“The Heritage of the Desert Fathers” Research Project
“When I first met with Jan Ciglenečki, a scientific member of the Institute for the Study of Christian Tradition (Ljubljana, Slovenia), working at that time in the library of the French Institute for Oriental Archaeology (IFAO) in Cairo, I could not really understand what it meant when he first said there is no map of the hermitages in the deserts around monasteries, the information being scattered hidden in the archaeological literature on dynastic pre-Christian period(since the abandoned pharaonic tombs had been often inhabited by the hermits). How could this be significant to a historian of ideas? As he explained more, I gradually arrived at a basic idea of how from geographical data the patterns of dissemination and migration of ideas could emerge, which would in turn help to reconstruct the daily lives of the early hermits, and consequently providing a theological and philosophical understanding of their teachings, and the rich variety of local influences on their practices.
More and more I could see the need for locating the hermitages to fill the gaps in the bigger picture of Coptic hermitism. After the first trip, I joined the project of “the Heritage of the Desert Fathers”, in deep conviction of the importance of the work that has to be done for our heritage. The mission I undertook is submitting the heritage of the Desert Fathers for nomination to the UNESCO’s World Heritage List, while simultaneously raising awareness of the general public….
In order to make the map, the team needed desert survival experts, who would help us in finding the exact geographical coordinates of caves and hermitages, as well as monasteries and sites of functional importance (e.g. sources of water). For this purpose, Guillaume Grac and Samuel Forey, each with exceptional experiences in desert navigation, have joined our team. Once the coordinates are established, it will be possible to create a series of layer files, containing valuable information on individual hermitages as well as on the overall pattern of their distribution.
And there we set off to the desert, although the sight of the almost all red map of the country circulated by embassies is definitely not the most encouraging. There seemed to be no turn of events that the country could not take, which had left a perpetual state of alertness in the air. Not without reason. The curfews that left the roads intimidating and heavily monitored had created the ghostly monsters of anticipated violence. Had it been just the scarey myths of terror we heard everyday, it would have been tolerable. But, not an Egyptian would say without regret the fact that all the monsters in our heads seemed to materialize month after month in all forms and ways.
The preliminary survey trips were made in the desert mountains North and South of Wadi Araba in the Eastern desert, the cradle of hermitism where the hermitage of Saint Anthony is, the region of Al Fayoum oasis, where, we scanned the areas partly excavated by the Polish archeologists from the Polish Center for Mediterranean Archaeology (PCMA) in Cairo, whose director drew our attention to the picturesque hermitages in the rocky desert around the monastery of Archangel Gabriel (deir al Malak Gabriel); the numerous pharaonic tombs in the Nile valley, hardly accessible due to the current political instability; the remnants of the Christian communities in the Bahareya and Farafra oases in the Libyan desert (Eastern Sahara); and on the edges of the Delta region in the ancient Kellia sites and the hermitages in Wadi Natrun, where monastic life has not only lived to the modern times, but also remained to be one of the most influential.
The idea of making the map, and the outcome of these preliminary surveys, raised a lot of interest in the scientific communities. Soon, positive feedback came from several researchers and institution all around the globe….
“The Heritage of the Desert Fathers” research project aims at creating a comprehensive map of the geographical distribution of early anchorites and providing a firm basis for more detailed archaeological research of the hermitages. An in-depth documentation of artificial modifications in the caves around the monasteries might help in the efforts to reconstruct the architectural diversity and the gradual transformations of the hermitages. Once the coordinates are established, it will be possible to create a series of layer files, containing valuable information on individual hermitages as well as on the overall pattern of their distribution. The maps will be made available for the unrestricted use of the community of researchers from all disciplines….
The reception of the project has been exceptional and very promising, but in order for such scale of work to proceed towards its goals on the long term, organization on steady, well-established grounds for systematic progress is indispensable…
If there is any mission that I am after, it is the mission of helping us to achieve a true knowledge of a significant aspect of our heritage. Such consolidated knowledge is not a fake, empty source of pride, but a strong pillar, among others needed, around which we can weave our present and future.”
An extract from: Amira Nagati “The Heritage of the Desert Fathers. Slovenian expedition in the deserts of Egypt and the ancient Christian kingdoms of Nubia” (October 9, 2014)
For the Project, see: http://desert-fathers.com/
“”The Heritage of the Desert Fathers” research project aims at mapping and photographic surveying of the locations of hermitages in the deserts around monasteries in Egypt and in the Sudan (the ancient Christian kingdoms of Nubia), in addition to the study of the ancient and modern eremetical traditions in their different psychological, theological as well as philosophical aspects.
Although much of the focus of the previous work on the Christians in the deserts has been laid on the archaeological research of the ancient monasteries around Egypt and the Sudan, a systematic overview and recording of the hermitages is lacking. This is especially the case in the more remote areas of Upper Egypt, the Eastern desert, the Western oases, and the Sudan.
The premise of our team is therefore set to the task of finding the exact geographical coordinates of caves and hermitages, in addition to those of monasteries and sites of functional importance (e.g. sources of water). Once the coordinates have been established, it will be possible to create a series of layered filters, containing valuable information on individual hermitages including the overall pattern of their spatial distribution.
The purpose is to develop an interactive map of hermitism and monasticism in Egypt and Sudan, which will include three different registers: (1) the geographical map; (2) photographic material and (3) the philosophical, theological and historical related texts. The resulting data collection of maps and photographic material will be made freely available to the community of researchers from a variety of disciplines.”