Monasteries as Institutional Powers in Late Antique and Early Islamic Egypt: – University of Copenhagen

Postdoc Jennifer Cromwell

This project is funded by the Danish Council for Independent Research (DFF-Mobilex). From 1st January 2015 to 31st December 2016.


The project aims to reassess and establish the economic position of Coptic monasteries in Late Antique and Early Islamic Egypt (5th–8th centuries CE) on the basis of the neglected evidence from the monastery at Wadi Sarga and the University of Copenhagen papyrus collection. Coptic monasteries were a vital and prominent presence within the Egyptian countryside. Yet, their significance has been underestimated, largely because the Coptic evidence for landholding and estates is often overlooked, with focus placed on the Greek evidence from Egypt.

Historical Context

Egypt during the 5th to 8th centuries CE was a multicultural and multilingual country. Greeks, Egyptians, and, later, Arabs populated the land, speaking Greek, Coptic (the last form of the indigenous Egyptian language), and Arabic. Before the Arabic conquest of 641 CE, Christianity was the predominant religion of Egypt, and continued to be so afterwards, until the 8th/9th centuries when conversion to Islam became more widespread. Centuries of co-existence brought Greeks into contact with Egyptians and vice versa, yet the picture of late antique Egypt is largely a Greek one: Greek was the official language of the administration and the majority of textual finds are written in it. As a result, studies on life and especially the economy have largely been based on this evidence alone. This study provides a new perspective on the economic landscape of Egypt, taking into account a large corpus of texts written in Coptic.

Monasteries had been a significant part of the Egyptian landscape since the beginnings of Christianity. It is from the late 6th/early 7th centuries that the non-literary evidence for Egyptian monasteries explodes in scope and several institutions are well documented. Many monasteries were still active in the early Islamic period. It is therefore possible to examine how the operation of these institutions changed and adapted to the new regime, following the Islamic conquest of the mid-7th century. One of the most significant changes introduced by the new rulers was the poll tax, from which monasteries were not exempt, and both the University of Copenhagen texts and the Wadi Sarga corpus contain taxation documents that date to the early 8th century. How the changing political and religious climate affected local, Egyptian institutions is a further goal of this study.

Wadi Sarga

The monastery of Apa Thomas at Wadi Sarga provides a key case study. Located in a dessert valley in central Egypt, the complex was excavated in a single season in 1913/14. Work did not resume following the First World War and the site is now an Egyptian military zone, meaning that no further work can currently be undertaken. Despite this situation, that single season produced a wealth of material remains including texts, textiles, ceramics, glassware, and bone, wood, and stone. Almost 2,800 items are held in the British Museum, yet less than 15% of this material has been published. Most of the published texts concern the internal economics of the monastery, as well as its landholdings throughout the country. But, the monastery has received no dedicated study and what has been published from it has typically not been incorporated in modern studies on Egyptian monasticism, let alone studies on wider economic matters in Egypt.

The University of Copenhagen Papyri

The University of Copenhagen is home to another neglected Coptic source: approximately 50 unpublished papyri that primarily comprise economic texts derived from Coptic monasteries, many of which are of types either unknown or rare in the published record. These texts were purchased on the antiquities market in Egypt in the early 20th century, and so their provenance is not known. As a group, they represent an important contribution to the issue of the economic status of Egyptian monasteries.


Cromwell, J. 2013. “Wine and monks in Christian Egypt”, Online article:

Cromwell, J. 2013. “A Coptic Epistolary Exercise from Wadi Sarga,” in The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 99: 272–275.

Wadi Sarga Project

Photograph of Wadi Sarga 1913/14

Photograph of Wadi Sarga 1913/14

P.Carlsberg 438