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March 16, 2021

The Oldest Christian Monastery in the World (With Frescoes and Greek Inscriptions) Found in Egypt

In the Bahariya Oasis, members of a Norwegian-French archaeological expedition discovered a Christian monastic site with frescoes and Greek inscriptions, which is deemed the oldest monastery, perhaps not only in Egypt but also all over the world.

It is a monument that was built around 350 AD in the area of Tal Ganoub Qasr al-Agouz, which is located 370 kilometers southwest of Cairo.

Excavations are being carried out there by the French institution “Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale” (IFAO) and the Norwegian institution “MF Vitenskapelig Høyskole.”

As of now, a desert monastery has been excavated. The monastery was built in five stages, from the first half of the fourth century to the seventh century.

In the center of the site, a rocky area, a church and adjacent liturgical sites have been discovered. Moreover, in the same area, two monk’s cells were discovered, a dining room-kitchen and four more rooms, one of which was a church.
The monks of the monastery did not live a spartan life. The findings show that they were surrounded by very exclusive goods, such as glass from present-day Tunisia and Algeria, which were a long way away.
In the later extensions, a total of 19 rooms were built and a church that was connected with two stone halls.

Many frescoes were found in the church with passages in Greek referring to biblical and patristic texts, and parts of clay vases with Greek inscriptions were also found which referred to the monks, probably of the fifth or sixth century.
Despite the great cultural-historical value, the monastery will never be an attraction for tourists or other researchers. The reason is that it is almost impossible to preserve it in the open air.
"Unfortunately, parts of the monastery are vulnerable, especially the walls that are built in clay. Two rain showers and four years of wind will destroy the monastery. The best way to preserve it is to put the sand back. It is heartbreaking, but I have seen with my own eyes how other archeological sites have disappeared," says researcher Victor Ghica.
The researchers found holes in the ground that they believe were used to store sharp, Egyptian clay jars with wine (bottom, in the middle of the picture).
The holes in the wall show where the wooden beams in the floor divider were attached. Elsewhere, the floors are preserved, which is very special since the buildings are over 1500 years old. That monks had two floors is in itself new, according to the researchers.
The picture shows the remains of a death mask plated with gold. It was found during the excavation, but has nothing to do with the monastery's work.
The walls of the chapel are covered with inscriptions in Greek. The texts describe, among other things, the institution of the Eucharist. The material it is written on is vulnerable and can easily fall down if the desert sand is not moved back.
Potsherd, or ostracon, letter of a monk to the abbot about his study abroad in Constantinople.

The last part of the monastery was excavated in December. At the bottom right is the chapel. The semicircle at the back to the left is a combined kitchen and warehouse with ovens and tables. In the middle there is a hall with remnants of wardrobes.