AWT Conference 2011 Review: Christianity on the Edge by Gillian Pyke

Review by Andrea Byrnes and Kate Phizackerley.  Published on Egyptological, Magazine Reviews, 29th September 2011.


AWT Conference 2011 – Christianity on the Edge:  The North Tombs Settlement at Amarna. By Gillian Pyke.



Gillian Pyke was the only speaker at the 2011AWT Conference to discuss aspects of Amarna which date to outside the Pharaonic period.  Her subject was the Christian settlement which occupied a cliffside area which is better know for its tombs of Amarna nobles, and which overlooks the ancient city of Amarna. The investigation of early Christian Egypt is still quite a new field, and a challenging one thanks to the destruction of many sites.  This largely undisturbed site is a very welcome addition to knowledge of early Christianity in Egypt.

Lecture Summary

Dr Gillian Pyke began her talk with the observation that it is easy to overlook the spectacular Christian remains on the edge of the plain of Amarna, on a ridge overlooking the Pharaonic city.  At the time of the Christian occupation in around the 5th Century A.D. the extant remains of the Pharaonic city would have been even better preserved and visible than they are today, but the Christian sites are located mainly around the periphery of the site rather than reoccupying the 18th Dynasty site below.   Only some of the old spaces on the plain were reoccupied.

Pyke briefly mentioned Kom el Nana monastery, set within an Amarna building, and occupied from the mid 5th into the early 7th century. Set within a walled enclosure it was accompanied, unusually, by two towers that may have been constructed as places of security.  The new owners modified the internal space and put in doors, changing the overall layout.  In 2000, the end of a church, probably dedicated to Christ and the Apostles, was found, filled with beautiful pieces of wall plaster in hundreds of pieces which had to be fitted back together.  The main subjects were the saints Andrew and Peter, Christ and the Apostles.  The Amarna Project is currently raising money to publish the paintings.

Although not the subject of her lecture, Puke mentioned the Great Wadi Hermitage, a somewhat inaccessible, and little-studied, site in the Great Wadi to the east of Amarna.

Pyke then moved to discuss a more geographically distributed site in the cliffs and desert edge centred on the North Tombs just north of the main Pharaonic city, which has been the focus of her most recent studies.  In questions at the end of her lecture, Pyke thought this site was perhaps occupied for only half a century or so and that the residents might have relocated to the nearby Kom el Nana monastery.  There is no archaeological proof for this but such a segue would not contradict the observed settlement dates.

As with most sites in Upper Egypt, the city of Amarna was built on the Nile flood plain between the river.  It lies on the east bank, in the fertile strip between the river and the eastern escarpment which marks the edge of the higher desert areas.  There are three main groups of rock cut Pharaonic tombs: the Royal Tomb (with nearby subsidiary tombs); the South Tombs; and the North Tombs, It is this last group of North Tombs which the Christians chose to occupy.  Although Pyke did not comment on the matter, this means that the Amarnan Pharaonic tombs had been entered at least 1,500 years ago and presumably robbed of any valuables.  The well-known Eighteenth Dynasty Tomb of Panehsy is located there.  One of the largest and best appointed it was modified by the Christians to form a church, forming the nucleus of a settlement dating to the same period.

The Church in the Tomb of Panehsy


Plan of the church in the tomb of Panehsy

Norman de Garis Davies recorded the tomb of Panehsy in 1905.  Considerable modifications were required to convert the main chamber of the rock-cut tomb into a church and Pyke covered these in some detail, illustrated by photographs and diagrams.  Two columns were removed and a wall was cut back to create a nave space focusing on the apse with the other half probably used as a narthex with altar.  The apse is of a traditional round-backed form with a hemispherical dome and a clear division of space with a separation of the wall and the half dome.  (To avoid confusion over the term, the apse is on a side wall and neither above nor behind the altar sited on the end wall of the narthex as shown in Figure 1 – plan after Davies, The apse contained two niches, one of which was probably for ointments, the other for a lamp.  Blackening from flames remains in the lamp niche. Parts of the ceiling were also heavily blackened and the walls of apse retain some decoration which Pyke went on to describe later (covered below).

The Eighteenth Dynasty decoration of the chamber is nicely preserved thanks to the walls being covered with plaster by the new settlers.  This new plaster was removed by Davies who stated it was undecorated.  Two pillars were removed from the nave but the chamber remains structurally sounds.  The two pillars flanking the nave were retained. One of the two surviving columns was modified to include two notches, probably for water receptacles.  .

Certain parts of the church were decorated.  Tiny crosses are present either side of the entrance and there is a monogram to the side of apse.  The apse shows at least two phases of decoration, the later and better preserved has motifs of a dove, a peacock, a saint and a candle.  In the semi-dome there is a heavily damaged representation of a six-winged “bird”. The centre has received the most damage, making it difficult to identify.  It may be an eagle, a motif known from other churches like Sheikh Said and Deir el-Dik but those have only two wings. The example at Amarna could represent a local concept. The association with John the Evangelist and the eagle is usually later.  The saint is unidentified.  Davies records that two letters of an inscription were visible but these can no longer be seen.


The second area of Pyke’s work, and of her lecture, has been recording various dwellings. Around 56 have been identified surrounding the church.  Each dwelling and other features are being mapped.   Most are built of boulders and mud brick. Only entirely two mud brick constructions survive, both near church.  One is a rectangular room with a vaulted roof which has now collapsed into the room.  It had a tiled floor and quite a lot of pottery was found within, with amphorae dominant.  One of the amphorae was from north Africa, one from Cyprus, making it clear that the settlement was hooked in to international markets. To north is circular tumble of stones which could be a possible watch tower, although this has not yet been excavated.

All of the Pharaonic tombs stretching roughly north of the Tomb of Panehsy were re-used, with interior divisions formed of boulder walls.  Loom pits, platforms with boulder walls and other installations were erected outside in the tombs’ courtyards.  This was the prime real estate of the settlement.  To the south of church are caves which were probably carved out by rainstorm torrents.  These were used in a similar manner to the tombs.  Plaster was used to plug holes in the walls, probably to dislodge bats.  Again, boulder features were added outside.  There are no signs of occupation in the caves but an opportunistic excavation by a previous visitor was found and this revealed a floor line and some pottery, all covered with a substantial amount of natural rubbish which was probably rock fall from the ceiling so there may be hidden Coptic floor levels.  Down-slope of these were “gully dwellings,” sited between low desert and cliffs.  These had the same arrangement as the caves, with boulder built structures outside.  There were also cliff top and cliff edge dwellings, again with a similar layout.  A small number in the high desert area have so far been discovered, which are set apart from the main settlement and are often remote.  There are sight lines between them – you can see each one other dwelling from each one, providing a unifying and reassuring whilst permitting a solitary lifestyle.

Between the dwellings were pathways and artificial staircases and a reused Pharaonic road.  A number of staging posts were built on routes between areas.  This could be consistent with a hermitage style community with some residents eschewing human contact; or it might be a prosaic matter of deliveries being left at convenient mid-points for simple efficiency.

Pyke suggests that it is possible that there was a hierarchy of topography – prime areas and less desirable areas.  Or perhaps the less comfortable of the locations were seen as representing a more serious commitment to isolation.  It is unclear if the site was built at one go or if it evolved over time.

The function of rooms was difficult to determine.  One of rooms that one could identify was the latrine.  Small, free standing and rectangular these were set apart from the rest of the dwelling.  They were found throughout the settlement area but a “long-drop” latrine has been found in only one suggesting that a chamber pot arrangement may have been the norm.

Interior features of the relative low dwellings (Pyke suggested a typical ceiling height of about 1.5.m) include cupboard and niches and massive loom emplacements suggesting production of textile on industrial level for trade.  There would have been too many textiles for personal consumption.  Exterior structures were rather more complex.  The boulder walls sometimes go up quite high but not person height.  They were probably not required to be full height.  At the nearby modern village of El-Till an examination of how the houses are use has demonstrated that a lot of activities take place outdoors in the outdoor areas with shelter for livestock and people and cooking.  Even in the internal spaces the livestock have rooms, with other areas dedicated to storage and sleeping areas.  Most spaces are multi-purpose.  On the basis of this sort of arrangement it may be unwise to assume that the Coptic dwellings had rooms that were used for any one unique function.

Pyke next looked at the pottery that had been found – these are from Syria, north Africa and Aswan.  indicating, cooking and storing.  Christian motifs were found on some pottery.  The pottery is all mid 5th century.

The settlement was located in a harsh environment right at the edges of the desert, but it was possible to survive.  The settlers had no need to occupy the desert margins – this was a choice.  Lacking crop growing potential the community must have been in communication with the Valley.  This is consistent with other sites like Kellia and the Wadi Natrun Monastery of John the Little. It seems to fit the model of monasticism.

Conceptually there is a belief expressed in the literature of monasticism that the desert is the place of the demons.  Some of these monasteries might be outposts to hold back forces of evil and disorder out of Christian Nile Valley.  Military saints have that role, so it is possible that the settlement was adopting a protective role, possibly battling desert demons.


Coptic archaeology has only been given momentum in the last decade and probably less, and there is still a lot of ignorance about what type of sites exist, where they are, what form they took and how long they survived.  Coptic archaeological studies have suffered not only from modern indifference but from intentional destruction leading to a diminished material record for modern investigators to draw upon. In the early years of Egyptology Coptic remains were often removed and discarded, without being recorded, in the rush to get to the underlying Pharaonic structures.  This site, almost completely undisturbed, represents the opportunity to understand new dimensions of early Christian settlement in Egypt.

Although Gillian Pyke’s lecture was a valuable reminder that there are extensive Coptic remains in Egypt that are sometimes forgotten, overshadowed by their more glamorous Pharaonic predecessors, she did not attempt to introduce the audience to the cultural and historical context.  We enjoyed the lecture considerably, but felt that the presentation might have been better received and understood if Pyke had provided the broader context within which the village could be understood.

The earliest recorded Christian occupant of Egypt, apart from the Holy family, was St Mark in the First Century A.D., but Christianity did not spread beyond Alexandria until well into the second century.  The Coptic settlement at Amarna, dating to around the 5th Century, was therefore not an early settlement and post-dated Roman persecution. As Pyke says, the location of the settlement on the edges of the desert away from the Nile but within reach of it, suggests that this was a monastic settlement, its inmates choosing a certain degree of isolation from other groups although most were not hermits or anchorites, in the style of St Anthony in the Eastern Desert, but the presence of outlying settlement units which are in the much deeper desert seem to indicate that some of the settlers opted for a much more isolated life than some of their neighbours who chose to gather more closely together around their church and along the ridge overlooking the Amarna plain and the Nile.  Ongoing study of the Amarna settlement should contribute to the picture of the different types of Christian settlement that appeared, and help to understand the different forms of lifestyle and motivations of the occupants that chose from the different options available.

In contrast to the work of the other lecturers Pyke was not able to support her current research with the records of other mission reports and records, and it was of interest to see how she could progress her investigations without this data.  The Coptic settlement was a brand new discovery which has been revealed over a number of seasons by Pyke and her team.  As excavation has been avoided, only observation of settlement structures and their relationship to each other and the surrounding topography has been possible, together with surface finds where they were present.  even without this data Pyke was able to make a number of very sound suggestions about how the social organization of the settlement and its supply chain.

Many of the lectures emphasised that where a project runs to a dead end in one particular direction due to lack of evidence or dispute about what the evidence reveals, other routes are pursued.  In the case of Pyke’s lecture, she noted a similarity between the underlying ideas of the Coptic settlement with an emphasis on small interiors combined with outside working areas, and those of the homes in a nearby modern village.  Her investigations demonstrated that valuable insights can be achieved by using different approaches to stimulate ideas and gain new perspectives on data.

One of the criticisms levelled at Pyke’s lecture during the break was that it was not particularly well structured.  We did not find this to be the case, and we wonder if the sense that it was less organized than some of the other presentations was due to the nature of the site itself, which often consisted of loosely piled walls of rubble in a rocky landscape.  The lack of historical context may also, for an audience who were more familiar with Pharaonic history, have caused problems.

As always with modern archaeology, one of the challenges is ensuring that the research is available to others.  The Amarna Project is working to raise the necessary funds to publish the painted fragments from the monastery.  The Amarna Project has made excellent use of its website to enable students and the public to find information about its research, and has made good use of online donation services to raise funding for specific tasks and projects, but the task of publishing in print must be an ongoing concern due to the unavoidable expense.

See the Amarna Project website for more information.