Deir Anba Hadra: Berlin Dec 2015

On 18th December 2015, a workshop will take place in Berlin on current research concerning the monastery of Deir Anba Hadra at Aswan (also known as the Monastery of Saint Simeon), which is currently being excavated by the German Archaeological Institute. The workshop (programme available here) includes papers by the Deir Anba Hadra team on a range of topics, documenting religious, social, and economic history:

  • Coptic and Arabic epigraphy
  • Archaeobotanical remains
  • Wall paintings
  • Archaeology and architecture

The monastery was founded in the 10th century and was abandoned in the 13th century. The size and condition of its archaeological remains makes this an important site for the history of Egyptian monasticism in Fatimid, Ayyubid, and Mamluk Egypt, as well as for the history of Aswan during these centuries. For more information on the site and the exciting project, under the direction of Prof. Dr Sebastian Richter, see its own blogspot and its TOPOI research page.

A whole lotta wine (and camels)

A whole lotta wine (and camels)

In the Wadi Sarga corpus, two things that are mentioned frequently (in fact, the two most common things) are wine and camels.

There are a huge amount of receipts for wine delivered to the monastery – this single category of text accounts for almost one-third of the published texts (and so far, I’ve identified 40 more among the unpublished fragments). Additionally, wine occurs in a range of other texts, mainly as a form of payment to individual people.

Wine was delivered by camel. The receipts name the camel-driver responsible, but the number of camels in their trains is not recorded in these short texts. Camels are also mentioned as the subject of letters written to the monastery, such as the following letter, O.Sarga 94:

“Give it to Father, Apa Justus, from the brethren of Pohe. Please send us all the camels, so they can clear-out these palm-branches. …”

Unfortunately, this doesn’t say how many camels they want (or how many palm branches they had to clear up!). Another letter, O.Sarga 93, asks specifically for eight camels, so that the recipient can load them with fodder, and another three ‘good’ camels for wine. The monastery therefore seems to have owned some camels, but how many?

Trying to get to the bottom of this is one of the questions that I’m currently tackling. As wine delivery was at a peak following the grape harvest and wine was mainly delivered between late August and early October, did the monastery need to hire more camels to cope with the quantities being delivered? Was the amount of wine delivered in a single delivery contingent on how many camels were available, or was the number of camels used dependent on the amount of wine? For example, the camel-driver Collouthos regularly delivered only 8 large measures plus 1 small measure of wine: was this because he only had a couple of camels? Other individual deliveries were for vast amounts of wine: O.Sarga 243 records 132 small measures of wine, delivered by the camel-herder John.

Connected to all of this, and something that is vital to bear in mind when dealing only with small scraps of writing, is the logistics involved in the whole process. While camels can carry a significant amount (they have a load-bearing capacity of 230 kg*), the main issue is how this much wine could be loaded onto the animal. In this respect, we have the evidence from camel terracottas, such as the one in the image above. These typically show a camel with four or six amphorae strapped to their harness (distributed evenly on each side). Over 100 amphorae would then require a whole lotta camels!

With this practical issue in the forefront of my mind, I’m currently mulling over the issues involved, hoping to reach some sensible conclusions about the number of camels needed, and how the monastery would have dealt with the logistics of keeping so many animals.


*The information on the load-bearing capacity is taken from Cotterell, B. & Kamminga, J. (1990). Mechanics of Pre-Industrial Technology: An Introduction to the Mechanics of Ancient and Traditional Material Culture. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 194.

The camel terracotta is in the Petrie Museum, London, inventory number UC 48026. This particular image is a snapshot from the 3D image provided as part of the enhanced digital publication of A. Stevenson (ed.) The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology: Characters and Collections (2015), in which I discuss various camel-related objects in the collection (see My Publications for more information).

As an aside, the only publication to deal with the issue of the volume of wine delivered to the monastery is Bacot, S. (2008). “La circulation du vin dans les monastères à l’époque copte”, in N. Grimal & B. Menu (eds) Le commerce en Égypte ancienne (Cairo: IFAO), 269–288. However, I believe that the conclusions reached here need to be revised, concerning the amount of wine delivered to the monastery annually and how much constituted ‘one camel load’.

Monks, Camels, and Wine

Monks, Camels, and Wine

Since 2009/10, I have been studying the corpus of texts written at the monastery of Apa Thomas at Wadi Sarga, a valley ca. 25 km south of modern Asyut in central Egypt. In 2013, I held a British Museum Postdoctoral Fellowship in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, in order to study and photograph the published and unpublished items from the site that bear writing on them, whether in ink or incised, and whether labels or longer documents. From the beginning of 2015, I began a Fellowship at the University of Copenhagen. The main focus of my research here is the monastery at Wadi Sarga, about its history and its day-to-day life, including its organisation, administration, economy, and relationship with near and distant communities. My work is based on the written record that survives from the site, but work on other material from the monastery is currently being studied (as part of a larger project at the British Museum) and provides vital context for the textual evidence.

I have created this blog in order to talk about aspects of my work as it progresses, whether thoughts on the material, upcoming events, or new publications, for example. I have several thoughts that I’m playing around with, which need to be mulled over before they are suitable for publication. The role of camels and wine at the monastery particularly interest me, because they occur so frequently in the material itself – hence the name of this blog. I hope that other people – whether working on monasticism in Egypt or elsewhere, interested in wine, wine production, and land management, or simply curious about the whole thing – will find something of interest amongst these pages.

For further information on the image above (one of the few complete vessels from Wadi Sarga: British Museum EA 73196), see its entry on the British Museum’s online catalogue here.