The Library of the White Monastery
back to white
monastery or site
Below: Fragments from the White Monastery (all thumbnail reductions
of illustrations in Bosson and Aufrère
According to Anne Boud'hors (1999),
the top page was probably written in this monastery.
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
||"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
At left, the east end of the monastery church (north at
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
Louvre E10611 pictured at top
aprox 9th century
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
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
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."
(available as a pdf)
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).