Five hundred kilometers (320 miles) upriver from Cairo on the western bank of the Nile is the city of Nag Hammadi (26°,3′N, 32°,15′E). An industrial and agricultural center (aluminum, sugar cane production), Nag Hammadi also possesses one of the few bridges across the Nile. Three major archaeological complexes are associated with its name.

In 1843, Richard Lepsius from Berlin surveyed the sixth dynasty tombs situated across the river from Nag Hammadi in the cliff face of Gebel el-Tarif. Earlier, Wilkenson had noted both these tombs and the ancient city site of Hou, just 5 kilometers (3.2 miles) south of presentday Nag Hammadi on the river's western bank. Sixty years later (1898–1899) W. M. Flinders Petrie excavated both a Roman temple at Hou and a nearby Predynastic cemetery. In 1945, thirteen leather-bound codices containing Gnostic and Orthodox Christian tractates, in Coptic, were discovered by local fertilizer miners on the east side of the Nile near the village of Faw Qibli; the name of Nag Hammadi was given to this manuscript find. A brief but inconclusive excavation was conducted by Debono (early 1950s) of the supposed Pachomian monastery remains in Faw Qibli (ancient Pbow), but only with the publication of the manuscript finds, beginning in the 1950s, did work begin both at the discovery site itself and also directly in Faw Qibli. James M. Robinson, organizer of the manuscript publication team, sought to clarify the origin of the manuscripts through archaeological investigation of the find site and in Faw Qibli. Beginning in 1975, six seasons of work have been conducted in the village. Directors have included James M. Robinson, Torgny Säve Söderbergh, Bastiaan van Elderen (all sponsored by the Claremont Institute for Antiquity and Christianity), and Peter Grossmann (from the German Archaeological Institute, Cairo).

There is no doubt that the village of Faw Qibli is to be identified with ancient Pbow, headquarters of the fourth-century system of monasteries founded by Pachomius (c.297–346 CE). Over the six seasons of excavations, the outside walls and inner stylobates (low interior walls on which columns supporting the roof were mounted) of the basilica (dedicated in the year 459 CE) were recovered, along with the remains of earlier ecclesiastical structures. The final season (1989) succeeded in establishing the ground plans of an intermediate church as well as the site's earliest church building. The three churches made extensive use of limestone blocks taken from earlier Roman structures in the immediate area; mud brick, both burned and unfired, was the main building material for the walls and stylobates. In size, each succeeding structure was half again as long as its predecessor: the fifth-century basilica was about 78 meters (250 feet) in length, the intermediate church 56 meters (180 feet) long, and the earliest church building only 40 meters (130 feet) in extent.

These buildings are both historically and architecturally important. All the churches, beginning with the earliest one, were of five-aisled design with a narrow nave, and all apparently featured column-bearing stylobates, or low interior walls. Dating these buildings, and thus clarifying the chronology of Pachomius and the emergence of Egyptian monasticism, has proven difficult. Although the latest building, the so-called basilica, is firmly anchored by its dedication in 459 CE, only imprecise dates can be given to the other churches. Preliminary ceramic analyses point to a date in the late fourth century or early fifth century for the intermediate structure. Extensive destruction and robbing have left almost no indicators for the earliest building, though it is possible that this structure is the initial church built (330–346 CE) by Pachomius. In addition, there are hints of even earlier construction on the site, with wall fragments emerging that cannot be linked to any of the church structures.

The end of the site's occupation was not marked by violent destruction: neither traces of fire nor indications of earthquake damage were detected. Presumably the site was abandoned before the Persian invasion of the 620s CE and the Muslim invasion of the 640s CE; even less likely is the legendary destruction attributed to el-Hakim in the eleventh century. By the end of the sixth century, therefore, it is likely that Christian monasticism had fallen on hard times in Upper Egypt. Even less clear is the connection between the monastic community at Faw Qibli and the famous Nag Hammadi Gnostic codices; about a possible relationship, the archaeological evidence is silent.

Bibliography

  • Bacht, Heinrich. Das Vermächtnis des Ursprungs: Pachomius—der Mann und sein Werk. 2 vols. Würzburg, 1983. The most comprehensive collection of materials and analyses relating to Pachomius and his monastic movement in fourth-century Egypt.
  • Goehring, James. Chalcedonian Power Politics and the Demise of Pachomian Monasticism. Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, Occasional Paper 15. Claremont, Calif., 1989.
  • Habachi, Labib. “Sixth Dynasty Discoveries in the Jabal al-Tarif.” Biblical Archaeologist 42 (1979), 237–238.
  • Lease, Gary. Traces of Early Egyptian Monasticism: The Faw Qibli Excavations. Institute for Antiquity and Christianity, Occasional Paper 22. Claremont, Calif., 1991. The most detailed description of the Faw Qibli excavations currently available, with summaries of all six seasons, site photos, ground plan drawings, and full bibliography.
  • Petrie, W. M. F. Diospolis Parva, the Cemeteries of Abadiyeh and Hu, 1898–99. London, 1901. Describes his excavations of the Roman temple and the predynastic cemetery at Hou.
  • Robinson, James M. “Introduction.” In The Nag Hammadi Library in English, edited by James M. Robinson. New York, 1977. An authoritative description of the discovery of the Nag Hammadi codices and their later fate, by the scholar who organized their publication.
  • Salih, Abu. The Churches and Monasteries of Egypt and Some Neighboring Countries. Translated by B. T. A. Evetts. Oxford, 1895. A goldmine of information on the architectural remains of Egyptian monasticism, by an early Arab chronicler; much of the evidence has since disappeared, leaving him its only witness.

Gary Lease