White Monastery

The Coptic White Monastery, the Monastery of Abba Shenouda and The Athribian Monastery, is a Coptic Orthodox monastery named after Saint Shenouda the Archimandrite. The monastery’s name is derived from the white limestone of its outside walls. The White Monastery is architecturally similar to the Red Monastery.

Location of White Monastery

White Monastery is located near the Upper Egyptian city of Tahta in Sohag governorate and about two and a half miles (4.0 km) southeast of the Red Monastery.

Foundation and history of White Monastery

Saint Pigol founded the maternal uncle of Saint Shenouda (Schenute), the Archimandrite, in 442 AD[Questionable date: see here]. However, it only became renowned after Shenouda succeeded his uncle as abbot for the monastery. From 30 monks, the population of the White Monastery increased to 2,200 monks and 1,800 nuns by the time of Shenouda’s death in 466 AD. The monastery also increased in size during this time to 12,800 acres (51.8 km2), an area about 3,000 times its original size. Such sites included cells, kitchens, and storehouses, the ruins of which can still be seen to the north, west, and south sides of the church complex.

Following the death of Shenouda, the monastic community of the White Monastery continued strong throughout the 5th century under the leadership of Saint Wissa and later Saint Zenobius.

Arab Invasion of Egypt

However, the monastery began slowly to decline following the Arab invasion of Egypt in 641 AD. The decline can be attributed to the heavy taxes that the monasteries in Egypt had to endure. Such taxes put a significant number of monasteries out of existence.

Arab governor Al-Kasim Ibn Ubaid Allah

In the middle of the 8th century, the Arab governor Al-Kasim Ibn Ubaid Allah forced him into the monastery church with his female concubine on horseback. It resulted in the concubine falling to the ground and eventually to her death along with the horse she was riding.

11th and 12th Centuries

The monastery served as a host for Armenian monks in the 11th and 12th centuries. It is indicated in the inscriptions on the central apse’s church paintings between 1076 and 1124. Among these Armenian monks was the Armenian Vizier Bahram, who became a monk after being banished from his office during the Caliphate of the Fatimid Al-Hafiz (1131-1149 AD). In 1168, the monastery was attacked by the Muslim commander Shirkuh.

Major Restorations

The monastery underwent major restorations between 1202 and 1259 AD. In the 13th century, in work attributed to Abu al-Makarim, it was mentioned that the sanctuary included a keep, which was probably built during the Middle Ages to protect the monastery from the attacks of the desert’s bedouins. Abu al-Makarim also tells of an enclosure wall around the sanctuary within which a garden full of all sorts of trees existed. The lack of literary manuscripts after the 14th century indicates that the monastery was in an advanced state of decline from that time onwards.


Johann Michael Vansleb visited the monastery in 1672 and Richard Pococke in 1737. They incorrectly attributed the monastery’s foundation to Helena of Constantinople, Emperor Constantine’s mother. During the second half of the 18th century, the southwest corner of the surviving church complex collapsed. In 1798, the monastery was sacked and burned down by the Mamluks. The French traveller Dominique Vivant mentioned the destruction, who visited the monastery following its collapse.

Muhammad Ali

In 1802, under the direction of Muhammad Ali, parts of the monastery were rebuilt. Later, In 1833, Robert Curzon visited the monastery and left a written record of his visit. Also, In 1893, Fergusson published a plan for the church complex. However, the most significant contributions to the study of the monastery and its church were made by such visitors as Wladimir de Bock (1901), C. R. Peers (1904), Flinders Petrie (1907), Somers Clarke (1912), and Ugo Monneret de Villard (1925).


In 1907, the church complex experienced another repair which included the removal of the encrustation of brickwork and the under the covering of the doorways. Then in the 1980s, more restoration work took place on the walls and the columns of the church.

Description of the White Monastery

The only surviving piece of the original monastery is its church complex, which was built in the Basilica style. It has six entrances, three centrally placed north, south, and west walls. The other three are located south of the west wall, east of the south wall, and east of the north wall. Its outer appearance resembles an Ancient Egyptian Temple. It has a combination of exo- and eso-narthex leading into the body of the original church.

Now an open courtyard, this body contains a nave flanked by two isles. They are separated from the centre by long rows of columns with a returned isle in the west to define the eso-narthex. Mezzanine galleries existed atop these isles, as evidenced by the two rows of windows seen on the walls. To realize the grand style of this 5th-century basilica, one needs only to observe the dimension of this open courtyard (no roof). It measures 172 feet long by 76 feet wide, of which the nave occupies half that width.

Southern apse of the monastery church

The current church now occupies what used to be the choir and the sanctuary areas. It is separated from the open court by a solid red brick wall of Middle Ages construction with doors and windows. The original sanctuary was built in a trefoil style with three apses. It is a step higher than the nave in the open court. The rectangular space defined by the apses to its north, south, and east sides served as the altar for the more extraordinary basilica.

Now the altar is located within the central or eastern apse. The rest of the space is now integrated into the nave of the current church. There is also a new iconstasis made with solid wood and adorned by small icons on its top register. The present sanctuary in the central apse is divided into three. The middle one is dedicated to Saint Shenouda the Archimandrite, the southern one to the Virgin Mary, and the northern one to Saint George.

The original three apses are of magnificent construction. Each contains two registers of columns separated by a decorative frieze and surmounted by architraves. Between the columns, there lie the niches. The horizontal cross-section of the slots in each register alternate between rectangular and circular. The semidome of each is decorated with a beautiful design. Above the registers lies the majestic semidome—their paintings can be distinguished in these semidomes. The one in the central apse has a portrait of the Pantokrator and the four evangelists. In the northern apse, there is a depiction of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary. The southern apse represents the resurrection with the two Mary’s and two angels.

The church complex has several annexes along the east and south walls. The most significant one is the great hall that runs alongside the south wall. It probably served the function of a woman chamber in the early days. It has a room at each of its east and west ends. The west section contains a well, and it underwent reconstruction in the early 19th century. There are also two chambers south of the central apse and a third to the north. On the south side, one section is rectangular with a font now used as a baptistery, and the second is circular with niches. On the north side, the chamber is square. There is another rectangular chamber west of the circular section, divided in half by two projecting buttresses.

The roof of the north-east staircase of the monastery church, which includes Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs

There is a variety of building materials employed in the construction of the church complex. It reflects the different stages that the monastery went through since its foundation. The outer walls are white limestone set in the mortar with no bonding. They are sloped 6 degrees from vertical on the outside (original construction). The gargoyles and the door lintels are also of limestone, with the doorjambs being made of red granite. The source of these limestones is probably from ruins of nearby Ancient Egyptian temples, which Saint Shenouda the Archimandrite contributed to their demise figuratively and literally. The original nave columns are made of marble or granite, with a few later ones being red bricks. Many of these columns are no longer standing. The paving of the nave is made of limestone or granite slabs.

The original sanctuary is now roofed with vaults of burnt bricks; initially, it had a wood roof. The nave, aisles, and the excellent south hall (lateral narthex) are now without a shelter. Initially, they had gabled wood roofs with galleries atop the isles. The wall between the exo-narthex and the body of the original church is made of limestone. The great wall that defines the western boundary of the current church is made up of red bricks, which encase the original columns and arches. It now is covered with a cream-colour stucco layer. The four arches carrying the squinches of the central, original sanctuary dome are also made of red bricks except for the one toward the east, which is of marble construction.

The library

The literacy campaign, which Shenouda the Archimandrite waged in his monastery, reflected positively on the library of the sanctuary. This testimony is in the number of codices identified and the wide variety of subjects. With everyone in the monastery capable of reading and many skilled in writing manuscripts, the library must have been one of the most excellent libraries of Christian Egypt.

Today the library is scattered all over the world. Codices were dismembered with individual folios ending up in different libraries or museums. At times, even an individual folio ended up in various libraries thousands of miles apart. Serious effort has been undertaken to regroup these codices from their Diaspora with photographic means artificially. Mgr. Louis Théophile Lefort, a cryptologist of Louvain, made the first comprehensive attempt toward achieving this monumental goal. However, his collection was a tragic victim of World War II. This task has been taken up by Prof. Tito Orlandi and his associates at the Sapienza University of Rome. There, they formed the Corpus dei Manoscritti Copti Letterari.[6] They were able to identify hundreds of separate codices with the aid of Coptic scholars’ prior works.

The library contents, as mentioned above, has adorned many libraries and museums around the world from as early as the 19th century. The following is a partial list of those places that possess such fragments:

  • Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam
  • Berlin, Deutsche Staatsbibliothek
  • Cairo, Coptic Museum
  • Cairo, Egyptian Museum
  • And, Cairo, Institut Français d’Archéologie Orientale
  • Cambridge, Cambridge University Library
  • Florence, Laurentian Library
  • Saint Petersburg, Russian National Library
  • London, British Library
  • London, Eton College
  • Louvain, Bibliothèque de l’Université
  • Manchester, John Rylands University Library
  • Michigan, University of Michigan Library
  • Moscow, Pushkin Museum
  • Naples, Biblioteca Nazionale Vittorio Emanuele III
  • New York, The Morgan Library & Museum
  • Oxford, Bodleian Library
  • Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France
  • Paris, Musée du Louvre
  • Strasbourg, Bibliothèque de l’Université
  • Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica
  • Venice, Biblioteca Naniana
  • Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek

The ancient library of the White Monastery is rich in many categories such as biblical, hagiographical, liturgical, etc. It provides the researcher with good knowledge about what the monks were reading and what they were allowed to read at different stages of the monastery development. However, the early times are not too well represented in the surviving fragments, This can be either attributed to their frequent use, or they were victims of time and the monastery’s decline in later times. The dialect of these manuscripts was predominantly in Sahidic Coptic, which was perfected in its literary form by Saint Shenouda, the Archimandrite. There were also some bilingual manuscripts. The early ones were in Sahidic Coptic and Greek, while the latter had Sahidic Coptic and Arabic. The writing material employed mainly was parchment, but some later were found on paper.

The first category, and most abundant, is the Biblical manuscripts. Nearly every book of the Old Testament, including the Deuterocanonical Books, is represented. The only exception is some of the Historical books, which were always in short supply in Egyptian monasteries. On the other hand, the New Testament is represented entirely though incomplete.

A second category is the apocryphal Gospels, Acts, and Biblical lives frequently read in Egyptian Monasteries. These include the Gospel of the Twelve, the Gospel of Bartholomew, Acts of Thomas, Acts of Pilate, Life of Virgin Mary, and History of Joseph the Carpenter.

A third category is the historical manuscripts, which are rare in any Coptic libraries found thus far. However, in the White Monastery, one finds a substantial part of an ecclesiastical history manuscript. That manuscript deals with the history of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria in the 4th and 5th centuries. In addition, there are several fragments of codices that record the acts of the great Councils of Nicaea and Ephesus.

Another essential category found in the library is the hagiographic texts. These are found in relative abundance in all monastic libraries, and the White Monastery is no exception. They are primarily intended for the spiritual edification of the monks rather than being accurate historical records of the saints. They include acts and related texts of many martyrs such as Saint Colluthus the Physician, Saints Cosmas and Damian, St. Philopater Mercurius, Saint Psote, Saint Theodore, Saint-Victor, etc. There are also the lives of many important saints of the Egyptian Church like Saint Anthony, Saint Athanasius, Saint Pachomius and his disciples, Saint Samuel the Confessor, and Saint Shenouda the Archimandrite name a few.

This library has yielded many manuscripts, preserving texts of the composition of Egyptian writers and Coptic translation of Greek writings of Church Fathers. The wealthiest and most large category is available in the fathers’ writings. The most significant part of it is that of the remarkable works of Saint Shenouda the Archimandrite. Other writings include those of Saint Wissa’s sermons, the writings of Saint Pachomius and his disciples, and the Apophthgamata Patrum. Also, some texts of original Coptic composition include Constantine of Asyut, John of Burulus, and Rufus of Shotep. Coptic translations of Greek writings consist of Saint Peter of Alexandria, Saint Athanasius, Saint Theophilus, Saint Cyril the Great, and Saint Dioscorus. However, the Greek translations of non-Coptic Fathers include Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, Saint John Chrysostom, and Saint Severus of Antioch. Works of other authors are also found in that collection.