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Christian Site Dating Back To 5th Century AD Found In Sahara Desert

The monastic site has a variety of buildings and rooms with biblical inscriptions and religious graffiti. 

BAHARIYA OASIS, Egypt — An ancient Christian site in the Sahara Desert may be the oldest confirmed monastic site in the world, according to the French-Norwegian archeological team who unearthed it. 

The site was built in phases, the oldest of which is a hermitage that dates to the middle of the fourth century. Biblical inscriptions written in Greek on the walls of several rooms and references to monks point to the site’s monastic purpose.

The Christian ruins were discovered in the Bahariya Oasis, about 230 miles (370km) from Cairo, Egypt. It was the third dig at the Tal Ganoub Qasr al-Agouz site, led by the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology (IFAO) in partnership with MF Norwegian School of Theology, Religion and Society.

“The complex was made up of six sectors containing the ruins of three churches and monks’ quarters. Several buildings made of basalt, others carved into the bedrock and some made of mud bricks,” said Egypt’s antiquities ministry.

“The Christian site is believed to have been occupied between the fourth and eighth centuries, probably peaking around the fifth and sixth centuries AD. Earlier digs in 2009 and 2013 showed that settlers knew about the production and preservation of wine as well as the farming of animals,” said the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology.

Picture of an ancient Christian inscription that was discovered in the Western Desert, an area of the Sahara that lies west of the River Nile in Egypt. (Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities/Newsflash)  
The ancient Christian on a stone in the Western Desert of Sahara. (Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities/Newsflash)

Excavation has revealed that the first sector included a church, a kitchen, and several rooms. More recent excavation of the sixth sector revealed 19 rooms and another church. It was in this area that religious graffiti and ostraca, shards of pottery bearing Greek writings, were found.

Dr. Victor Ghica, head of the mission, said the discovery is key to “understanding the formation of the first monastic congregations in Egypt of this region.”

“The results are crystal clear,” Ghica said, pointing to “a wealth of evidence that all six parts of the monastery date from the 4th century.”  

“There were well-established monastic societies at the very edge of Roman Empire, which is extremely early,” Ghica said. “This is something we have not been aware of before.”

Other than this discovery, two further archeologic excavations took place in February. One revealed a 5,000-year-old high-production brewery in the south of the country, and an Egyptian-Dominican archeological team based near Alexandria found 2,000-year-old mummies with gold-tongued amulets.  

In January, experts found ancient artifacts at the Saqqara burial ground near Cairo with 3,000-year-old sarcophagi.

(Edited by Pallavi Mehra and Vaibhav Vishwanath Pawar. Map by Urvashi Makwana.)

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