds of koms. It was in operation during the entire history of the Kellia, or nearly so, and three churches have been brought to light. Both in its structure and in its content the building presents numerous analogies with that of Qasr Waheidah partly explored by the French mission.

A first nucleus is formed by very small cells half-buried in a thoroughly desert milieu, described above (second half of the fourth century). At the end of the fourth century and the beginning of the fifth, a church was built (33 by 26 feet [10 by 8 m]), and this was included in an ensemble of rooms already well organized in a rectangle of 65 by 90 feet (20 by 28 m) with a courtyard and a central well.

Through the addition of rows of rooms and adjoining constructions, this complex thereafter underwent a practically continuous extension. At the end of the fifth century we find there a second church 55 by 33 feet (17 by 10 m) of basilical plan, with a nave of six columns. A cistern collects the rain water from the roofs. A high tower adjoins outside the apse or choir of the church. An enclosing wall of about 176 by 169 feet (54 by 52 m) with its northwest and southwest corners rounded, surrounds the whole, and the principal entrance is on the east.

In the sixth century, the enlargement continued through the addition of a southern wing with a new well, and later by a simultaneous extension of the enclosure to the north and east. A final phase of major works, which caused important changes in the plan of the monastery, is dated to the beginning of the seventh century. A western extension of the enclosure brought its dimensions to about 250 by 234 feet (77 by 72 m). The buildings of the fourth and fifth centuries were razed and filled up.

A spacious church 72 by 39 feet (22 by 12 m) of basilical plan (nave with 16 columns) was erected on the site of the first church. The two basilicas then function simultaneously, opening on a central court bounded on the west by a columned portico. Several living and service rooms open on to it. There is also a large hall, the roof of which is supported by three middle columns. This was no doubt a guest hall or refectory, opening at once onto the portico, the kitchens, and the backcourts, which themselves open to the outside through service doors. The principal entrance to the enclosure on the east remains in operation.

At the end of the seventh century the aspect of the site changed. All the peripheral buildings fell suddenly out of favor; the vaults collapsed for want of maintenance, the courtyards and the ruins were completely covered with sand. All that survived was the two basilicas strengthened by buttresses of mud bricks, the central court, and probably the old tower. The openings of the portico were walled up and a kitchen was installed in a corner of the colonnade.

On the outside, a large cemetery extends to the north, east, and south of the churches in the ruins of the ancient buildings. The tombs are oriented east and west, with the head to the west. The definitive disaffection took place before the middle of the eighth century.

The complex of Qusur ‘Isa 1 throughout its history displays its permanent peculiarity. Situated on the margin of a very large agglomeration which probably developed in the sixth to the eighth centuries, it is a center where one finds buildings essentially intended for the service of the churches (courtyards, reception rooms, refectories, kitchens, etc.). Series of rooms suitable for forming residences, such as we observe everywhere else in the hermitages of the Kellia, are exceptional, which indicates that the permanent residents were, no doubt, few in number.

The decline of Qusur ‘Isa 1 and its churches may be explained by a profound change in the cultic habits of the monks of the Kellia, which occurred in the course of the second half of the seventh century. The churches outside the agglomerations of the sixth and seventh centuries, in which the community gathered from the fourth century on, were abandoned to the advantage of places of worship integrated into the hermitages themselves, like the chapels and churches observed at Qusur el-‘Izeila, which even attain to the dimensions of genuine basilicas (Qusur ‘Isa, 366 bis northwest).

The Development of the Agglomerations

One single agglomeration of the Kellia (Qusur el-‘Izeila) was the subject of a full-scale analysis during the 1981-1984 project of the Swiss mission. The results of this analysis allow us to suggest a model for the development of the site, which is probably equally valid for the other parts of the Kellia.

The cells of the primitive type, from the fourth and fifth centuries, are known only at Qusur ‘Isa 1. We do not know the distribution of these small half-buried constructions, but toward the beginning of the sixth century, in contrast, hermitages of a simple plan, with an enclosure, are distributed in very scattered fashion at the low points on the map of the Kellia. The density is that of the numerous small constructions, of generally unknown type and date, which are strewn over the site outside the later agglomerations, without any particular concentration and invisible one from another. It is likely that this distribution is in the spirit of the initial stage.

In the course of the sixth century we witness at Qusur el-‘Izeila, on the contrary, a concentration of the buildings in a great depression. Variants appear in the typology of the hermitages, where the annexed apartments were multiplied. We can thus distinguish arrangements conceived for a single resident or for an elder and his disciple.

According to the simple systems which were to prove their worth during nearly two centuries (seventh and eighth), we witness on the one hand successive developments of apartments within the existing enclosing wall, and on the other hand new foundations of hermitages which reinforced the density and thus created veritable agglomerations of buildings more or less and of diverse orientation, separated by rubbish heaps.

In the seventh century, very specific additions modified the character of certain portions: towers and places of worship or assembly appear in the developed hermitages.

The buildings excavated in the principal agglomerations, Qusur al-Ruba‘iyat and Qusur ‘Isa, confirm this scheme of development and indicate that the extreme concentration of the agglomerations occurred in the seventh and eighth centuries. The great isolated buildings situated to the south of these zones and giving shelter to churches for community use (Qusur ‘Isa 1 and Qasr Waheidah) played a role up to the middle of the seventh century, the date at which they were practically abandoned or transformed into cemeteries.

Egyptian Archaeological Activity

Independently of the French and Swiss archaeological investigations in the Kellia, the Egyptian Antiquities Organization has also carried out important excavations on this site, principally along the line of the Tanta-Alexandria railway under construction (some thirty koms at Qusur al-Ruba‘iyat, in addition to several sites cleared in collaboration with the Swiss mission). This work has gone on since 1977, when the increasing pace of destruction obliged all the available institutions to concentrate their efforts on the western part of the Kellia, which no means of protection was going to save from rapid annihilation. Since the working out of the results of these excavations is not sufficiently advanced, an account of them at this stage is premature.


The Churches

In the general area of the Kellia a not inconsiderable number of churches has so far been identified. Several of these were conceived as independent buildings, while others had clearly the character of later annexes to buildings already in existence (hermitages). Moreover the churches so far found belong to very distinct types that are discussed below according to their typology and topography.

Qusur ‘Isa South 1 had three churches; they did not, however, all exist at the same time.

The older north church came into being shortly after 400 and is, therefore, the oldest church so far identified in the Kellia. It has a short but relatively wide single-aisle naos, which was evidently roofed over by a tier of beams running east and west. The sanctuary consisted at first of a single rectangular altar room. However, while the construction was still in process, two additional side rooms were added on the two sides. The one on the south was connected by a narrow passage with a subterranean hiding place.

The south church belongs to the end of the fifth century and is a fully developed church building with a three-aisled naos and three-part sanctuary, the middle room of which contains the altar and the northern side room, a baptistery. The entrance lies on the north side and is provided with a covered porch, necessary because of the frequent winds in the desert area. A small platform extending to the left serves as substitute for a narthex. In general, this church is only a modest building with very unbalanced proportions.

The later north church stands directly above the older north church, which accordingly had ceased to exist. In its architectural development, it goes a step further than the south church and is provided with a western return aisle. The sanctuary is again tripartite, but shifted slightly to the north from its axis in order to make room for a staircase to the roof, accommodated at the south end. This church was built in the early seventh century.

Qasr al-Wahaydah is the most important place in Qusur al- Ruba‘iyat and in many respects comparable to the complex of Qusur ‘Isa South 1. Here two churches have so far been discovered.

The west church is almost the exact counterpart of the south church in Qusur ‘Isa South 1. It too consists of a very simply proportioned three-aisle naos with three-part sanctuary, in the north room of which the baptistery was again accommodated. The round piscina itself has the canonical form with steps on west and east. The entrance to the church is in the middle of the south wall.

The east church corresponds to the later north church of Qusur ‘Isa South 1, but is some years older. Its naos was originally divided for its whole length into three aisles with a weakly stressed central aisle. In a later change of the position of the columns, the central aisle was widened and space created at the west end for a return aisle. The southern apse side room contains an additional table, which probably served for the preparation of the of the mass. At the southern entrance to the church an exonarthex was later added, in the form of a roofed vestibule (Andreu, Castel, and Coquin, 1980, pp. 347-68).

In Qusur ‘Isa kom 58,85/19,46, the great church dates from the seventh century and was a later addition on the north side of a already frequently extended. The three-aisle naos has a western return aisle, and its rear third is divided by the insertion of two quatrefoil pillars into two sections of unequal length. The longer front section exhibits in the middle on both sides a fairly large intercolumniation, which was presumably intended to indicate a transverse axis. Whether the outer walls contained niches relating to this can no longer be determined. In the sanctuary the side sections are separated from the altar by simple rows of columns while the northern side room has a bench running round the walls.

In Qusur el-‘Izeila, hermitage 14 (55,42/20,14), the church is built onto the south side of an already existing hermitage. The naos consists of two domed bays one behind the other, which were linked together by a wide transverse arch. The sanctuary consists of a simple transverse room with a large niche in the east wall. Later the room was divided into three sections by the building of two arches. Traces of an altar base are not to be seen. Pottery finds allow a dating of the church to the middle of the seventh century.

In Qusur el-‘Izeila, hermitage 16 (55,40/20,12), the church is built into the northeast corner of an already existing hermitage. The naos, as with the preceding church, is composed of two domed bays. The sanctuary shows an asymmetrical division of the rooms, with a main room corresponding to the breadth of the naos and in the middle of it the altar. On the north side a small side area is separated by three arcades and has a bench running round it, while a second actual side room adjoins on the southern outer side and is itself connected with a rear staircase. Chronologically the church belongs to the second half of the seventh century.

In hermitage 19-20 (55,60/20,12-14), the church is in the latest annex to the hermitage, lying wholly to the south, and like the other examples has a naos composed of two bays. The sanctuary originally consisted of three separate rooms. Later, however, the dividing walls were broken through to form large connecting openings. Behind the altar room, under the staircase adjoining there was a hiding place, which elsewhere is not common. The building of the church is to be set even before 630.

In hermitage 45 (55,70/19,20), the church is on the south side of a frequently extended hermitage, and like the other two examples consists of two bays set one behind the other. The sanctuary is adorned with several paintings, and is divided by large arches into three openly linked sections. On the floor a special area is marked out by paintings, in the middle of which a portable altar was presumably to be set up in case of need. The building of the church can be dated to the middle of the seventh century.

In Qusur ‘Isa, kom 59, 35/18,83, the place where several marble pillar fragments were found points to a church of several aisles that once stood on this spot. The building itself was completely destroyed through the canal works in this area.



Identification of the Site

By the Kellia we understand the “presumed site of the Kellia,” given that no inscription, mural or otherwise, giving explicitly the name of the site has yet been found in situ. The amphora shard with the inscription enklhsias kelliwn, enklesias kellion (Egloff, 1977, p. 11), could be an argument in favor, but the object may have been found on the site quite by chance (an amphora sent from one place to another with the name of the sender). Other abbreviated inscriptions in the form ek on amphorae or potsherds can only be resolved into ek(klhsias), and for this reason cannot constitute evidence for the identification of the site.

The Inscriptions of the Kellia

In the interior of the hermitage inscriptions can be found everywhere. For the most part they are in the vestibules, the passage leading to the oratory, and the oratory itself. Inside the rooms they are placed at the will of the scribe. For preference, the parts of the wall at eye level were inscribed, and thereafter, as need might be, the rest of the available surface. For the inscriptions of the important monks, choice was made of the surface above the passages or the niches (or their background), each surface with a good plaster to ensure the survival of the inscription. The Arabic inscriptions (in black or graffiti) are found on the outside of the walls on the rosy mortar dado (in Pompeian red) where there are practically never any Coptic or Greek inscriptions.

Bases for Inscriptions

Inscriptions were written on clay plaster covering brick made of sand, on limewash laid directly on clay plaster, on plaster cross-bars prepared for the inscriptions of important monks, on plaster whether whitewashed or not, and on marble. The majority of the inscriptions are painted with red ocher (with a calamus or brush); some are traced in black ink or charcoal, or else scratched with a pointed implement. In one case a Coptic funerary has been found in chalky limestone with engraved letters painted with red ocher (Kasser, 1972, p. 82b, fig. 33).

Decoration of the Inscriptions

The inscriptions may or may not be set in a frame. The frames sometimes imitate the tabulae securiclatae of the Greco-Roman inscriptions, but the number of handles (sometimes as many as eight) proves that their primitive function was forgotten. The frames may be decorated with stylized palmettes or rope patterns or take the form of two columns on the capitals of which there is an arch—a form known in the decoration of the lists of the canons in the gospel manuscripts of the late empire and high Middle Ages (cf. Nordenfalk, 1938). The influence of manuscript decoration is visible (stylized coronis and obelus, decorative upper lines, etc.; see Cramer, 1964, Vol. 10, pp. 13, 18-20). We may observe the transition from the initial or final; the Constantinian monogram), which could be understood as a Christianized ankh), to the cross by way of the ~ symbol for ctauroc stauros).


Alongside calligraphers (uncial hands of various types) and professional scribes (cursives approaching the epigraphic capital, Coptic and cursives that are also found on the economic and juridical papyri of the period), there are unskilled hands, the work of monks who hardly knew how to write or were semiliterate. In some inscriptions cryptography is used.

Language of the Inscriptions

Coptic, in the Bohairic dialect, is the language of the majority of the inscriptions (almost the oldest monuments of this dialect). Greek very badly written appears rather rarely, and may be contaminated by the use of Coptic words. The Arabic inscriptions were for the most part traced after the Kellia had been abandoned by the monks.

Content of the Inscriptions

The major part of the inscriptions of the Kellia consists of the obituary mementos of the monks, which are fairly uniform in form. In the interior of the hermitage the monks could copy one another for certain invocations or particular expressions, which thus become characteristic for a given monastery. The names in the Kellia are typically biblical or Coptic. Sometimes the name of a historical personage—a patriarch of Alexandria or emperor of Byzantium—is intercalated, or the name of the invader ravaging Egypt at the period.

The dated inscriptions may serve as chronological benchmarks (if the archaeological context permits) for the decoration, and the latest constitute a terminus post quem for the construction of the hermitage (or of the addition in which they were found).

A series of inscriptions (the majority in Greek) accompany the decorations (cross with invocations, representations of the saints, or others). Some consist of notes (name of a personage or quotation from the Bible or the apocrypha), or lists of pilgrims who have visited a hermitage, with pious invocations. In one case a long prayer to Christ has been found (Daumas and Guillaumont, p. 99). The poorly legible inscriptions on pottery have not yet been sufficiently studied.

Some hieroglyphic inscriptions were also found in the Kellia, on pharaonic blocks reused in the Coptic constructions (Kasser, 1972, 82b, 126b-27a, in a hydraulic installation: 444/82).

A relative chronology of the epigraphy in the Kellia shows the following: oldest site, Qusur ‘Isa; intermediate, Qusur el-‘Izeila (sixth to eighth centuries); and latest, Qusur el-Ruba‘iyat (seventh- eighth to twelfth centuries).



The majority of the rooms in the Kellia were decorated. In the simplest cases, only the base was painted in dark red, and occasionally a band of geometric motifs—most often monochromatic—surmounted it. A dark stripe framed the doors, windows, and niches, and marked the corners of the rooms.

The monks’ vestibules and oratory displayed the richest and most varied decor. The walls were covered with various patterns (triangles, braids, foliated interlacing, intertwinings, leafy scrolls, vine scrolls, succulents, pomegranates). Various animals were also depicted. Horses were legion: there were also stags, camels, giraffes, lions, and hares. Birds appeared in equal abundance, with peacocks, doves, partridges, and parrots being the most frequent. They were pictured alone or in association with other motifs, notably the cross.

Many boats were also to be seen, either merely sketched with large rapid brush strokes, or painted with a great abundance of detail. Though often only ornamental, when a boat decorated the interior of a niche, it assumed a clear eschatological meaning.

The most frequent motif at Kellia, however, is the cross. Contrary to what is seen at the monasteries of Saqqara and BAWIT, where crosses were rarely pictured, at the Kellia they are found everywhere. Protective symbols, they appear near passageways or upon restorations to be attributed to divine grace. As ornaments, they were repeated constantly upon the walls. As cult objects, they decorated the central wall of the eastern niche in the oratory. Indeed, as at Saqqara, the eastern wall had both secondary niches and a principal one, larger and more important than the others, before which offerings were made.

Kellia doubtlessly offers the widest range of crosses of every kind: Greek, Latin, pattées, potent, botonées, or with scalelike decoration. They rise up amid plants or birds. They stand majestically upon a platform. Processional crosses have a long staff. They are sometimes simple, even monochromatic, sometimes adorned with gems, garlands, small bells, and censers. Many times a medallion decorates the intersection of the arms, with a medallion bearing the bust of Christ in one case.

Secular scenes have been discovered at Kellia, such as a river and a feminine figure reminiscent of Isis, half reclining as in ancient classical iconography.

But Christian scenes are becoming increasingly apparent: monks, anonymous saints, as well as Saint Menas between his camels, and Saint Tatania, cavaliers, warrior saints on foot, and maiestas Domini.

In contrast to what has been discovered at Bawit and Saqqara, these personages do not seem to have a specific location in the buildings. However, in one oratory niche there is a composition quite similar to that at Saqqara, with a maiestas Domini depicted in a conch, and saints and monks on the walls; but the Virgin—always present at Saqqara—has not yet been found here.

As at Bawit and Saqqara, painting served to evoke the use of precious materials and to imitate the appearance of stone when applied to architectonic elements.



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