The Red Monastery: Will the Last Byzantine Monument in Egypt Survive Local Development?
It has been claimed that the Red Monastery, more specifically, its principal church, is one of three surviving examples of Byzantine architecture from the early period of that empire’s history, the other two being the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy, and Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey.
Why ‘the Red Monastery’?
The Red Monastery (known also as ‘Deir al-Ahmar’ and ‘Deir Anba Bishoi / Bishai’) is a Coptic Orthodox monastery located near Sohag, a city in Upper Egypt. This monument is thought to date to either the 4th or 5th century AD, during which Egypt was under the rule of the Byzantine Empire.
The external wall of the Red Monastery. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )
The Red Monastery is named as such due to the color of the material used to construct its outer walls, i.e. red-colored burnt brick. This distinguishes it from the White Monastery, which lies about 4 km (2.4 miles) to the northwest to its red counterpart, with its walls of white limestone. The monastery’s other name, Deir Anba Bishoi / Bishai is an indication that the building was dedicated to St. Pishoi, or Bishoi / Bishai in Arabic.
Northern doorway of the late antique Red Monastery Church (Sohag). Credit: Schroeder. ( CC BY NC ND )
Retreating from the World
The Red Monastery was built during the 5th century, at a time when Christian monasticism was a popular means of retreating from the affairs of the world. To do so, monasteries would be set up in secluded sites far away from populated areas, such as in empty deserts, or on the top of mountains. The Red Monastery is no exception, and is located in a desert-like location. One factor contributing to the survival of this monastery is also the dry climate of the area in which it is located.
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The Famous Monastic Church
One of the notable features of the Red Monastery is its monastic church (known also as the Church of St. Pishoi), which is in the northeastern part of the monastery. This was the main church of the monastery, and is reckoned to have been built either during the second half of the 5th century AD or the first quarter of the 6th century AD.
The church is in the form of a basilica, with a long stone nave that terminates in a trilobed sanctuary. It has been observed that the church has a mixture of ancient Egyptian, Roman and Coptic elements in it, and that its walls were constructed by alternating layers of stone and wood.
North Apse of the Red Monastery Church. Late antique portraits of the Shenoute Federation’s four “founding fathers” in niches below the semidome painting of the Nursing Virgin. Credit: Schroeder. With appreciation to Dr. Elizabeth Bolman (CC BY NC ND )
Each layer of stone was separated from the next one by a layer of large tree trunks, so as to reduce the risk of collapse in the event of an earthquake. In addition, the interior of the sanctuary is decorated with sculptures and paintings, most of which have been dated to between the 6th and 8th centuries AD. These are considered as the best example of the Classical and ancient Egyptian artistic tradition that continued into the Late Antique period.
Keeping the Red Monastery Safe
Much restoration work and preventive measures have been carried out on the Red Monastery (on the monastic church, specifically) in order to ensure its survival. For example, in 1910, an internal fence was set up in the monastic church to protect the sanctuary. In more recent times, restoration work has been conducted on the sanctuary itself, especially on its priceless wall paintings. One mission, which was directed by the art historian Elizabeth Bolman, focused on the sanctuary, and took 15 years to complete. Of these, 10 were dedicated to the restoration of the wall paintings.
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One of the threats to the Red Monastery comes not from above the ground, but from underground. Whilst the area around the monastery is becoming urbanized, there is a lack of a proper sewer system, and the area’s inhabitants are still relying on the old mechanism of ditches. As a consequence, sewage is entering the ground beneath the monastery, thus making it unstable. Moreover, the rising groundwater level, which is a result of the surrounding urbanization and agricultural activities, is predicted to destabilize the walls, which in turn would attract termites, and cause much structural damage to this ancient monument.