Minnesota in Egypt

The Church of the White Monastery

return to site map or introductory page or White Monastery
or go to the interior or apse paintings or more details


Built c. 450, partially burned (619?) and reconstructed on original design.
.For present day and original plans, see

"Fifth Century Church"

For recent, continuing study , see
"Church documentation project, 2006-2008"

The satellite image shows the white floor of the nave,
the niches that scallop the inner wall faces (only one seen at right, on left edge) , the roofed area at the east end. Note also the high outer walls.

This is a wonderfully rich and complex church, in both its original vision and its later transformations. Shenute's church drew on a mixed heritage. It adds unusual elements to a typical Early Christian plan. It employs columns and niches with features common around the Mediterranean. Details of the carving are more clearly local. The outer walls recast the stark definition of earlier Egyptian religious building. Shenute wrote of the effort and money that went into creating "This Great House," but the achievement gave him some concern. "Although the church's beauty stands as a testament to the greatness of the God who resides in it, the monks must heed not to admire its physical attributes too much...."(Caroline T. Schroeder. 2007. Monastic Bodies. 91)

The outer walls of the church resemble those of Pharaonic temples, rising high and smooth without many openings or decoration except for a cavetto molding crowning the top. (There is a similar molding at the nearby Red Monastery, and a closer image of that example on the Red Monastery page.)

The church within those Egyptian walls combines a typical Early Christian layout found in many places here with notable idiosyncracies

The basic plan is that of a basilica with side aisles, columns, and central nave. Instead of a single apse there is a trefoiil.

The church is built of local limestone, many blocks taken from demolished buildings, spolia. Recent study has identified some of the sources, one apparently a temple that Shenute destroyed, see David Klotz 2010.

Much has been written in recent years about Early Christian use of "spolia" from such buildings to show either respect or conquest or both. Together with the walls, the spolia here show a flexible relation to tradition.

There are spolia from Roman buildings as well, very probably from buildings associated with traditional religion.

Below: details from the nave and aisles: the column capitals and wall niches. Corinthian and volute columns, shell motifs in apse vults, floral pattern framing a niche are all at home in late Roman architecture around the Mediterranean. The manner of execurtion, particularly the relief carving at right, has local roots. See most recently, Suzanna Hodak, 2008, "Snapshots on the Sculptural Heritage of the White Monastery at Sohag--- The Wall Niches."

Fifth century capitals from the nave, with brick column base behind them (photograph, McNally 1992)

niche in the wall of the original side aisle (photograph, Bolman 2001)

detail of image below: carving over aisle niche

shell crowningy aisle niche at left (photographs, Bolman 2001)