White and Red Monasteries

World Monuments Watch
Sohag, Egypt

2002 World Monuments Watch

Two monastic churches, among the best-preserved in Egypt, stand at the edge of civilization near the village of Sohag, amid what may be one of the richest surviving Coptic archaeological sites. Once part of larger monastic complexes, the White and Red monastery 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. The churches 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. 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.

Since the Watch

Since 2002, research and conservation activities have taken place at both sites, providing a greater understanding of the conditions and needs of these monasteries. At the White Monastery, the Yale Egyptological Institute has for many years taken an active role in the stewardship and documentation of the surviving element of the monastic complex, including the recording of all visible stone inscriptions. Another project at the same site, currently ongoing, has concentrated on the remains surrounding the Church. In addition to documentation, this project also encompasses 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, 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 are operated in collaboration with Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities. January 2011

Last updated: June 2018.

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