Deir el-Bakhît and the Theban Monastery of St. Paulos

Site directors: Dr. Ina Eichner (main monastery complex), Dr. Thomas Beckh (external units)

The Monastery of Deir el-Bakhît

The Monastery of Deir el-Bakhît is situated on the ridge of Draʻ Abu el-Naga, a chain of hills located on the Theban West Bank in Upper Egypt. The site encompasses several pharaonic tombs that were used as hermitages by individual monks of the original monastic settlement in the 5th century AD (the so-called Units 26 and 27), as well as a walled monastery complex of the late 6th century/early 7th century AD that was inhabited by a coenobitic monastic community (fig. 1). 

The hermitages of the outlying Units 26 and 27 can be identified as the oldest monastic structures on the Dra’ Abu el-Naga hill.

An anchorite seems to have lived in Unit 26 and soon attracted visitors or other hermits who then settled in the neighbouring pharaonic tombs. Inscriptions referring to Apa Paulos, who may have been the founding father, were discovered in Units 26 and 27 and on ostraca found in the main monastery. A close association between the two external units and the main monastery is therefore certain. 

The identification of this monastery with that of the Monastery of Paulos mentioned in various texts allows us to set its correspondence and commercial activities into context with other monasteries. As a result of investigations carried out in the founding cell in Unit 26, and in the area of the access routes that lead to the monastery, the interconnection of the various installations and features that constitute the sacral topography on the Dra’ Abu el-Naga hill have been clarified to a great extent.

In 2014, a geophysical survey and the excavation of test trenches were undertaken in the main monastery complex with the aim of locating the monastery’s church. Conclusive results, however, were not obtained. On the other hand, a small chapel came to light in the hermitage of Unit 26 (fig. 2), which was most probably visited by pilgrims even as late as the 12th century.

History of research at Deir el-Bakhît and further research objectives

One of the initial aims of the years 2004–2009 was to investigate the monastery’s central buildings and to explore the day-to-day life of the coenobitic monastic community of Deir el-Bakhît.

In the years 2010–2012, the surrounding area of the coenobitic monastery was investigated by means of a survey under the direction of Dr. Thomas Beckh. The goal was to reconstruct the settlement development of the monastic structures and features on the Dra’ Abu el-Naga hill. During these investigations, it became increasingly clear that the monastery could be identified as the Monastery of Paulos in the mountains of Djeme, hitherto only known from written sources.

As a result of the survey’s findings, research since 2012 has focused on the sacral topography of the entire Dra’ Abu el-Naga hillside in the frame of the project entitled “Sacral Topography of a Monastic Landscape and its Development on the Hill of Dra’ Abu el-Naga / Upper Egypt: Deir el-Bakhît and the Theban Monastery of Paulos – Pilot Phase”.

The campaigns between 2012 and 2015

The 2012 campaign

In order to clarify the interrelationship between the external Units 26 and 27 and the monastery complex located in the saddle of the hill, the network of paths were re-examined. One of the questions was whether the paths leading from Units 26 and 27, and ending in front of the main monastery’s eastern side indicated the existence of an eastern gate, which would have allowed for rapid communication between the main monastery and the associated outlying structures. 

During the course of excavations on the monastery’s eastern side, no evidence of a gate was found on this side of the complex. Its entire length was devoid of open sections. A test trench excavated on the eastern side of the wall revealed that a section of the wall was destroyed down to the level of the bedrock. The absence of architectural features at this spot led to the original assumption that a gate was once located here. However, due to the extent of the destruction, further statements on this subject are not possible (fig. 3). 

Furthermore, the entire eastern part of the complex was built during a later phase of the monastery (fig. 4). As a consequence, even if an eastern gate had existed in the damaged section of the wall, this would have been associated with a very late construction phase of the monastic complex. 

Thus, the question remains where the paths that led from Units 26 and 27 to the main monastery ended in an entrance of the complex. Since the geophysical measurements recorded in 2014, the north-eastern corner of the complex can be viewed as a potential area for such a feature.

Work in the external units of the monastery

The epigraphic documentation of Coptic graffiti was continued in Units 26, 27 and TT 378. Four visitor’s inscriptions were identified in Unit 26, the founding cell of the Deir el-Bakhît monastery which formed the nucleus of the monastic development that gradually extended over the Dra’ Abu el-Naga hill.

More Coptic graffiti were found in TT 378, a pharaonic tomb which was reused by Coptic monks. The name Anatolius is particularly interesting in this context as he is known as a member of the monastic community both from ostraca that were found in the main monastery as well as from texts that are now housed in the British Museum but originated from Deir el-Bakhît.

More graffiti were discovered in Unit 27 which include several names that could be identified such as Apello, Isak and a man named Aphou.

The 2013 campaign

Initiation of the pilot project on the sacral topography of the Dra’ Abu el-Naga hill.

Objectives of the pilot project:

One of the objectives was the localization of the monastery’s church. A second objective was to clarify whether the veneration of St. Paul, who is mentioned in textual sources, took place at the site and if so, where this took place and how it was organized. Also to be clarified was whether this sacred space existed in the form of a modest monk’s church or an elaborate structure such as the church of Shenoute in Sohag or the East Church at Abu Mena, and which architectural tradition it was influenced by.

Evidence on the way in which St. Paul was venerated would allow us to draw conclusions on whether a regional pilgrim shrine developed at the site, and on the monastery’s hierarchical status amongst the monasteries that are attested on the Theban West Bank. The significance of the monastery can only be clarified once the sacred buildings and the religious dimension of monastic life as well as the relationship to the cult and worship of Paulos, and the organization of the worship by the monastic community have been studied comprehensively.

As the geophysical investigations, which had initially been planned for the 2013 campaign, had to be postponed until 2014, the search for the church began this year with test excavations at several potential sites in the northern part of the monastic complex.

As a consequence, a test trench was excavated in the north-west corner of the complex, an area in which Peter Grossmann had already suspected a Nile-oriented pharaonic tomb complex with a pylon and a forecourt which seem to have been integrated into the monastery (fig. 5). It could be confirmed that the space was used as a courtyard during the monastery’s existence. The remains of a brick slab pavement came to light in the southern part of the courtyard. Parts of the original mud floor were preserved in the northern half. The natural bedrock is exposed in many areas. No evidence was found in this area that indicated its use as a church. The southern part of the courtyard was filled up with white limestone rubble in order to level out the uneven natural surface of the underlying bedrock. The mud floor and brick slabs were laid upon the limestone fill.

A small room adjoins the south-western part of the courtyard. A staircase is located on the southern side of the room and three clay steps of this feature are preserved (fig. 6).

The floor of the room was paved with limestone and bricks but is badly damaged in many areas. During the last use phase of this room, it was used as a stable for goats.

Excavations were also carried out further to the east. An extremely large, east-west oriented room was found here, whose perimeter walls are constructed with quarry stones.

A test trench was excavated in the eastern section of this room because its size and orientation made it a promising candidate for the location of the church. However, no indications of a church were discovered. Despite this situation, excavation in this area yielded important results regarding the chronology of the monastery’s buildings.

In its last use phase, this area was filled with white lime mortar and compressed limestone debris into which several large storage vessels were set (figs. 7, 8). The western wall of this room was constructed on top of the layer of limestone debris. The adjoining room to the west can therefore be assigned to a later phase of the monastery’s occupation. This observation is significant for the overall chronology of the monastery as it was previously assumed that the oldest structures were located here.

Consequently, the results obtained during the 2013 excavation campaign in the northern section of the monastery complex have proved that all excavated areas (the north-western courtyard [fig. 5] and the room with the limestone debris [figs. 7, 8]) all belong to later extension phases of the monastery. It can be concluded that the northern section of the monastery was originally levelled off with large amounts of white limestone rubble and, at least according to current observations, that the architectural features were built at a later stage.

The 2014 campaign 

Work in the main monastery complex

The 2014 campaign centred around the geophysical prospection of the main monastery (geomagnetics and geoelectrics) conducted by Eastern Atlas GmbH & Co.KG with accompanying small-scale excavations to verify the results of the geophysical readings.

The surveyed area extended over the entire monastery with a focus on the areas to the north and east. These areas were chosen specifically with the aim of localizing the monastery’s church. They are also extremely important for reconstructing the overall layout of the monastery, even if they remain unexcavated for the time being.

However, neither the geomagnetic, nor the ground penetrating radar readings provided any indications for pinpointing the position of the church.

Small-scale test trenches accompanied the survey in order to verify which kinds of structures were being displayed by the readings. These excavations involved the removal of only a few layers as the aim was to uncover wall copings and the upper edges of the structures and not to excavate down to the natural bedrock.

Since 2012, the north-east corner of the monastery was assumed to be the site of a gate that connected the complex with the external structures of Units 26 and 27. However, a thick wall of quarry stone bonded with clay mortar was discovered instead. A pronounced change in the construction technique of the wall which can be observed in one section (fig. 9) suggests that this section was repaired at some point. It is possible that the presumed entrance to the monastery is located in this area. This, however, can only be clarified by full-depth excavation down to the natural bedrock.

In the area to the east of two monk’s cells, which were excavated during 2004, it could be established that the building for the accommodation of the monks continued further. A large space extended from this point in which no structures were visible on the surface and was therefore another potential site for the church. The geophysical readings indicated small-scale structures that were verified by test excavations. In the course of these excavations, no structures were uncovered that could be connected to a church. Instead, another monk’s cell came to light (fig. 10) thus confirming a further, earlier speculation that the dormitory building was extended to the east. In this context, the exceptionally wide corridor that separates the two rows of monks’ cells is particularly remarkable.

Work in Unit 26

During excavation of Unit 26, the eastern section of a small Christian chapel was discovered which had been built into a pharaonic tomb (fig. 2). This chapel constitutes one of the monastery’s oldest structures. A small-scale column was unearthed that was originally part of an altar table. A cavity, which had been bored into the column’s shaft, was found to contain 29 gold coins. The coins themselves had been wrapped in a piece of cloth and can be divided into two groups: 18 larger coins that can be identified as solidi and 11 smaller coins or so-called tremisses. The coins can be assigned to the reigns of the emperors Valens (r. 364–378 AD), Valentinian I (r. 364–375 AD) (fig. 11), Justin I (r. 518–527 AD) and Justinian I (r. 527–565 AD). 

A preliminary evaluation of the archaeological features supports the following reconstruction: the pharaonic tomb was used as a dwelling by a Christian hermit during the 5th century AD who was also the founder of the monastic settlement of Draʻ Abu el-Naga North. By no later than the mid 6th century AD, this living space was transformed into a chapel. This space then gradually developed into a cultic centre, and was also used by the monks as a burial site. As the deposition of the coins took place at some point during the 6th century AD, the features in Unit 26 can be viewed as the earliest evidence for a monastic chapel throughout Western Thebes. Furthermore, the discovery of the coin hoard provides chronological evidence for the transformation of the original Christian hermitage installed in a pharaonic tomb into a sacral centre, which was in use until the 12th century AD, as is attested by visitors’ inscriptions on the walls.

The 2015 campaign

The four-week campaign mainly focused on the documentation and evaluation of finds and pottery found during the 2013 and 2014 campaigns, completion of the stone-for-stone architectural documentation as well as the verification of several features and structures which came to light as a result of the geophysical survey in 2014. At the same time, a small test trench was also excavated in the area of the southern monks' cells. The excavation took place in Passageway R 15, which is characterized by a series of niches, in order to clarify the chronological sequence of the attested structures. Here the mud bricks of a barrel vault were found which had collapsed onto the paved floor of Passage R 15 (fig. 12).


The vault had been constructed by bonding individual ring layers and had covered Passage R15 in this area.

Photo credits

Fig. 1: J. Sigl ©DAI/LMU; fig. 2: T.  Beckh ©DAI/LMU; figs. 3, 5-9, 12: I. Eichner ©DAI/LMU; fig. 4: H. Bücherl ©DAI/LMU; fig. 10: V. Becker ©DAI/LMU; fig. 11: P. Windszus ©DAI.