Information about White Monastery
White Monastery at Sohag was named so because of limestone walls of the surviving church, which in some ways resembles the pylons of a Pharaonic temple. White Monastery was actually founded by the uncle of St. Shenouda, St. Pigol. White Monastery lies 4 kilometers south of Sohag, with the Red Monastery very nearby.
At its peek, after St. Shenouda became the monastery’s abbot, there were some 4,000 monks and nuns, and the grounds of the monastery covered some 12,800 acres. Facilities included kitchens, storehouses and monk’s cells, the remainder of which can still be seen to the north, west and south of the church. According to ancient documents, during the middle ages there was also a second church dedicated to the Virgin Mary and a keep.
After St. Shenouda, White Monastery continued to be very active up until around the middle of the eighth century, when without the strong leadership it had enjoyed in it’s early period, and under heavy taxation that was imposed about this time in Egypt, it fell into decline. Actually, the taxes of this period put many monasteries out of existence, and it is a tribute to the strength of the While Monastery that it survived at all.
During the 11th and 12th centuries, we know from paintings of the central apse of the church that the monastery hosted Armenian monks. During the 13th century, Abu Salih Al-Armani tells us of a now nonexistent keep of middle age construction, and of an enclosure wall around the monastery. He also speaks of a garden within the walls full of all sorts of trees. Apparently this serves to indicate that monastery’s further decline, lacking now the vast acreage outside the monastery that it once enjoyed. We do know that the monastery underwent considerable restoration between 1202 and 1259.
From the 14th century onward, the lack of literary manuscripts cements this advanced state of decline, from which in ancient times, it never recovered. In 1672, we here of visits by Wansleben and again in 1737 by Pococke, both of whom wrongly attributed the founding of the monaster (or at least the surviving church) to St. Helena, Emperor Constantine’s monther. In 1798, a French traveler named Denon tells us that he visited the monastery merely a day after its destruction by the Mamlukes.
We know that in the latter part of the 18th century, the southwest corner of the surviving church complex collapsed. This was later repaired under the direction of Muhammad Ali in 1802, who is also credited with the final demise of the Mamluke influence in Egypt. In 1833, Robert Curzon visited the White Monastery, leaving us a written record of such and in 1893, Fergusson published a plan of the church complex.
By the early 1900s there was apparently considerable interest in the White Monastery. Significant studies of the monument were made by such visitors as W. de Bock in 1901, C.R. Peers in 1904, and in 1907 by W.M.F. Petrie, at which time more restoration took place to the facility. Additional studies of the White Monastery took place in 1912 by S. Clarke and by Monneret de Villard in 1925.
What survives of the original White Monastery is only the Basilica style church complex. It had six entrances, with three in the north, south and west walls, and the other three south of the west wall, east of the south wall and east of the north wall. As mentioned earlier, outwardly the church much resembles an ancient Egyptian Temple.
The body of the church is now an open courtyard and contains a nave flanked by two isles. To realize the grand style of this 5th century basilica, one needs only to observe the dimension of this open courtyard. It measures 172 feet long by 76 feet wide, of which the nave occupies half that width.
Enclosed within a solid red brick wall built during the middle ages, the current church occupies what was once only the choir and sanctuary area. The original sanctuary was built with three apses and is one step higher than the nave in the open court. The altar is located within the central, or eastern apses. There is also a new, solid wood icon stasis with small icons on the top register. The central apses is divided into thirds with the center section dedicated to St. Shenouda the Archimandrite, the southern one to the Holy Virgin and the northern section to St. George.
The original three apses are grand, each containing two registers of columns separated by a decorative fires and surmounted by architraves. there is a wonderful semi-dome above the registers, with paintings. In the central apse, there is a painting of the Pantokrator and the four evangelists. The dormition of the blessed virgin is in the northern apse, and in the southern a representation of the resurrection with the two Mary’s and two angels.
There are several annexes along the east and south walls, with the most significant being the great hall alongside the south wall. it has a chamber at each of its east and west ends. The west chamber contains a well.
The church is build using various materials, but the original construction used white limestone set in mortar with no bonding. The source of this material was probably from nearby ancient Egyptian temples. the original nave columns are made of marble or granite and the paving of the nave is of limestone or granite slaps. Originally there was a wood roof, but that is now of burnt brick.
Comment: It is painful to see the great Monastery of St. Shenouda reduced to such a small size. For it must have been a sight to behold in its prime. However, the church complex that remains was most likely the jewel of the monastery. There is enough remaining in it to portray how great it was. The honorable Sommers Clarke described it best as “the noblest church of which we have any remains in Egypt, the chief monument of the Christians…”