White and Red Monasteries

World Monuments Watch
Sohag, Egypt

Site History and Significance

One of Egypt’s Richest Surviving Coptic Archaeological Sites

The White and Red monastic churches, among the best-preserved in Egypt, are located near the village of Sohag, amid what may be one of the richest surviving Coptic archaeological sites. Once part of larger monastic complexes, the churches date from the earliest years of Christian monasticism, which was born in the Egyptian desert in the waning years of the third century A.D.

Both structures exhibit a fusion of pharaonic, Roman civic, and Christian architectural styles. The larger of the two, the White Monastery church, is built of dressed white limestone and was once used by communities of monks and nuns under the leadership of the mid-fifth-century cleric St. Shenute, who was instrumental in shaping early monasticism. The nearby Red Monastery church is a smaller copy of the White Monastery executed in red brick. Both sanctuaries contain exceptional figural paintings and sculpture dating from the fifth through fourteenth centuries.

Environmental Change and Agricultural Development Raise Concerns

Built in what had once been arid desert, the monastery churches are now at risk due to a rise in the water table in the wake of the construction of the Aswan High Dam, and a resulting pressure from those wishing to cultivate newly fertile land.

Our Involvement

2002 World Monuments Watch

After the site’s inclusion on the 2002 World Monuments Watch, research and conservation activities developed at both churches, providing a greater understanding of the conditions and needs of these monasteries.

At the White Monastery (Deir Anba Shenoute), the Yale Egyptological Institute played an active role in the stewardship and documentation of the surviving elements of the monastic complex for many years, and recorded all visible stone inscriptions. Another project conducted at the same site concentrated on the remains surrounding the Church and, in addition to documentation, included the conservation of wall paintings and the completion of a site management plan.

At the Red Monastery, a project was initiated in 2005 by the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE), with funding from the United States Agency for International Development and in collaboration with Roma Tre University. This project resulted in the cleaning and conservation of mural decoration in many parts of the surviving sanctuary. Both projects were operated in collaboration with Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities.

Crisis Response Program

In January 2022, after heavy and unprecedented rainfall in Sohag, the north wall of the fifth century church of the White Monastery suffered a partial collapse. To urgently avoid any further collapse of the wall, ARCE approached Orascom Construction Industries, a major Egyptian contracting company, to construct a steel support structure with safe working platforms to assist with the future conservation of the wall. With support from World Monuments Fund’s (WMF) Crisis Response Program, the design and installation of the support structure was completed in June 2022, without any further collapse of masonry from the wall.

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Last updated: July 2022.

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