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The Kellia Monastery

Toward the western outskirts of the Egyptian Delta lie the remains of over one thousand five hundred early Christian monastic structures — mud-brick dwellings dating primarily to the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries. In antiquity, because of the many hermitages that dotted the landscape, the main settlement in the area came to be named Kellia — “The Cells.” Another settlement called Pherme grew up as something of a satellite community to the larger one at Kellia. Both are well known from ancient sources like the Sayings of the Desert Fathers. Monasticism at Kellia and Pherme combined elements of the solitary and communal life. While there was ample opportunity for monks to find solitude in their individual cells, many occupied their houses in pairs or groups of three and gathered with other monks weekly for the purposes of worship. This way of life continued until the eighth century, when these settlements declined under early Arab rule.

The site at Kellia lay abandoned for centuries until its rediscovery in 1964. French and Swiss archaeological teams began work at the site the next year, work that continued until 1990. Throughout this period, the French and Swiss teams had to contend with significant environmental and societal factors that threatened the site’s preservation. In the 1960s, the Egyptian government began intensive efforts to reclaim desert territories and sponsor agricultural development through irrigation in the western Delta region. The result of these efforts was a rising water level that increasingly saturated and destabilized the ground in and around the monastic remains. Each year, portions of the site were lost to unmonitored agricultural expansion, and in 1990 the archaeological work at Kellia was suspended.

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Mural of St. Menas


The figure, identified by his Greek name, "Agios Menas," is depicted "orant" (kneeling in prayer). The mural was painted in distemper on the wall of a cell at the monastery of Kellia. St. Menas-the martyr for whom the basilica of Abu Mina, a major pilgrimage site in the early years of Christianity, was built-is always depicted with two camels, in reference to traditional accounts of the miraculous choice of his place of burial. The animals are missing here, due to deterioration.


St. Menas
Menas is depicted in the hieratic pose of the "orant," a figure in prayer, but his flowing robes alleviate any sense of rigidity in the drawing. The long-sleeved red tunic with narrow cuffs is belted loosely above the thighs, creating heavy, supple pleats. A light-colored cloak, or pallium, protects the saint's left shoulder, while two braids or cloak fasteners hang down to his waist. The lower part of the body is missing. The paint has flaked off the face, but the thick, short curly hair gives him a youthful appearance. A broad, fully-circular halo completes the portrait of the martyr; the two camels that are traditionally linked to his legend (usually depicted prostrate at his feet) have disappeared.


The decor of a monastic cell
The monastic cells at Kellia were modest, constructed from earth and straw, but nevertheless featured colorful murals painted in distemper: a coat of plaster and whitewash, or plaster and powdered lime, was applied and left to dry on the walls. This provided the support for the paint, a mixture of pigments with a glue or gum binder. The most commonly used pigments were ocher (for the yellows to reds), carbon black (for black), malachite (for green), and calcium carbonate (for white). At Kellia, geometric designs and Christian symbols were more common than figurative scenes such as this. 


The monastery at Kellia
The monastery at Kellia was created by St. Anthony during his travels through the Scete desert, sometime around AD 330. Located in the western desert, a few kilometers south-east of the famous basilica dedicated to St. Menas, Kellia featured individual cells (from the Greek word "kellia") rather than the more familiar enclosed complex of monastic buildings. These individual hermitages were scattered, yet sufficiently close to provide a sense of community, unlike the misanthropic cave-dwellings of the early anchorites. Each "cell" (there were up to 1,500 in the seventh century) comprised a one-roomed habitation and an oratory. The cells were affiliated to a church, where the Sunday liturgy was celebrated, and a refectory, where the monks gathered after mass before dispersing until the following Sunday. At around the same time, an early form of cenobitic monasticism (from the Greek "koinos bios," or "community life") was becoming established under the rule of St. Pachomius. The first cenobite architecture produced small "houses" gathered within a boundary wall, together with a church, a hostel, and workshops.

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