A return aisle is a passage at the western end of a church that is a unique feature of the early Christian basilica in Egypt. It is spatially related to the nave in the same way that the long north and south aisles are (although its width may vary) and is connected to them without restriction by lateral buttresses or engaged pillars and columns. It is therefore fundamentally different from the internal narthex, which faces the inside of the church and is usually separated from the nave area by lateral buttresses.
The return aisle probably owes its origin to the need to find room for a bridge passage to connect the galleries over the long aisles. In this regard, a single staircase was sufficient. Thus, the return aisle is, first of all, an element in churches with galleries. Typologically, however, it seems to have been anticipated in some subterranean tomb complexes by an ambulatory, deriving from pagan times.
In Egyptian church building it became a requirement in the first half of the fifth century at the latest, for from this period on, it can be found even in churches that certainly never had a gallery. In medieval Egyptian basilica it gradually fell out of use, but it is still found in several eighth-century churches.
- Grossmann, P. “Zur christlichen Baukunst in Ägypten.” Enchoria Suppl. 8 (1978):89f.
- Monneret de Villard, U. Les Couvents près de Sohâg, Vol. 2, p. 95. Milan, 1926.
- . “La basilica cristiana in Egitto.” In Atti del IV congresso internazionale di archeologia cristiana, Vol. 1, p. 313. Vatican City, 1940.