Toward the western outskirts of the Egyptian Delta lie the remains of over one thousand five hundred early Christian monastic structures — mud-brick dwellings dating primarily to the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries. In antiquity, because of the many hermitages that dotted the landscape, the main settlement in the area came to be named Kellia — “The Cells.” Another settlement called Pherme grew up as something of a satellite community to the larger one at Kellia. Both are well known from ancient sources like the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Monasticism at Kellia and Pherme combined elements of the solitary and communal life. While there was ample opportunity for monks to find solitude in their individual cells, many occupied their houses in pairs or groups of three and gathered with other monks weekly for the purposes of worship. This way of life continued until the eighth century, when these settlements declined under early Arab rule.
The site at Kellia lay abandoned for centuries until its rediscovery in 1964. French and Swiss archaeological teams began work at the site the next year, work that continued until 1990. Throughout this period, the French and Swiss teams had to contend with significant environmental and societal factors that threatened the site’s preservation. In the 1960s, the Egyptian government began intensive efforts to reclaim desert territories and sponsor agricultural development through irrigation in the western Delta region. The result of these efforts was a rising water level that increasingly saturated and destabilized the ground in and around the monastic remains. Each year, portions of the site were lost to unmonitored agricultural expansion, and in 1990 the archaeological work at Kellia was suspended.
Mural of St. Menas
The figure, identified by his Greek name, “Agios Menas,” is depicted “orant” (kneeling in prayer). The mural was painted in distemper on the wall of a cell at the monastery of Kellia. St. Menas-the martyr for whom the basilica of Abu Mina, a major pilgrimage site in the early years of Christianity, was built-is always depicted with two camels, in reference to traditional accounts of the miraculous choice of his place of burial. The animals are missing here, due to deterioration.
Menas is depicted in the hieratic pose of the “orant,” a figure in prayer, but his flowing robes alleviate any sense of rigidity in the drawing. The long-sleeved red tunic with narrow cuffs is belted loosely above the thighs, creating heavy, supple pleats. A light-colored cloak, or pallium, protects the saint’s left shoulder, while two braids or cloak fasteners hang down to his waist. The lower part of the body is missing. The paint has flaked off the face, but the thick, short curly hair gives him a youthful appearance. A broad, fully-circular halo completes the portrait of the martyr; the two camels that are traditionally linked to his legend (usually depicted prostrate at his feet) have disappeared.
The decor of a monastic cell
The monastic cells at Kellia were modest, constructed from earth and straw, but nevertheless featured colorful murals painted in distemper: a coat of plaster and whitewash, or plaster and powdered lime, was applied and left to dry on the walls. This provided the support for the paint, a mixture of pigments with a glue or gum binder. The most commonly used pigments were ocher (for the yellows to reds), carbon black (for black), malachite (for green), and calcium carbonate (for white). At Kellia, geometric designs and Christian symbols were more common than figurative scenes such as this.
The monastery at Kellia
The monastery at Kellia was created by St. Anthony during his travels through the Scete desert, sometime around AD 330. Located in the western desert, a few kilometers south-east of the famous basilica dedicated to St. Menas, Kellia featured individual cells (from the Greek word “kellia”) rather than the more familiar enclosed complex of monastic buildings. These individual hermitages were scattered, yet sufficiently close to provide a sense of community, unlike the misanthropic cave-dwellings of the early anchorites. Each “cell” (there were up to 1,500 in the seventh century) comprised a one-roomed habitation and an oratory. The cells were affiliated to a church, where the Sunday liturgy was celebrated, and a refectory, where the monks gathered after mass before dispersing until the following Sunday. At around the same time, an early form of cenobitic monasticism (from the Greek “koinos bios,” or “community life”) was becoming established under the rule of St. Pachomius. The first cenobite architecture produced small “houses” gathered within a boundary wall, together with a church, a hostel, and workshops.
Kellia (“the Cells”), referred to as “the innermost desert”, was a 4th-century Egyptian Christian monastic community spread out over many square kilometers in the Nitrian Desert. It was one of three centers of monastic activity in the region, along with Nitria and Scetis (Wadi El Natrun). It is called al-Muna in Arabic and was inhabited until the 9th century. Only archaeological sites remain there today.
Founded in 338 C.E. by Saint Amun, under the spiritual guidance of Saint Anthony, it was designed for those who wished to enter the cenobitic life in a semi-anchoritic monastery. An account of its founding, perhaps legendary, is in the Apophthegmata Patrum. Amun, who was then a monk at Nitria, one day talked with Anthony saying that he and some brothers wanted to move away “that they may live in peace”. Nitrea had become too successful and they wished for the solitude of the early days. Anthony and Amun ate dinner then walked into the desert until sunset, prayed and planted a cross to mark the site of the new community. The distance was 12 miles, or what Anthony considered close enough to reach in an after-dinner stroll.
Kellia was for advanced monks, for those who “lived a more remote life, stripped down to bare rudiments,” as was recorded in the Greek Historia Monachorum in Aegypto by Flavius Rufinus who personally saw it. The cells were arranged far enough apart that “no one can catch sight of another nor can a voice be heard”. It was only for monks who had first mastered the art of desert living at Nitria. They came together on Saturday and Sunday to share a meal together, some journeying 3 or 4 miles from their cell to the church. “They met in Church and, glimpsing this way and that, see one another as the heaven-restored.” If a monk failed to appear they would know he was sick or died and eventually someone (individually) would bring food or help or collect the remains.
It was believed in the 390s up to 600 monks were at Kellia. By the 5th and 6th centuries it numbered in the thousands. Activity began to taper off in the 7th and 8th centuries due to doctrinal disputes in Egypt, and raids from nomads out of the Libyan desert to the west. The site was abandoned in the 9th century.
Kellia was discovered by archaeologist Antoine Guillaumont in 1964, and has been excavated for over 25 years by French and Swiss teams. The site covers over 125 square kilometers, over which many small hills, or koms, were found. Once excavated they were found to contain many churches and living quarters, or cells named koms. Over 1500 structures have been identified but it is probable there were many more. The structures range from single-cells for one person, to multiple cells for two or three people, to larger hermitages that included rooms for older monks, chapels and towers. In addition there were clusters of buildings that formed centers for communal services (Qasr Waheida), a complex of churches (Qasr Lsa 1), and a commercial center (Qasr al-lzeila). Buildings were made with a sandy mud brick and brick vaulted roofs. Most of the recovered artifacts are pottery, some of the walls are covered in inscriptions, graffiti and paintings.