Minnesota in Egypt

The Library of the White Monastery
back to white monastery or site map. or introductory page

Below: Fragments from the White Monastery (all thumbnail reductions of illustrations in Bosson and Aufrère 1999).

see below

BN 12911

According to Anne Boud'hors (1999), the top page was probably written in this monastery.

The more elaborately figured one below came from a monastery in the Fayum, near present day Cairo.



At right: east end of Shenute's church,which serves as the present church. Plan by Monneret de Villard showing state in 1920s.(1925, Pl. 1).

The White Monastery accumulated an extensive library. Codices of religious texts and reused secular documents survived there for many centuries. They had apparently been shut away in a small room and more or less forgotten. Some reached European collections in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but "personne ne put voir de ses propres yeux la celule-bibliothéque du Monastere Blanc avant J. Maspero (pour autant qu'il ait réallment vue) en 1883" [No one saw with his own eyes the library-cell of the White Monastery before Maspero in 1883, if indeed he really saw it.] (Orlandi 1972).   "Un hasard heureux a permis a la Bibliothéque nationale d'acquérir environ quatre mille feuillets de parchemin, contentant des fragments d'ouvrages rédiges en dialecte copte-thébain....Les livres incomplets, les feuilles détachées des bibles hors d'usage, des évangeliares ou des recueils d'homélies en usage dans le couvent, étaient entassé pêle-mêle sur le sol d'une cellule situé derriére le choeur, dans une tour de refuge ne communiquant avec le corps de l'église que par un passage secret des plus étroits" (Maspero 1892, 1).



At left, the east end of the monastery church (north at top).

In 1903 a Canon Oldfield visited the church, and the monks showed him 'a small room to the north of the central apse, entered from the north apse by a narow passage and called...the "Secret Chamber" '(Crum 1904: 553).This room is marked "SC" on the plan at the left. It had housed the monastery library, and inscriptions on its walls apparently indicated where various types of manuscripts were once shelved.

A vaulted room under this Secret Chamber, unexplored by Monneret de Villard, is recorded by Grossmann 2002, 530 and fig. 151. He says: "The niche (in the Chamber wall) is therefore a secret entrance to a subterranean hiding place.,"


detail of Louvre E10911 above,fragment from the
White Monastery:
Louvre E10611 pictured at top
aprox 9th century
(Bosson and
Aufrère 1999: 214-215).

These Library's acquisitions excited indigation from those who missed their chance.

The British Museum's agent, Wallace Budge, recorded that in 1887 Frenay ( a miller, French Consul and antiquities dealer across the river in Akhmim) "told me that it was he who had sold to Maspero all the Coptic papyri and manuscripts which the Louvre had acquired during the last few years....Thus I learned at first hand that the director of the Service of Antiquities bought and disposed of antiquities, and exported them" (1920, vol. 1: 135).

  In 1890, Charles Wilbour came to the area on a buying trip for the Brooklyn Museum, and wrote that "Mr. Frenay told us Abbé Amélineau tried to burgle the White Monastery...after drugging the monks. Frenay afterwards bought most of the library for the National Library [of France, i.e.Bibliothéque nationale]" (Wilbour 1936, 561).

This detail, and the one at the top of the page come from ms. BN copte 12911 (Bosson and Aufrère 1999: 216, 45A.)

Tito Orlandi has devoted many years to reconstructing the original contents of the library. "The library of the monastery...is by far the largest Coptic library known, and probably contained most of the ecclesiastical works existing in the Coptic (Sahidic) language....

An accurate list of (the dispersed materials) was arranged by Henry Hyvernat in 1933..Most or all the works definitely from this Monastery date to the tenth century or later.


In 1969 I myself began the enterprise to gather the photographic reproduction of all known Sahidic [a dialect of Coptic] manuscripts, in first place those coming from the Monastery of Shenute. The collection, now placed in the Institutum Patristicum Augustinianum, Rome, may be considered complete." (Orlandi 2002)
(available as a pdf)



papyrus rolls



The monastery also preserved documents that were not ecclesiastical, or in Coptic. The habit of reusing papyrus contributed to the variety of texts preserved, ."On one important instance, two papyrus rolls that originated across the river in Panopolis (Akhmim) had been cut up and reassembled to form a codex for recording tax receipts."

  The original rolls contained official correspondence of a local official (Skeat 1964), and Bowman has called them "our most important source for the military and civil administration of upper Egypt in the reign of Diocletian" (Bowman 1978, 25).