city in southern Egypt near discovery site of important Coptic Gnostic texts (26°03′ N, 32°15′ E). The name Nag Hammadi has become popular in New Testament studies through its association with the Nag Hammadi Papyri, a collection of Gnostic documents found some miles from Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt. Being the major urban center in the area, however, Nag Hammadi has been identified as the site of discovery. This small city is located on the west bank of the Nile River, 51 km (32 mi.) northwest of Luxor by a direct route. The discovery was made at the base of Jebel et-Tarif, the high desert cliff face on the north side of the Nile River. Villages in this area between the Nile and the cliff are (from west to east) el-Kasr, el-Busa, Hamra Dom, Sheikh Ali, and Abu Manaa.

In 1945, while digging near Hamra Dom for sebakh, a soil mixture used as fertilizer in the Nile Valley, a farmer found a grave containing a skeleton and a jar containing thirteen codices with 1,153 surviving pages, which are now known as the Nag Hammadi papyri (also called the Gnostic papyri). El-Kasr is the ancient site of Chenoboskion, hence the earlier association of the find with this name. Chenoboskion was the site where St. Palamon established one of the first monasteries in Upper Egypt. In the early fourth century CE Pachomius, after a brief association with Palamon, founded his own monastery at Tabennese and later his larger monastery at Pabau (modern Faw Qibli), located about 17.6 km (11 mi.) east of Nag Hammadi on the north side of the Nile. A major phase of the Nag Hammadi excavations focused on this Pachomian monastic complex at Pabau.

Four major seasons of work were conducted from 1975 to 1980. The excavations were organized by James M. Robinson; Torgny Säve-Söderbergh and Bastiaan Van Elderen were the field directors In 1975, and in succeeding seasons Van Elderen served as head. Peter Grossmann of the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo joined the staff In 1976 as chief architect.

The work of the first season was located in the area of Jebel et-Tarif where local people indicated the discovery was made. A major part of this season involved the clearance of six of the more than 150 caves at the middle or top of the cliff face of Jebel et-Tarif. One (T73), a previously published sixth dynasty (c. 2300 BCE) tomb of the provincial governor Tjauti, proved to have lower chambers, previously unknown, with extensive reliefs and hieroglyphs. Some smaller tombs also high up on the cliff face belong to the first centuries CE. A burial cloth found in T117 was dated to the fifth century CE by Carbon-14 testing. Some caves were occupied, presumably by anchorites, during the early Christian centuries. One cave (T8), with the opening lines of the Book of Psalms in Coptic inscribed on its walls, was dated to the late sixth or early seventh century by the evidence of coins, epigraphy, and ceramics. In none of these excavations, however, was there clear evidence for the findspot of the codices.

In the second season (1976) the major activity was the excavation of the large monastery-basilica complex of Pachomius in Faw Qibli. The proximity of this complex to the area where the papyri were found suggests that it could throw some possible light on the early Christian movements in this area. Over a wide area on the edge of the village lie the architectural remains, chiefly pillars, of a large building. Seven trenches or squares were sunk in various parts of the site to ascertain the stratigraphy of the area and the dimensions of the major structure.

These probes revealed that the structure was a very large five-aisle basilica. Below these fifth-century ruins two earlier occupation levels were identified: one was a smaller building dated to the fourth century and the other a large late third-century storage room. In addition, in a stratum below this building traces of another building complex, possibly dating from the third century, were found in various parts of the site. The destruction of the basilica, as attributed in literary sources to Khalif el-Hakim in the eleventh century, was confirmed by a destruction level with an ash layer on which architectural members had toppled and building debris had accumulated. This layer was dated by its pottery to the eleventh century.

In the third season (1977–1978) ten new trenches or squares were opened at the site of the basilica of Pachomius. The uncovering of the foundations and lower courses of the north wall, the south wall, and the east wall including the northeast corner provided the dimensions of the basilica—75 m (246 ft.) long and 37 m (121 ft.) wide—which proved to be the largest ancient church in Egypt identified to date.

In the fourth season (1979–1980) eleven new trenches or squares provided additional and new information about the fifth-century basilica and fourth century-building below. Ceramic evidence dated the latter to the fourth century. Correlated with the literary evidence, this building would be the structure built by Pachomius, and the fifth-century basilica would be the structure built by his followers.

In 1980 a team under the direction of H. Keith Beebe as field director conducted a survey of the village of el-Kasr (ancient Chenoboskion) and environs to assess the archaeological remains and the feasibility of further archaeological work. The team identified extensive remains dating from the Roman and Byzantine times.

In addition to a survey of the nearby monastery of St. Palamon, the team also investigated the Wadi Sheikh Ali. In this wadi was located a site with numerous graffiti-like inscriptions. Dozens of Coptic inscriptions were found and additional pharaonic drawings and inscriptions even yielded a cartouch of Menkaure, pharaoh of the fourth dynasty.

The Bodmer papyri were found about the same time as the Nag Hammadi papyri. This collection, named after Martin Bodmer of Geneva, Switzerland, who acquired most of the codices, contains biblical texts, classical texts, early Christian literary texts, and some non-literary texts. Among the biblical texts are some of the earliest sizable copies of New Testament books—Luke and John (P75), John (P66)—dating from about 200 CE. The precise provenance of this collection is not known, but local tradition places it near the Pachomian monastic complex, possibly in the Wadi Sheikh Ali.

The findspot of the Nag Hammadi papyri was not verified by the excavations and surveys discussed above. In fact, subsequently In 1988 and 1990 Mohammed Ali suggested another site as the findspot, located approximately one mile northeast from the previous suggestions. This latest suggested site has not been excavated, although its environs are intriguing. Nevertheless, the excavations have set some parameters regarding the findspot and the local Gnostic movement. There is no evidence of a community, settlement, or cemetery in this area. It appears that the grave found In 1945 was a single burial in the low desert. Any suggestion of the size of the Gnostic movement in this area is speculation. Furthermore to claim that the Pachomian monastic compound was Gnostic ignores the close relationship between Pachomius and the Egyptian archbishop Athanasius, who at one time was hiding at the Pachomian complex. Furthermore, the suggestion that the Bodmer papyri were found in this area (possibly in the nearby Wadi Sheikh Ali) implies that there was a strong anti-Gnostic spirit in this vicinity because there are works such as The Apocryphal Correspondence between the Corinthians and Paul of this sentiment in the collection of the Bodmer Library. The convergence of the Bodmer Papyri (as early as late second century), the Pachomian monastic complex (fourth century), and the Gnostic papyri in close proximity provides some challenging and interesting problems of integration and historical sequence. Judgment about the Gnostic movement in Upper Egypt must take into account the above data.

Nag Hammadi

NAG HAMMADI. The opening page of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas. (Courtesy ASOR Archives)

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The large size of the Pachomian monastic complex confirms the allusions in literary sources to the extent of the monastic movement in Upper Egypt. Along with the contemporaneous extensive rise of monasticism in Lower Egypt (as developed by St. Antony and in the settlements in Wadi 'n-Natrun), this further confirms the major role that monasticism played in Egyptian Christianity.

In view of Athanasius' contacts with the Pachomian monastic movement, the issuance of his canonical list in the Easter letter of 367 may have occasioned the removal of the extracanonical Gnostic papyri and their owners from the Pachomian community. This library may then have been buried with its exiled owners who had settled in the cliff area of Jebel et-Tarif. This hypothesis must await additional surveys and excavation of sites in the vicinity of Nag Hammadi for further confirmation. This area has not been systematically and scientifically surveyed nor additional sites stratigraphically excavated.


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Bastiaan Van Elderen