A cross-regional initiative for the study of
monasticism in the late antique Near East
Beni Hassan Necropolis
There are 39 rock-cut tombs in the upper cemetery of the Beni Hassan necropolis. A number of these show significant signs of adaptive reuse by Christian monks in late antiquity. The Project's goal is to completely document the evidence for this reuse both inside and outside the relevant tombs. The evidence takes the form of architectural modifications, pottery, and various painted texts, figures, and symbols ("dipinti").
Adapted from P. Newberry, Beni Hasan I (1893), pl. II
A Profile of Three Interconnected Tombs
Tombs 28, 29, 30 (highlighted) were connected by the monks and apparently converted into a church complex for their community.
The architrave of Tomb 28 and the two columns supporting it received considerable attention in the repurposing of the tomb. These elements set off the eastern portion of the room, which would be the orientation point for religious services. Although none of the church furnishings survive, there are very noticeable cuts and holes in the columns, indicating that perhaps something had been affixed to them, probably as part of an effort to create the church's sanctuary. The monks also laid a polished gypsum floor over the original stone cut floor - briefly noted by Newberry in the second part of his excavation report—to see a digitized copy, click here.
The monks broke through the rear portion of the original pharaonic shrine in the southern wall of Tomb 28 to connect this tomb to Tomb 29. Also visible in the image are some of the holes drilled into the right column.
A large niche was cut into the eastern wall of Tomb 29 and the beveled edges suggest that either a single or double door had been fitted to create a proper cupboard. Above the niche are three Christian symbols in red paint—an ankh cross flanked by two staurograms. These symbols were drawn by the early Egyptologist, Karl Richard Lepsius, who explored the site in the 1840s, some fifty years before Newberry.
The southern wall of Tomb 29 shows two important modifications made by the monks. The first is a niche cut into the wall at floor level, just below the large figure of the tomb owner, Baqet I, in the original Middle Kingdom wall painting. To the right of this is the second modification - a passageway into Tomb 30, which has been cut higher up in the wall (approximately 130 cm) because the elevated floor level of Tomb 30.
View of passageway in the northern wall of Tomb 30, looking into Tomb 29.
Original pharaonic shrine in the eastern wall of Tomb 30. Two Christian crosses ("graffiti") scratched into one of the interior surfaces may indicate that this shrine was used by the monks, perhaps as a prayer niche. However, there are numerous other graffiti of an apparently later date and it is difficult to determine exactly when these crosses were produced.
The two crosses inside the pharaonic shrine of Tomb 30 carved into the southern wall of the shrine.
Above and Beyond the Tombs
Installations Outside the Tombs
There are several installations immediately outside the tombs, none of which have been documented, and therefore a complete assessment of these is being made by the team. The installations may very well date to the period of late antiquity when the monks resided in the tombs. However, the site was open and accessible in medieval and modern times and it is possible that at least some of them belong to later periods.
Because very little is known about the terrain above the necropolis, the team conducted a brief walkover survey as part of the December 2015 season. This terrain essentially divides into two levels separated by a ridge—the first level is approximately 12 m above the necropolis and the second level is another 12 m or so above the first. The survey began just above Tomb 36 (BH 36) and continued north to the terrain above Tomb 4 (BH 4), covering approximately 20,000 sq m. The objective was to identify any cultural remains possibly related to the presence of the monks at the site in late antiquity.
Exterior of Tomb 18 (left), showing rectangular installations. Detail of installation north of tomb entrance (below)
Exterior of Tomb 28 (left), showing circular installation. Detail of installation (below)
View from the upper level looking south. A significant amount of surface pottery was recorded and based upon a preliminary analysis, it appears to be Late Roman in date, which accords with when the monks inhabited the necropolis. It is not yet clear how this terrain was being used in late antiquity. The most plausible theory is that monks seeking greater isolation were coming here.
However, further study of the area will be needed to substantiate this theory.
Notable among the surface pottery were fragments of Late Roman amphorae. To the right is a sherd from an LRA-7 vessel, identified by Michael Jones.
Also found during the survey was a base stump or spike of a Nile clay amphora (left). This piece may belong to an LRA-7 vessel, which characteristically has a spike of this kind.