CAIRO — The Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities said in a press release March 13 that a Norwegian-French archaeological mission operating in Egypt discovered ancient buildings at a site that monks settled in during the fifth century in the Bahariya Oasis, to the southwest of Cairo.
The ministry noted that the mission unearthed several buildings made of basalt stone and carved into the rock, as well as buildings made of mud bricks in the Tal area, south of Qasr al-Ajouz in the Bahariya Oasis.
The statement cited Victor Gica, head of the mission, as saying that the importance of this discovery lies in the fact that it “provides insight into the planning of buildings and the formation of the first monastic congregations in Egypt in this region.”
Gica also said that the mission unveiled 19 rooms carved into the rock as well as a well-preserved church with two stone-carved rooms attached.
He noted that the walls bear Greek religious texts from the Bible written in yellow ink reflecting the nature of monastic life in this region.
According to Gica, the texts indicate that monks settled in this region in the fifth century.
The statement also quoted Osama Talaat, head of the Islamic, Coptic and Jewish Antiquities Sector at the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt, as saying that the mud brick buildings, which date back to between the fourth and seventh centuries, consist of six areas that include the remains of three churches, several residences and walls bearing inscriptions and symbols with Coptic connotations.
Asked about the importance of this discovery, Abdul Rahim Rayhan, director general of Research, Archaeological Studies and Scientific Publishing in the region of archaeology of the south Sinai Peninsula, told Al-Monitor over the phone that this archaeological discovery adds another historical and archaeological character to the Bahariya Oasis area, which is home to a panoply of ancient Egyptian, Roman, Christian and Islamic monuments and a number of ancient Egyptian tombs and temples.
He said that the archaeological discovery provides new information about the monastic life in this isolated region, which the monks have resorted to since the fifth century in order to escape the persecution by the Romans and because they were fond of this calm area that suited monastic life. They embarked on building the integrated system of the monastery after they had been relying for a long time on individual residences, he added.
The monastery subsequently had original architectural elements added to it, namely: churches, rooms to meet over agape meals, residences, a tower designed for protection purposes and a service area. As a result, he noted, monasticism spread from Egypt across the globe.
Rayhan pointed out that the oasis region witnessed previous discoveries of Christian antiquities in the villages of al-Bawiti, Mandisha and al-Hiz. And this region, which travelers wrote about in the 19th century, continued to play a role in Islamic times as a crossing point for trade.
Bassam el-Shammaa, Egyptologist and a tourist guide, told Al-Monitor over the phone that the importance of this discovery lies in the discovery of antiquities that are different from Egypt’s typical ancient tombs, mummies and coffins, and that this is an important, rare and interesting discovery.
He added that these monuments potentially date back to the seventh century, which is around the time Islam was introduced in Egypt, and this is why it would be interesting to study this period and see how the early Muslims dealt with Christian monks back then.
He said that the discovery sheds light on the aspects of urban planning at the time and life in general, as it provides geospatial information and unveils the means adopted to cover the necessities of daily life, such as water. It unveils the use of certain stones in construction and reveals details related to urban community planning, and the shape and division of buildings, all of which indicate that monks were looking for a place to settle in for a long time and not just temporarily.
Asked about the nature of the building itself, Shammaa pointed out that the mixing of basalt stones and mud bricks is interesting, as basalt requires the presence of nearby quarries as well as specific transportation and stone formation, and this is not commensurate with the simple life of monks, unlike mud brick, which is easy to use.
Egypt is constantly striving to promote its ancient heritage through such successive discoveries in order to breathe new life into its tourism sector, which has suffered successive blows due to the political and security instability plaguing the country since the overthrow of the late President Hosni Mubarak a decade ago. Add to this the declining tourism sector due to the outbreak of the coronavirus almost a year ago.
Egypt announced Feb. 15 that an Egyptian-American mission unearthed what could be the world’s oldest beer factory in history, dating back more than 5,000 years, in Abydos, an ancient burial ground in the Western Desert in Sohag governorate.
However, Shammaa believes that such discoveries would have a limited impact on tourism, as this sector is in need of out-of-the-box plans to come back to life.