Shelter: Epiphanius

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Photo by Einsamer Schütze. 

In seventh century Byzantine Egypt, pilgrims seeking spiritual guidance, healing, and miracles could make their way to a Coptic monastery built into the ruined tomb of an Egyptian vizier. The devout came seeking the counsel of Epiphanius, an ascetic hermit whose potent prayers and spells could heal the sick, pacify an enemy, bring children to the infertile, purify a well and bless a new home. His miracles required a mix of powerful incantations, Christian prayers, amulets, wax figurines and parts of mummies that could be found in the ruins of tombs that scattered the desert valley around the monastery.

From a cell within the crumbling walls of the tomb set into a barren hillside west of the Valley of the Kings, word of the holy man’s powers had called forth a brethen of monks and a steady stream of pilgrims. The monks built rooms for storage, craft, and prayer. They constructed an elaborate approach to the inner sanctum of Epiphanius, who they called prophet — visitors would enter through the outer gateway, pass through two antechambers, climb two staircases and walk through a long open vestibule, reading inscriptions of sacred doctrine painted in both Coptic and Greek along the way. While monks spent their days engaged in the necessary tasks of daily living — cultivating grain and vegetables, working leather for belts and books, growing, spinning, and weaving flax — they also lived in constant remembrance of their own mortality, bedding down beside the artifacts of an ancient mummy, and weaving their own funeral shrouds.

Time passed, as the monks knew it would, and the monastery lay empty in the desert for over a thousand years, until 1911, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art sent a team to excavate the Eleventh Dynasty tomb. What they found brought the distant past into sharp immediacy—in addition to the artifacts of daily living, agricultural tools, food specimens, spindles and loom parts, the excavation turned up hundreds of potsherds inscribed in thick and steady Coptic lettering.


Called ostraca, these broken pieces of vases and vessels were used as a sort of scratch paper in lieu of the more expensive and rare papyrus to record financial records, school texts, legal documents, prayers and letters. Preserved by strange accident, they strike us now with the trivial urgency of a long gone present–“I, Gennadius, do write and greet Peter, (saying), be pleased to inquire for these eggs for me, for there is need of them.” A child writes the opening lines of The Illiad over and over again; “Sing, goddess, the wrath of Peleus’s son.” A woman writes to the brethren for consolation in her grief­– “for my heart is flown forth.”

More than 1,000 years later, a few of the ostraca from the excavation are displayed in the Byzantine Egyptian Galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Small and beige, tucked beneath the grand stairway, they are easily overlooked amidst the Met’s stunning collection. Yet here they wait to be discovered, to speak through centuries of what passes and what lasts.

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