Located about 72 miles south of Assuit, the City of
Sohag is the capital of the Sohag governorate. It is also a major Coptic Christian center for
Upper Egypt. There is little here other than the White and Red Monasteries just outside town. Of somewhat more interest is the town of
Akhmin just across the river. Most tourists visit this area as a day trip.
The White Monastery at Sohag is names so for the limestone walls of the surviving church, which in some ways resembles a the pylons of a Pharaonic temple. This monastery, founded actually be the uncle of St. Shenouda, St. Pigol, lies 4 1/2 kilometers south of Sohag, with the Red Monastery very nearby.
At its peek, after St. Shenouda became the monastery's abbot, there were some 4,000 monks and nuns, and the grounds of the monastery covered some 12,800 acres. Facilities included kitchens, storehouses and monk's cells, the remainder of which can still be seen to the north, west and south of the church. According to ancient documents, during the middle ages there was also a second church dedicated to the Virgin Mary and a keep.
After St. Shenouda, the monastery continued to be very active up until around the middle of the eighth century, when without the strong leadership it had enjoyed in it's early period, and under heavy taxation that was imposed about this time in
Egypt, it fell into decline. Actually, the taxes of this period put many monasteries out of existence, and it is a tribute to the strength of the While Monastery that it survived at all.
We know almost nothing of the history of the Red Monastery (Deir al-Ahmar, Deir Anba Bishoi or Bishai) near Sohag, though it is one of the most famous Christian monasteries in
Egypt. It lies about three kilometers north of the White Monastery at the extreme western edge of the cultivated land. However, unlike the White Monastery it is situated within a small village, and some houses lie to the south and east. The area to the north and west of the monastery is mainly covered with debris.
Its name is derived from the color of its construction material, consisting of red (burnt) brick, of its outside walls, which distinguishes it from its nearby neighbor, the White Monastery which is made of stone. These walls are considerably thicker at the base than at the top, and like ancient Pharaonic temples, as well as the White monastery, are surmounted by cavetto moldings. Otherwise, this monastery is architecturally similar to the White Monastery, and most likely its construction dates to the same period (probably the fifth century AD). However, Elizabeth Bolman tells us that:
"Shenute has, of course, made the White Monastery much more famous. From an architectural point of view, it is more interesting as well. But given the fact that most of the stonework in the White Monastery was shaved down and the surface of much of it was lost, along with all traces of paint, the Red Monastery is actually much more significant for art history today. It may include the only standing ensemble of architecture, sculpture, and paint (areas fully covered with paint) left from the late antique period in the entire
Mediterranean. Some of the paint is certainly post-fifth century, but a lot of it may well be early."
The monastery was dedicated to St. Pshoi (Bishoi in Arabic), who is not to be confused with the more celebrated individual who lived in the Wadi al-Natrun. He was a contemporary of Apa Pjol, the founder of the White Monastery. In fact, it was probably
St. Paul who founded this monastery as well. In his "Life of Shenute", Besa says that, "The holy anba Paul and the young man Shenoude went out walking together, and with them also went apa Psoi (Pshoi) from
Psoou. He too was a holy man who walked after godly things" (Besa 9, p. 44). Hence, one may identify "Psoou" (Psou) with the Red Monastery.
Regrettably, while the fifteenth century Arab historian al-Maqrizi names the monastery, he provides us with none of its history. The probable reason is that it was closely related to the White Monastery at that time. Dominique Vivant Denon visited the monastery during Napoleon's campaign in 1798-1799, but states that the facility had been ransacked and burned down by the Mamluks only a few days before his arrival. Currently, the monastery is apparently occupied by only a few monks, but the church still serves the Coptic communities of the surrounding villages, as well as the pilgrims who come here during the big feasts of the liturgical year.
Just across the river from Sohag on the east bank of the Nile lies the town of
Akhmim. It is an ancient town, known as Ipu or Khent-Menu to the early Egyptians and Panopolis to the Greeks. Panopolis was named for the principal god of the city, Min, who was Pan to the Greeks and the god of fertility and master of the deserts between the Nile and the
Red Sea. Plutarch states that, "The pans and Satyris who live near Chemmis (Akhmim) were the first to learn of the death of Osiris and spread the news. This was how the sudden fear that grips a multitude became known as panic".
A recently discovered statue of Meryetamun (Beloved of the God Amun), the tallest statue of an ancient queen, now stands in the middle of town. She was one of the consort of Rameses II after the death of Nefertari, as well as a priestess of the
Min. As a side note, near the statue is a weaving factory where one may purchase bolts of silk and Egyptian cotton.
The main attraction here is the Necropolis of El-Hawawish, where the governors of the area were buried from the 4th to the 11th Dynasties and at the El-Salamuni Promontory where rock cut tombs of the Greco-Roman period can be found. Nearby is the gate to the Grotto of Pan, the temple dedicated to Min and Amun-Re. It was built by Ay who succeeded Tutankhamun, and is one of the few temples attributable to him.
About one third of a kilometer to the northwest of Seti I's well known temple at Abydos, on the western edge of the village of Beni Mansur, Rameses II built a temple for himself, which while not completely preserved, retains the details of its plan and many of its brightly painted reliefs that are possibly the finest in any monument ever built by Ramesses II. Indeed, this temple, with its pink and black granite door frames, sandstone pillars and a sanctuary of alabaster, must have been the most beautiful and richest among the temples that Ramesses II built. Judging from the quality of the scenes in low relief comparable to the quality of those found in the temple of Seti I, it seem unquestionable that the artists must have come from this earlier generation.
This temple was also dedicated mainly to Osiris though, while built when Ramesses II was still co-ruler with Seti I, it retained a more conventional design patterned after contemporary mortuary temples at
Thebes. The walls of the temple, made of limestone, are very reduced, now standing only about two meters (6 feet 6 inches) high.