Desert Diets

The food of the Egyptian monasteries

General View of the New Church and Monastery of St Anthony (1930/1931)RAWI Publishing

Christian monasticism started in Egypt. Many Coptic Christian men and women abandoned their public lives and pursued a more secluded, spiritual existence in the Egyptian deserts. 

By the 3rd/4th c. CE, Egypt was renowned for its monastic life.  The piousness of the monks is documented in many literary tales, but it is documentary texts (such as receipts) and archaeological evidence that tell us about how they lived and what they ate and drank. 

Two of the most renowned and ancient Coptic monasteries are by the Red Sea: the monasteries of Saint Paul and Saint Anthony. In 1930/1931, Thomas Whittemore, who founded the Byzantine Institute, an organization specialized in the study, restoration, and conservation of Byzantine art and architecture, visited these monasteries and studied their wall paintings. His team included Kazazian, a photographer who also documented aspects of daily life in the monasteries.

The images we see here of the Monastery of St Anthony allow us to travel back in time and understand the story of food in a setting that prided itself on a lifestyle of austerity and fasting.

Refectory of Monastery (1930/1931)RAWI Publishing

In the early days of Christianity, men (and women) left their lives to seek seclusion and worship. Many became renowned and greatly admired for undertaking arduous fasts.

Bread, salt, and water were often the only recorded foods monks are said to have eaten. However, the diets of monks (and nuns) between the 3rd and 7th centuries CE were much more varied than that.

Meals were usually served in the general refectory, although those adhering to a stricter fast would eat (or not) alone in their rooms. Communal meals may have consisted of cheese (served only outside of periods of fasting), pickles, greens, olives, and cooked or raw vegetables and greens. It was advised that a monk always keep extra bread in his cell in case he received a visitor, as hospitality— even during periods of abstinence—was highly encouraged.

‘Bread steeped in a concoction … of lentils, onions, and linseed oil’ was observed by biblical scholar Constantine Tischendorf in the 19th c. as the diet of the monks at the monastery of Anba Maqqar in Wadi al-Natrun (in the Western Desert). He considered this a poor diet and ascribed the ill health of the monks to it.  

Monk Baking Holy Bread (1930/1931)RAWI Publishing

Bread, known in Coptic as owek or kake—the word for loaves, which is surprisingly similar to the Arabic kahk and English ‘cake’—was of course a staple and was most commonly made of wheat. Wheat itself was also used as a currency of sorts and was exchanged, sold, and used for paying wages.

Bread was not only a nutritional staple but was also part of religious ritual. The bread being baked in this picture is the ourban or holy bread destined for use during mass.  

Monk Stamping Holy Bread (1930/1931)RAWI Publishing

The ourbana (pl.: ourban) is a round loaf of bread stamped using a circular wooden seal with crosses carved in relief on its front.

Until today, a large number of these loaves are baked in two sizes for every mass. The most perfect of the larger loaves is picked to be placed at the altar where it is consecrated for Holy Communion during mass.

Monks Sorting Dried Grapes (1930/1931)RAWI Publishing

Other than lentils, a variety of pulses such as chickpeas were available. Vegetables included olives, sometimes salted, onions, cabbages, garlic, mallow, purslane, and gourds. Leeks were thought to ‘invigorate the body and make war on the soul’, while lettuce was mentioned as a foodstuff that was not to be consumed, for reasons unknown.

Although limited, a variety of oils has been documented: linseed, horseradish, sesame, and olive oil. Vinegar was used in preserving or pickling foodstuffs, but spices are rarely mentioned in texts. Fruits such as figs, grapes, and dates were consumed in both fresh and dried form.

Here, monks are seen sorting dried grapes (i.e., raisins). The monastery of Saint Anthony is historically renowned for its vineyards. Although we do not have direct evidence, we can assume that the raisins being sorted here are from these local vineyards.

General View of Monastery of St Anthony (1930/1931)RAWI Publishing

Monasteries were largely self sufficient. Cereals, vegetables, and fruits were grown either in small plots or on larger lands owned by the monasteries. They may also have been donated or bartered in exchange for handicrafts made by the monks. Dates were used to settle debts and were a traded commodity.

Abstaining from food may have been a form of expressing piety and ensuring a clear head for worship, but food was nevertheless a major concern, and archaeological and textual evidence show a varied diet. However, regional differences, seasonal differences, and varying levels of adherence to religious restriction mean that the foods mentioned here were not necessarily available in all monasteries at all times but were available to the communities that lived in bustling settlements on the desert fringes.

The archaeological clues we gather from these self-contained settlements have been invaluable in telling us about the food more generally available in early Christian Egypt. 

For more on Egyptian culinary history, check out the story on medieval markets.

Credits: Story

Images courtesy of
The Byzantine Institute and Dumbarton Oaks Fieldwork Records and Papers, ca late 1920s-2000s, Dumbarton Oaks, Trustees for Harvard University, Washington, D.C

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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