Skip to main content

Monasteries as Institutional Powers in Late Antique and Early Islamic Egypt: Evidence from Neglected Coptic Sources

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - MONASPOWER (Monasteries as Institutional Powers in Late Antique and Early Islamic Egypt: Evidence from Neglected Coptic Sources)

Reporting period: 2016-04-01 to 2018-03-31

The main purpose of this project was to reassess and establish the economic position of Coptic monasteries in late Roman and early Islamic Egypt (5th-8th centuries CE) on the basis of neglected sources. The significance of monasteries has been underestimated in the past and overlooked or neglected by ancient historians, largely because of the difficulty in accessing the sources, which requires specialist knowledge of Coptic. This project aimed to:
-focus on unpublished material and make it accessible to non-specialists;
-contextualise the textual material within its broader archaeological context;
-draw upon this evidence to provide new and more balanced perspectives on the economic landscape of Egypt;
-reassess and establish the economic position of Coptic monasteries in the 5th-8th centuries, a period that spans the transition from late Roman to early Islamic Egypt.
The results demonstrate that the case study monastery played a significant social and economic role in central Egypt, with extensive local and national networks.The landholdings and redistributive economy of the monastery demonstrate that while its was not as large or wealthy as the contemporary private estates, in its immediate area it was one of the major landowners, employers, and goods producers. To the inhabitants of the Nile Valley, monasteries would have been a prominent and important feature of many aspects of day-to-day lives of Egyptians.
The study has wider implications for understanding the distribution of economic power in early medieval countries, the role of religious organisations at a micro and macro level, and the interrelationship between secular and religious institutions and organisations. The results are important to the study of monasticism, economic history in the Late Roman and post-Roman Mediterranean worlds, and early medieval history.
The project was based on the exploitation of unpublished sources from two groups:
1)the unpublished papyri in the Carlsberg Papyrus Collection, which my preliminary investigations suggested derived from monastic contexts;
2)ca. 1,100 unpublished texts from the monastic complex of Wadi Sarga in central Egypt, to add to the almost 400 texts from the site published in 1922.
Upon further examination of the Copenhagen papyri, it was discovered that less material than anticipated was directly relevant to the project’s objectives. It was decided to postpone work on this material and focus instead on the Wadi Sarga texts. This work entailed making working editions of the texts, both for data collection and final publication.
The textual sources from Wadi Sarga provide the primary information for the economic management of the monastery. The data was entered into a filemaker database and focussed on prosopographic information (i.e. individuals mentioned in and their titles/role within the organisation), place names, commodities (foodstuffs and goods produced), and wine (the dominant commodity encountered in the material). This data was analysed and a monograph was prepared. By the end of the project, drafts of five of the planned eight chapters were produced. The completion of the monograph was delayed due to the decision to prepare an edited volume on interdisciplinary approaches to the study of monasticism in a broader geographic (Egypt, Palestine, and Jordan) and temporal context (4th-10th centuries).
This edited volume originated in a workshop organised during the initial months of the workshop, which brought together scholars working on these regions from a range of disciplinary backgrounds, including art history, textiles, archaeology, and texts (Greek, Coptic, Syriac, and Arabic). It was organised in conjunction with two other projects, to establish long-term working networks: ‘The Emergence of Sacred Travel’ (Århus) and ‘Cult of Saints in Antiquity’ (ERC Advanced Grant; Oxford). This meeting was the first of its kind, innovatively bringing together this range of geographic and disciplinary specialists, providing different perspectives on the topic and allowing interdisciplinary discussion. The volume comprises 18 studies, divided approximately in a ratio of 3:1 in terms of Egyptian and Palestinian / Jordanian evidence. This division reflects the level of current research being undertaken on this issue in the two regions. While Egypt dominates, the case studies reveal that the surviving sources are not distributed evenly in quantity or type from the respective areas. Examining the regions side-by-side allows gaps in the evidence of each to be filled and new questions to be asked. The manuscript was completed by the end of the project and is currently undergoing peer-review.

Throughout the project, I have presented my findings at major international conferences and also at smaller meetings on different aspects resulting from the study. In addition to the workshop mentioned above, I organised a second, smaller workshop at Copenhagen University. This meeting shifted focus south of Egypt, to the Christian kingdoms of Nubia (Sudan). By doing so, I was able to situation the Egyptian evidence within a broader North African context and the connections and differences between the two countries were discussed. I also disseminated my work to non-academic audiences, principally the Danish Egyptology Society, the Danish Egyptian Society, the Swedish Egyptology Association, and also school groups in the UK (primary schools, for whom the study of Egypt forms part of the annual syllabus).
The edited volume on monasticism in Egypt, Palestine, and Jordan represents the major deliverable of the project. Upon publication, it will be a significant contribution to the study of monasticism in the southern and eastern Mediterranean world and will represent the new state of the art, identifying new research pathways and interdisciplinary approaches that have previous not been brought together. It is also the first volume to examine side-by-side organisations from this broad geographic region.
The monograph on Wadi Sarga, which will be completed after the end of the project, will be the most extensive study of a single Egyptian monastery and will impact the field and influence how future studies are undertaken, not only of monasteries but how the economic landscape of late antique Egypt (and late antiquity in general) is to be understood. By the end of the project, editions of two groups of texts were submitted for publication in an open-access journal, so that they will be easily available and accessible to scholars (school texts, a previously unknown category of document from the site, which provides evidence for literacy and education; and wine receipts, which represent the dominant textual source from the site, as wine was the most important commodity at all levels of transactions). The remaining texts will be published following the end of the project.

The immediate impact of the project is on Egypt and our understanding of its economy during the late Roman and early Islamic periods. However, the contributions to the state of knowledge on the interrelationship between religious and secular communities, on power management in the countryside, and social and economic networks extend beyond Egypt's borders and will serve as a model that can be utilised for medieval to early modern (pre-industrial) societies.