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Rediscovering Bawit

Posted On June 18, 2020 | 08:58 am | by ostmannj01 | Permalink
Héléna Rochard reassesses one of the largest corpora of monastic wall paintings in Early Byzantium

Héléna Rochard, collection manager of the Christian and Byzantine Collection of the École Pratique des Hautes Études and lecturer at the École du Louvre, was a fall 2019 fellow in Byzantine Studies. Her research report, “Rediscovering Bawit: Pictorial Evidence for Monasticism in Byzantine and Early Islamic Egypt,” shed new light on the intellectual and spiritual life of monks and challenged the stereotype of solitude and isolation in Egyptian monasteries.


Q&A with Héléna Rochard

Why is Bawit an important site?

The history of the site spans more than seven centuries between the end of the fourth century, when a monk called Apollo founded the monastery, and the end of the eleventh century, when the site was abandoned. This offers a unique opportunity to study the daily life of a monastic community in Byzantine and early Islamic Egypt.

The ruins of the Bawit monastery are in Middle Egypt, on the western bank of the Nile, midway between the cities of Minya and Asyut. The site has been of primary interest to Byzantinists since its discovery in the beginning of the twentieth century, but no comprehensive study has been conducted to reconstruct the social history of the monastery. The wall paintings provide valuable information, however, and could be used as primary evidence.

Some of them are held by the Louvre and the Coptic Museum in Cairo, but many of the remains are still covered by the sand. In 2002, the Louvre and the Institut français d’archéologie orientale du Caire started new excavations at Bawit, and since 2013 I have been in charge of the study of the wall paintings. Three churches and almost 160 residential and workshop structures have been discovered, even though only ten percent of the site has been excavated. There is still so much to learn about Bawit.


What relevant materials did you find in the Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives (ICFA)?

I found—with ICFA Manager Bettina Smith and Byzantine Studies Librarian Joshua M. Robinson—and identified photographs taken by the French archaeologist Jean Clédat at Bawit between 1901 and 1905. Dumbarton Oaks purchased about 140 photographs from the Christian and Byzantine collection of the École Pratique des Hautes Études in 1953, when André Grabar was director of the Gabriel Millet archives. These are modern prints made from original glass negatives. 

Only a small number of wall paintings excavated in the beginning of the twentieth century are visible today and most of them are probably destroyed. The old photographs are the last known record we have of them.


What are some of your major findings so far? 

By combining the archaeological and textual data with the photographic and map archives, I could review the function of the so-called chapels of Bawit. I have tried to demonstrate that the room traditionally called the “oratory” covered several functions and needs to be redefined. When the data collected were sufficiently precise, I developed 3D models with an archaeological draftsman to study spatiality, lighting, and sensory perceptions.

This allowed me to understand the iconographic programs and their different levels of reading related to the exegetical, dogmatic, and moral concerns of late antique Christianity. The wall paintings of Bawit reveal an elaborate conception of monastic life and suggest a subtle quest for spiritual values, rooted in the exercise of meditation and prayer. The images have a role in contemplation and liturgy practices. They show the importance of the Scriptures, the writings of the Church Fathers, and the sayings of the Desert Fathers, and provide information on the circulation of texts and ideas in the Byzantine Near East. 

Despite an apparent uniformity and standardization, the choice of subjects, religious scenes, portraits of saints, and ornaments reflect the social backgrounds of the monks and disparities between the monastic cells. One of the major findings was the signatures of craftsmen that I studied with Florence Calament, curator at the Louvre. At Bawit, at least twenty-four painters and plasterers have been identified. These inscriptions give us information on their origins, statuses, and education, quite rare in Byzantium at that time.

Another aim was to clarify the chronology of the paintings. Most of the remains are dated between 500 and 800, a critical time for Byzantium. Byzantine Egypt was occupied by Persians in the beginning of the seventh century (619–629), a couple of years before the Arab Conquest (639–641). The Sasanian occupation seems to have been traumatic for the monastic community, with significant losses. Only ten years after the reconquest of the province by Heraclius (629), the Arabs conquered Egypt in a few years. The Arabization and Islamization that took place in the following centuries marked a profound transformation of Egyptian society, but Hellenism, and contact with the Byzantine Empire, didn’t entirely fade away. This chronology challenges the traditional view of a remote monastery in decline after the Arab conquest and offers a glimpse into the flourishing life of a Christian community during the Umayyad caliphate.


Julia Ostmann  is postgraduate writing and reporting fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Photo by  Elizabeth Muñoz Huber, postgraduate digital media fellow.