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In the Shadow of the Sphinx: Pharaonic Sacred Space in the Coptic Imagination

Jennifer Westerfeld, University of Chicago, Junior Fellow 2009–2010

As a Junior Fellow in Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks, I completed a substantial portion of my dissertation, which I will defend in September 2010. My research at Dumbarton Oaks was largely focused on a new edition and analysis of a corpus of Byzantine graffiti from the mortuary temple of the Ramesside pharaoh Seti I at Abydos, in Upper Egypt. These inscriptions were written by a group of female ascetics during the period from ca. 600–900 CE, and they provide exceptional epigraphic evidence for female monasticism in Byzantine and early Islamic Egypt. Although the Christian graffiti from the site have long been taken as evidence for the establishment of a monastery within the temple precinct itself, I argue that the women's community was actually based in the nearby village of Bardis and that the temple was used only intermittently by that group. The graffiti written by these monastic women on the temple walls offer an interesting counterpoint to the rather polemical literary representation of that structure in the sixth-century Coptic Life of Moses of Abydos, and they suggest that by the early seventh century the temple's connection to pagan cultic practice had been largely overwritten by Christian activity in the area.

Throughout the course of the year, my research has benefited greatly not only from the tremendous resources of the Dumbarton Oaks library and the generosity of its staff, but also from conversations and exchanges with Fellows and Readers across different fields. The support of the Dumbarton Oaks community was also extremely helpful to me as I negotiated the job market this year, and I will leave Washington to begin my career as a professor in the History Department at the University of Louisville.