The American Research Center in Eygpt

Cultural Heritage Management - ARCE Monastery Projects

Cultural Heritage Management - ARCE Monastery Projects

Cultural Heritage Management - ARCE Monastery Projects

This article is an excerpt from a talk given by ARCE Associate Director, Michael Jones at a conference hosted by Dumbarton Oaks in Washington D.C. in January 2012 regarding research and conservation of Coptic monastery projects conducted by ARCE between 1996 and 2012 with funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Every cultural heritage conservation program is a unique, unrepeatable opportunity to study the structure and context of the particular monument, site or work of art. While the focus of our monastery projects has been on cleaning and conservation of wall paintings in situ, each project mentioned here has involved not only a team of conservators, but also a group of scholars in art history, archaeology, architecture, Coptology and other related disciplines. Their work is mainly focused on aspects of past history, whereas conservation is concerned with preserving for the future what we have inherited from the past, based on present knowledge and supported by research. Nevertheless, research can support conservation and even contribute to developing a conservation ethic.

The approach taken is based on the idea that what survives for us today does so because of value based decisions made by people in the past. The same applies today; what is valued and has significance for people will be kept while everything else will be destroyed, recycled or neglected and left to decay. The test of a conservation project is the test of time, for decisions made now will determine what future generations will be able to experience and enjoy.

Poster with Pope Shenouda III and the south apse of the altar at the Red Monastery Church, Sohag

As values change, so every act of intervention introduces a new layer of history. Recently, the Coptic Church has produced a poster showing the image of Pope Shenouda III combined with a photograph of the south apse of the altar in the Red Monastery church, Sohag, cleaned, conserved and photographed by the on-going ARCE project. This juxtaposition on the poster is a strong statement of how the Church has asserted its identity with the newly conserved painted architectural space.

Red Monastery church panorama >>

When a project is finished and the conservators leave, the building is curated according to the traditions of the Coptic Church. This means returning the church to liturgical use by the clergy and faithful for whom it has enormous spiritual significance, but little art historical importance.  The very function for which the church was originally created in the sixth century and which has supported its survival, now introduces one of the greatest conservation risks endangering its future preservation. Modern dangers that did not exist in the past are added to the usual wear and tear experienced by religious heritage still in use. These include the huge population explosion of recent decades and the accompanying air pollution, atmospheric humidity and groundwater; expansion at historic sites of towns, agriculture and transportation systems; vastly increased numbers of visitors and tourists; extensive building projects using incongruous and potentially harmful materials in the midst of traditional building materials; and the introduction of air conditioning, sometimes on an industrial scale.

With limited resources and such a wealth of material exposed to these hazards, conservation can be carried out in several intersecting ways; not everything can be saved. The urgency now is to take archaeological approaches to conservation by means of comprehensive recording to make sure that as much as possible is conserved through documentation.  Archives thus created may, in some instances, be all that will eventually survive of the original wall paintings or the churches in which they have remained for centuries, or of the artifacts associated with the traditional life of the monasteries and their interconnected support systems.

The records made at St. Anthony’s and St. Paul’s Monasteries by the Byzantine Expedition led by Thomas Whittemore (1930 – 31) and now preserved at Dumbarton Oaks are a case in point. Photography can capture the interaction of people with their heritage. Sound recordings can preserve the voices of people. Only the smells are still elusive.

Such an archaeological approach will collect all the available material from archival sources in order to assess what has already disappeared and combine these data with on-site recording. At the Red Monastery church this has required a survey of the photographic record made by the Comité de Conservation des Monuments de l”Art Arabe (the Comité) whose agents carried out extensive repairs and modifications to the church in the early twentieth century, and photographs taken by others such as de Bock some time earlier. They show that the open-roofed nave of the church was at that time inhabited by a community whose houses had filled the space within the well-preserved walls. All the houses, described by the Comité as ‘maisons parasites’ have now been cleared away leaving the nave walls available for study but devoid of evidence above ground for a significant part of the site’s history. Building archaeology has shown that the church was constructed using spolia from a variety of early monuments, presumably in the vicinity and no longer extant since they were recycled into other structures such as this. These include fragmentary hieroglyphic inscriptions that can be studied in parallel with the much larger corpus found reused at the nearby White Monastery church.

White Monastery first chamber panorama >>

White Monastery second chamber pamorama >>


Church dome at Dayr al-Fakhuri, Esna, showing lack of maintenance but access to study building materials due to plaster loss

Historic buildings constructed of traditional materials are especially vulnerable to being replaced by new buildings made from modern materials that require little or no maintenance. Interior spaces in such buildings tend to be small and today’s concrete and steel allow for much larger rooms that will accommodate increasing numbers of guests and residents. Traditional materials such as mud brick and plaster renderings need frequent repairs by skilled masons who are becoming harder to find and expensive to employ. At the Monastery of St. Matthew the Potter, near Esna, almost all the extant monastery comprises traditional buildings constructed of mud brick, fired red brick and stone coated in mud and lime plaster renderings. These structures are now starting to decay with little recent maintenance. In 2010 ARCE undertook a comprehensive documentation and recording project there that involved: photography of the monastery buildings, the monks, their activities, the Feast of St. Matthew held on 16 December each year and the surrounding environment; architectural recording of the historic core of the monastery, test cleanings on the wall paintings in the church with chemical analyses of the pigments, bindings and plasters.

Examples of research opportunities are abundant at both St. Anthony’s and St. Paul’s Monasteries. The ancient church of St. Anthony survives today as an accumulation of building phases with the latest dating from the thirteenth century when it was renovated and given new wall paintings. Two groups of painters, one trained in a distinctively Egyptian style and another with stylistic and technical connections with Cyprus, worked in the church, perhaps several decades apart, in two completely distinct techniques and styles. The discovery of the work done by the second group opens up a range of research topics, taking as their starting point the paintings in this small church in the Eastern Desert of Egypt and extending to the Lusignan kingdom of Cyprus with links to both West and East, and to contemporary thirteenth century Islamic design in architecture, wood carving, metalwork, miniature painting and manuscript bindings.


St. Anthony’s Monastery mill room

Both monasteries also preserve substantial elements of their traditional architecture and installations such as the mills, springs, gardens and food storage facilities that were essential to the monks’ survival in the remote desert before modern transportation and the introduction of electricity and piped water. There is extensive material here for the study of the sources of materials, the social history of the monasteries referencing the mutual dependency of the monks and their beduin neighbors, their food sources on the monasteries’ farms in the Nile Valley, the property endowments and management systems, wealthy donors and humble carpenters whose names are inscribed on their work.

The most advantageous approach is, of course to combine actual conservation work with documentation and research; there is no substitute for the real thing. Cultural heritage is important because people value it, and when the tangible aspects disappear a whole web of intangible significances go with it that can never be reconstructed. In a rapidly changing environment where modernization moves faster than the conservators, thorough and accurate documentation projects are advocated to provide a means of preserving for future generations what our contemporaries have decided they no longer want to keep. Such documentation needs to include both the physical evidence and the testimony of people who, consciously or not, give life and meaning to the heritage, for they are among the most important resources available to scholars. Comprehensive research and publication provide access and increase the power of information as a conservation tool by promoting awareness of conservation values.

Read about ARCE's monastery projects at St. Antony's, St. Paul's, and the Red Monastery.

US Office: 909 North Washington St. Suite 320, Alexandria, Virginia, 22314 p: (703) 721-3479
ARCE Cairo Center: 2 Midan Simón Bolívar Garden City Cairo 11461 Egypt p: 20 2 2794 8239 

ARCE is a 501(c)(3) organization. Content on the ARCE website is available for personal use only. If content is downloaded, it must be for the sole purpose of viewing, or for "fair use" as defined in United States copyright law. Requests to publish ARCE images must be submitted in writing to

United States Agency for International Development   National Endowment for the Humanities   Council of American Overseas Research Centers   Network for Good   GuideStar"
Copyright 2020 ARCE