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Stone huts from an early Christian community near tomb no. 6 (Panehsy)

Background

The period of the 5th and 6th centuries AD saw a second major human occupation of the Amarna plain. At this time Egypt was ruled from Constantinople (Istanbul) as a province of the Byzantine Empire. Christianity had become the official religion. In Egypt the population was swept up in an enthusiasm for the monastic way of life. Middle Egypt was perfect for this. The proximity of desert and cliffs on the eastern side of the river gave the sense of austere retreat without inflicting too much privation, and the many ancient tombs, quarries and natural caves offered shelters that could be improved and converted into dwellings and even churches. On the flat strip of desert many small monasteries of mud brick were also constructed. By the time of the Arab conquest (639–641 AD) the monastic enthusiasm was probably waning, and many of the sites seem to have been abandoned around this time.

Amarna participated in this colonisation of the desert. There were villages in the places where some of the modern villages are, but specifically monastic establishments appeared on the flat desert and in the cliffs. The principal example of the former is Kom el-Nana where a small monastery was built over the remains of an enclosure of the Amarna Period. Excavations were carried out here in the 1990s and in 2000. One discovery was the apse of the monastic church which yielded a mass of fragments of painted wall plaster.

Towards the northern end of the Amarna plain small huts of dry-stone construction were built in an extended line in the face of the cliffs, with a particular concentration in front of the North Tombs of the Amarna Period. These have been planned in outline by the expedition. One of the tombs (no. 6, belonging to Panehsy, one of Akhenaten’s chief priests) was converted into a church. In 2007 this aspect of its history was made the subject of a field survey by Gillian Pyke.

For the background to this period at Amarna, see J. Faiers, S. Clackson, B. Kemp, G. Pyke and R. Reece, Late Roman pottery at Amarna and related studies. Seventy-second Excavation Memoir. London, Egypt Exploration Society 2005.

Map of early Christian sites in the Amarna area

Map of the Amarna area showing early Christian sites identified by archaeology. The lines of the river banks and cultivation on the east side are those of the late 19th century AD, as mapped by the Napoleonic expedition.
click to enlarge

Map of the Amarna area showing early Christian sites identified by archaeology. The lines of the river banks and cultivation on the east side are those of the late 19th century AD, as mapped by the Napoleonic expedition.

Timeline

  • 332 BC - conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great
  • 30 BC - death of Cleopatra VII; Egypt becomes a Roman province
  • 3 BC (approximately) - birth of Jesus of Nazareth; legendary flight of his family to Egypt, reaching as far as Deir el-Moharrak, and thus presumably passing Amarna
  • 33 AD (approximately) - death of Jesus of Nazareth
  • 50 AD (approximately) - mission of Saint Mark to Egypt; beginnings of the Christian Coptic church in Egypt
  • 313 AD - Edict of Milan gives full toleration to Christianity in the Roman Empire
  • 395 AD - division of the Roman Empire; Egypt ruled from Constantinople
  • 450-650 AD (very approximately) - time span of the Christian sites in the Amarna area
  • 639-641 AD - Arab conquest of Egypt, led by Amr Ibn Al-As
 
 

Website first posted September 2000; last updated November 2010 | enquiries concerning website: email bjk2@cam.ac.uk