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A View from Heaven. Exploring the Potential of Remote Sensing Techniques to Study Spatial Patterns of Monastic Habitation on the East Bank of the Nile in Middle Egypt

Final Report Summary - VIEWFROMHEAVEN (A View from Heaven. Exploring the Potential of Remote Sensing Techniques to Study Spatial Patterns of Monastic Habitation on the East Bank of the Nile in Middle Egypt.)

From AD 300-800, Middle Egypt had a thriving Christian community and a large number of monastic settlements. In the Hermopolite and Antinoïte nomes, a substantial area forming a geographical and cultural-historical unity, the east bank of the Nile was particularly densely settled. Here, monks mainly chose to live in Pharaonic tombs and quarries in the chain of hills hugging the river, forming semi-anachoretic communities. Our research had the aim to understand how and when this monastic landscape took shape. To this effect, a monastic settlement pattern was established and sites localized by satellite-based Remote Sensing. Geographic Information Systems were used for integrated spatial data processing of this “view from heaven”. The overall aim was to generate a map of the monastic landscape in conjunction with historical research and archaeological field surveys.
The composite main question can be broken down into a series of specific objectives:
a. to establish the monastic settlement patterns on the hills and plain of the east bank of the Nile in the Hermopolite and Antinoïte nomes;
b. to investigate the spatial distribution of settlements and mobility (intra- and inter-site);
c. to investigate the size of settlements in order to arrive at estimates of the (relative) number of inhabitants, which may point to a certain level of organization of the community;
d. to investigate possible relationships between specific types of settlements (large communities, isolated hermitages, parent communities in the plain) and the natural environment.
Some basic documentation on monastic settlements in this area, mainly concerned with individual structures, is available. Innovative research on a large scale, a systematic analysis of the religious landscape as carried out in this project, mapping the sites and studying the spatial pattern of settlements and their interaction, is vital for an understanding of how monasticism took shape and functioned in this region. This novel, interdisciplinary approach has yielded new insights in distribution and organization of monastic communities on the East Bank of the Nile in Middle Egypt.
Based on the published documentation, a list of monastic settlements in the research area has been drawn up and for each site, and a basic documentation and bibliography has been compiled. Historical or literary sources concerning monasteries or hermits in this region during the late Antique and early Christian period are scarce. Hagiographical sources and documentary papyri give names of churches and monasteries, especially in and around Antinoupolis. However, it has, up till now, not been possible to link the textual evidence to the abundant archaeological remains.
To establish spatial patterns of monastic habitation, the mobility (intra- and intersite), and to investigate possible relationships between specific types of settlements (large communities, isolated hermitages, parent communities in the floodplain) and the natural environment, RS and GIS techniques were used. Spatial analysis is nowadays a mainstream archaeological approach, but the method is only beginning to impinge on the archaeology of late-antique Egypt.
The project was embedded in the Dayr al-Barshā project (http://www.dayralbarsha.com/) directed by prof. H. Willems, which is carrying out an archaeological research aiming at spatial analysis in this part of Middle Egypt, and was carried out in close collaboration with the large interdisciplinary and international research project Anthropogenic and Physical Landscape Dynamics in Large Fluvial Systems. This project (director: Prof. G. Verstraeten; co-director: Prof. H. Willems) aims to evaluate the potential of RS-imagery to model Man--environment interaction on two morphologically distinct parts of the fluvial system (the Nile Delta and Middle Egypt) through time and the impact of these interactions on the natural and cultural heritage of Egypt. Results will be generated using a variety of satellite and radar imagery, calibrated and validated with historical data, terrestrial-RS and field observations (sediment coring and archaeological surveying and excavations).
The area was mapped using very high spatial resolution satellite imagery. Visual inspection of an enhanced Quickbird-2 and Worldview-2 images targeted known quarry zones and tomb complexes, as well as signs of reuse (for example wall remains in front of the gallery quarries or tombs), and led to the identification of further quarry zones and other evidence. Moreover, the road system was traced.
The existence of paths connecting suitable dwelling spaces is one of the distinct markers of a semi-anachoretic monastic community. Paths or roads also lead to communal facilities; clusters of dwellings have roads linking them to the outside world. Therefore, a reconstruction of the road system can give an indication of the size of the cluster of habitations, relations between clusters, a possible relationship to a plain settlement or a combination of these characteristics. Since RS implies a spatial context of the features analyzed, it allows the production of a basic map to serve as a starting point for the field survey.
Security reasons, caused by the changed political circumstances in Egypt, averted the field mission of 2011. During the missions of 2012 and 2013, travelling was restricted. Although we were forced to limit test areas, still a significant amount of sites were investigated: From south to north, al-Shaykh Sa’id, Dayr al-Barsha, Dayr Abu Hinnis (together ‘the Greater Dayr al-Barsha region) and Speos Artemidos. These test sites show a variety of physical circumstances as well as a variety of reused spaces: an ensemble of tombs in a steep cliff face in al-Shaykh Sa’id, a mixture of tombs and gallery quarries lining a cliff face and wadi in Dayr al-Barsha, gallery quarries along several wadis in Dayr Abu Hinnis, and reused tombs in conjunction with open cast quarries at Speos Artemidos. Dayr al-Dik, a wide hill area with scattered open cast quarries and gallery quarries is part of the archaeological concession of the Antinoupolis Project of the Istituto papirologico G. Vitelli (Florence), under direction of Prof. R. Pintaudi. I was invited to join their mission but security reasons have prevented, up till now, work on site.
The limited field control missions of 2012 and 2013 facilitated ground verification of the results of the previous RS study. Survey included taking GPS readings of the entrances of the gallery quarries and tombs and the recording of characteristics related to their reuse. Roads and paths were examined and their context documented. Features of each individual quarry or tomb were set out in Microsoft Excel and, in conjunction with the GPS readings, imported in the ESRI/ArcGIS® module ArcMap. Data analysis was performed using selection queries as implemented in the ArcGIS software. A first movement analysis was done on the basis of visual inspection (RS analysis of satellite images and observation of the landscape during survey). GIS-based movement analysis (Least Cost Pathways) and intervisibility analysis (Viewshed) will follow at a later date when a Digital Elevation Map (DEM) of the region will be available (in preparation by Marijn Hendrickx, Gent University, Department of Geography).
In cooperation with the Department of Geography of Gent University , the programme Photoscan (a 3D vision application based on ‘structure from motion’ (SFM) and dense stereo-reconstruction techniques) was employed to reconstruct part of Dayr Abu Hinnis Quarry 16 with signs of use (beam holes, hooks). Photoscan created a precise georeferenced 3D model which allowed the unique reconstruction of a horizontal loom, proving the existence of a weaving workshop.
Although political events and successive unrest have obstructed a complete picture of the monastic landscape of the east bank of the Hermopolite and the Antinoite nome in the late Antique – early Islamic period, the results for the Greater Dayr al-Barsha region so far show an entirely changed map: the traditionally known settlements were clearly part of a larger settlement pattern which does not comply to formerly accepted theories on monastic organization in this area. This altered view on size and distribution of habitation zones gives new insights in the relative intensity of occupation, a topic of subsequent follow-up research.
Research of spatial patterns requires research in a large area. The inspection of satellite imagery and the application of spatial analysis using GIS techniques therefore provide the ideal tools for investigating such large scale research questions. Prior to fieldwork, the topography of the region can be scrutinized and theories and models can be developed. A spatial perspective allows for a better understanding of the landscape. Fieldwork remains vital: models and theories can only be verified on site.

KU Leuven – Department of Egyptology - http://www.dayralbarsha.com/