Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.06.47

Alain Delattre, Papyrus coptes et grecs du monastère d'apa Apollô de Baouît conserveés aux Musées Royaux d'Art et d'Histoire de Bruxelles.   Bruxelles:  Académie royale de Belgique, 2004.  Pp. 351; pls. 60.  ISBN 978-2-8031-0236-5.  €30.00.  

Reviewed by AnneMarie Luijendijk, Princeton University (
Word count: 2329 words

In this book, begun as dissertation presented at the Université Libre in Brussels in 2004, Alain Delattre presents an edition of 60 Greek and Coptic documents originally from the Monastery of Apa Apollo of Bawit, now in the Royal Museums of Art and History at Brussels. Delattre offers detailed insights into daily life and business in one of Egypt's largest monasteries. Although reading documentary papyri may be acquired taste, I recommend the book warmly to all interested in monasticism and in the socio-economic history of the 7th and 8th centuries.

This volume comes on a wave of publications on the monastery of Apa Apollo. The newly re-opened Coptic Museum in Old Cairo displays frescoes from the monastery that rank among the most famous images of Christian Egyptian art. Recently Coptologists including Anne Boud'hors, Sarah Clackson, and Delattre have started to publish editions of papyri and ostraca from the site.1

Delattre has divided the book into two parts: Part One provides the social-economic, historical, religious, papyrological and linguistic background to the 60 documents edited in Part Two. Extensive research instruments, including Greek, Coptic, and French indices and black and white images of all edited papyri, complete the work.

The introduction presents a short biography of Albert Henri Demulling (1884-1941), who donated most of the papyri edited in this volume to the Foundation Égyptologique Reine Élisabeth.

In the lengthy first chapter of part One (pages 29-109), Delattre presents a general introduction to the monastery. What makes Bawit such a fascinating topic is the wealth and diversity of sources: Archaeological expeditions by the French in the early 20th century and again in the early years of the 21st century excavated the remains of the monastery's buildings.2 Literary texts in Greek, Coptic, and Arabic contribute to the knowledge about the monastery, and over 1300 published graffiti and inscriptions left by monks and pilgrims provide prosopographical information and insights into the religious life in the monastery. Papyri and ostraca from Bawit did not come to light in the official excavations, but appeared on the antiquities market in the 19th and 20th century and as a result are dispersed among collections, their provenance often unknown to editors. One of the topics that occupies Delattre repeatedly is establishing the links between the papyri at Brussels with the Bawit monastery.

Three saints, Apa Apollo with his companions Phib and Anoup, are associated with Bawit. Documents and a calendar inscription mention their feast days, and more than 350 inscriptions especially in the reception hall testify to numerous pilgrims visiting the monastery.

Delattre's description of the monastery gives a good impression of its size and economy. Founded in ca. 386-88, Bawit reached its height in the 7th and 8th centuries, when according to Delattre's estimate some 1,000 monks inhabited the site. The monastic complex featured at least 2 churches, dining halls, monastic cells including special cells for children, a bakery, oil and wine presses, and almost 100 acres of landholdings. Library, scriptorium, or school have not been identified, although they would have formed part of a big monastery. Inscriptions indicate that nuns lived on the monastic complex. Unfortunately, these women do not feature in the documents edited. Arabic fiscal policies instituted in the early 8th century led to a slow decline of the monastery and its demise in the 12th century.

The monastery possessed immovables, such as buildings and land, and movables, such as books, clothing, liturgical objects (not well documented in papyri), and boats for transportation and fishing. The lands were partly rented out to lay-people, partly cultivated by the monks. Agricultural production included wheat, barley, honey, linen, viticulture, and the breeding of animals.

Wine was produced on the property both for distribution and for local consumption. Delattre estimates based on documentary evidence that the Bawit monastery produced some 50,000 liters (over 13,000 gallons) of wine annually, or enough for a daily ration for 800 persons. While literary sources (albeit for different monasteries at an earlier time) give the impression that monks ate little, drank no wine, and were vegetarians, the documentary and archaeological sources for Bawit provide a different picture. For the 6th to 8th centuries, it seems that monks at Bawit at least had no food restrictions and consumed wine and meat.

Home-made rope, mats, baskets, and textiles were sources of income and also had a religious dimension as the monks practiced meditation while working in these industries.

As is common with documentary papyri, issues of economy dominate the discussion. Nevertheless, the texts mention religious orders, feast, and pilgrimages. Direct evidence for book production at Bawit is lacking, but Delattre assumes that it took place at the monastery based on evidence of other large monasteries. Delattre points to the importance of non-canonical literature in the religious life of the monastery; for instance, two inscriptions at Bawit mention Enoch and another inscription quotes the Abgar legend. Magical inscriptions and papyri also feature among the texts from Bawit.

The sources remain silent on two important issues in scholarship on Egyptian monasticism: monastic organization and religious affiliation. Delattre suggests that Bawit had elements of both semi-ascetic and cenobitic organization: the monks had a communal life with a hierarchy and centralized economy, but, in contrast to a truly cenobitic order, they appear to have had considerable individual freedoms, especially financial ones. On the topic of affiliation, Delattre offers hypotheses for both Monophysite or Chalcedonian leanings, and even considers it possible that the different church buildings indicate that both communities were represented on its campus. If only we had the monastery's library with literary texts, would we learn more about these topics.

Chapter 2 of Part One gives background on the texts edited in the volume. Delattre establishes criteria for attribution of texts to Bawit. He discusses writing materials, reuse of papyrus, and matters of paleography and orthography. He also provides a list of scribes from the monastery who are known by name.

The choice of language (Greek, Coptic, Arabic) presents itself as a topic when studying the documents from this monastery. In this volume, I counted 17 documents written in Coptic, 9 in Greek, 30 bilingual Greek/Coptic, 3 bilingual Greek/Arabic, and one document did not have text preserved. Most monks spoke Coptic as their mother tongue and from the 7th century, Coptic replaces Greek as the common written language in loan contracts and letters. Greek remained in use in the 7th and 8th centuries for documents pertaining to administration and accounting in continuation of earlier practices.

In Part II, Delattre presents editions of papyri with a more or less certain Bawit provenance, grouped according to genre in eight chapters. The edition of each document consists of a description of the papyrus, the text, translation and detailed textual notes.

Chapter 1 (nrs. 1-3) deals with three papyri that belong to a distinct group: internal communications from the monastery's superior, that begin with the Coptic epistolary formula "It is our father who writes". In one letter, the archimandrite instructs a monk at the infirmary to give someone two beds "until he dies" (nr. 1), in another he orders that a person from a village be given his annual distribution--the substance is lost in a lacuna (nr. 3). These letters offer, as Delattre analyzes, a remarkable insight into the micro-management of the monastery. In this respect, he notes, the Bawit monastery differs from other Egyptian monasteries, where an oikonomos, not the archimandrite, executed such tasks.

The orders for payment edited in Chapter 2 (nrs. 4-21) constitute a dossier of small-sized, bilingual Coptic-Greek texts composed in a specific formula used at Bawit, with the following elements: mention of the recipient in Coptic, then in Greek the nature of the payment (wine, oil, salted fish, bread, other products), name of the accountable person (oikonomos, priests), and the date. I would add that such specific in-house scribal customs provide evidence also for training of scribes within the monastery and awareness of tradition.

In the monastery, internal communications such as these were often written on reused papyrus; some sheets appear to have been reused several times. This recycling happened not because of a shortage of writing material, but out of frugality. The reuse also helps to establish a date for this dossier: some texts are written on the back of Greek-Arabic pieces, the earliest ones dating from 705, which thus becomes the terminus post quem.

Through these small papyri, a diverse group of people featured on the monastery's commodities-payroll comes into view, both monks and lay people: shepherds, singers, dioiketes, assistants, guards, a mason, horse groom, sub-deacons, couriers, incense vendors, and Arabic financial officers. Most are mentioned by profession, but as Delattre cautions, they are not necessarily paid for work related to their jobs. The reason for the payment is not indicated and may have involved salary, fiscal obligation, or charity. Even though the oikonomos administered these transactions, the archimandrites still supervises them--in my opinion another sign of his micro-management. Most people received payment in wine, which, Delattre notes, was the common currency in monasteries, but other staples are also mentioned.

These small texts touch upon many issues of daily life in the monastery. An order to pay wine to an incense seller (nr. 4) evokes the fragrance of a church, while the mention of people working at a cistern (nr. 13) reminds us of the scarcity of water and the dangers of digging and maintaining cisterns. In another payment slip, Delattre identifies an animal-groom who transported dung, and who received oil and vegetables (nr. 12). The detailed note informs the reader about the use of dung for both fertilizing and heating, and mentions monks from other monasteries that also busied themselves transporting dung.

The seemingly dry accounts and lists edited in Chapter 3 (nrs. 28-33) provide fresh glimpses into the life at the monastery. For instance, in a list of salary payments (nr. 28), a monk who is a "dog-breeder" (κυνοτρόφος) appears. Who knew that monks bred dogs? Delattre suggests, based on extensive research, that these dogs were not bred for hunting (or consumption) but may have been used as watch dogs, shepherd dogs, or companion dogs, or simply for selling. Another document (nr. 32) gives a list of goods, among which are a bench, a bed, seat, and different water vessels made of stone--were they perhaps the possessions of a monk?

Chapter 4 (nrs. 34-35) adds two new loan contracts to those previously known from Bawit (listed conveniently at the end of the chapter). None of these contracts mentions the payment of interest. Delattre mentions the possibility that interest was included in the amount to be paid back, and that the sum that was lent had been smaller. Monks appear frequently as the lenders of money, lending to lay people and other monks; nrs. 34 and 35 are both contracts between two monks. These documents thus show that some monks possessed private funds. Contracts with lay-people (e.g., nr. 52, whose provenance is less certain) also indicate that monks did not live in complete seclusion from the world.

Chapter 5 (nrs. 36-42) is devoted to letters. Given the decline in the use of Greek in Egypt in these centuries, it is important that three of the letters are written in that language (nr. 36-38). Of these three, nr. 36 is the best preserved. It contains mainly pious greetings and mentions a "very pious monk John." Although the name and title of the addressee are missing, it appears that the letter was written to a monk or other religious person. Nr. 37, written on the verso of a Byzantine protocol (nr. 55) contains just fragmentary sections of lines. It is interesting for its date, which Delattre sets in the sixth or seventh century, and thus, among the earlier pieces in his collection. Nr. 38 contains only a fragment of an epistolary formula also present in the other letters probably from Bawit: "With the present letter. . ." Yet I wonder whether this expression is really specific to Bawit, or a local or regional one.

The Coptic letters in this chapter (39-42) are so fragmentary that it is hard to grasp their context. Most contain only segments of greeting formulas. Delattre finds another archimandrite of the monastery, who is also known from inscriptions (nrs. 39, 40).

Chapter 6 (nrs. 43-47) contains the edition of several documents that Delattre thinks come from the Bawit monastery. The most interesting one, nr. 43, dating to the 6th or 7th century, has a Trinitarian formula in Greek.

In Chapter 7 (nrs. 48-54), Delattre edits Coptic pieces from the Demulling cache, whose Bawit provenance remains uncertain. These texts are very damaged. Nr. 48 contains just the first two or three letters of four lines; it is perhaps another letter of the type of "It is our Father who writes. . ." Nr. 49 seems to present an account for the payment of wine to harvesters of linen.

Chapter 8 (nrs. 55-60) presents "protocols" (the front leaf of a papyrus roll with a written or painted stamp) from the Byzantine and Arabic period which have been reused for other purposes in the monastery. The ones given here are bilingual, Coptic-Greek and Greek-Arabic. (I am not sure why Delattre calls nr. 59 a bilingual Greek-Arabic protocol, since its preserved text is Greek-Coptic).

Delattre is to be commended for his hard work of deciphering small, effaced and difficult-to-read documents in multiple languages and putting them in context. This has paid off in a book that remains accessible despite its level of detail and that contributes significantly to scholarship on Bawit, on Egyptian monasticism in general, and on issues of daily life and economy in Egypt in these centuries. These fragmentary and often reused papyri both complement and complicate our knowledge about monastic life from other sources and also evoke larger questions, for instance, about writing history with literary and/or documentary sources, about bilingualism in Egypt, nourishment, monastic production and economies, the impact of fiscal policies on religious life, education in the monastery, and contacts with outsiders.3


1.   Especially Sarah J. Clackson, Coptic and Greek texts relating to the Hermopolite Monastery of Apa Apollo (Oxford: 2000); Anne Boud'hors, Ostraca grecs et coptes: des fouilles de Jean Maspero à Baouit: O. Bawit IFAO 1-67 et O. Nancy (Cairo, 2004); Sarah J. Clackson, It is Our Father Who Writes: Orders from the Monastery of Apollo at Bawit (Cincinnati, 2008).
2.   Published by different authors in the series émoires publiés par les membres de l'institut français d'archéologie orientale (MIFAO), vols. 12, 13, 39, 59.
3.   There are some small issues with the layout of the book: on pages 19-20, a quotation covers more than one page, flowing over several paragraphs, but there is no difference in font or warning in the text that a very long quote is coming. In the formatting of the index something went wrong, as spaces are lacking between bold chapter headings. I noted some typographical errors: page 67, double "mais, mais;" on page 182, second paragraph, the font for et between Coptic "Mhna" and "Isaak" should be Roman, not Coptic.

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