The East Church Complex

A plan of the Large and Small East ChurchesLarge East Church

This mud-brick structure was first examined during preliminary surveys of Dakhleh Oasis. The identification of it as a church was possible due to the presence of certain features, namely an apse and nave. Initial test excavations unearthed ceramics and coins which provided the first indication that the church may date to the mid-4th century CE. The work also revealed an elaborate entrance system to the building.

The church, likened also to a basilica, is oriented east-west and measures 20m x 17m, with a centrally located nave 9m x 6m which is lined by columns. The apse is located at the east end with two chambers either side and four chambers feature along the south. During excavation, much debris from collapse was found and amongst it were remains of several capitals and other architectural elements which have assited in understanding the architecture further. A significant deposit of collapse and rubble was also found within the area of the nave, but appears to relate to later activity in the building for which an explanation is evasive. There are indications that the nave had low screen walls between the columns on the north and south. It is also evident that two square brick pedestals connected by a screen were position infront of the apse. Adjacent to the apse is a low platform with two steps at either end. On top of the bema (ceremonial platform) nearby, fragments of plaster preserving traces of the crux ansata (early Egyptian form of the Christian cross) were found. Parts of columns found near the apse were found to be decorated with a red floral design on a yellow background. Other observable features include mastabas (low benches) along the north, south and west walls, wall niches and cupboards, sandstone paving in the nave area, and a stairway in Room 4 which provided access to the roof or a gallery above the west aisle.

The artefactual finds include fragments of painted glass panels with depictions of several human figures in scenes suggestive of the New Testament episodes. Most importantly, the dating of the church to the 4th century CE, was confirmed by further numismatic evidence. From 140 coins found, 50 were identifiable and the dates range from the late 3rd to the late 4th centuries CE. Certain types of thses coins may be taken to suggest a foundation of the church during the reign of Constantine. Thus, it signifies this church as being one of the oldest surviving in Egypt.

Small East Church

The Small Church, located south-east of the Large Church, comprises two rooms: the chapel in the south and an adjoining barrel-vaulted room to its north. Its dimensions are 10.5m (north-south) x 9.5m (east-west). The church is also constructed of mud-brick, but is situated within a large enclosure of unknown dimension, which the Large Church is actually built against. Part of the excavation undertaken was intended to examine if a relationship existed between the two churches. Although clearance work in the corridor separating the two was not fully completed, it did reveal an indication that they functioned independently in their latter stages due to blocked doorways.

Numerous artefacts were retrieved from the chapel and included fragments of glass vessels, coins and a circular sandstone block with a depression at the top and groove extending down the front. It is evident that the room had undergone a series of modifications in order to convert it to a chapel. Prior to these, it was a simple rectangular, flat-roofed structure with gypsum-coated walls throughout and benches lined along the walls. The apse and rooms either side of it came to be added and formed the sanctuary. As is traditional in later church architecture, the apse was set higher than the nave – also approached by a paved step and a bema. The apse is elaborately decorated with geometric and floral motifs which were painted in varying shades of red and yellow on a white background. Painted panels representing cupboard doors also feature and at the centre of these acrux ansata is depicted.

The nave occupies the majority of the space within the chapel. Its only features are the benches and cupboards and niches in the north, south and west walls. The floor appears to have been gypsum-coated however. The north room was not extensively ecavated, but it is clear that it was a key part of a larger church complex. Its precise function is not clear, but may have provided an important ceremonial or communal area.

This structure is a good example of a “house of the church” or domus ecclesiae – i.e. a converted pre-existing building for use as a church. As such, it predates the construction of the purpose-built Large Church. Numismatic evidence indicates that it functioned within the first half of the 4th century CE. It remains unknown if the domus ecclesiae went out of service with the erection of the large basilica. In fact, it is possible the two functioned side by side as was the case at another Egyptian site. Nevertheless, the need to build a larger church is clear testimony to the growing number of Christian converts in the village at this point in time.

The East Church

Computer-generated reconstructions

Publications

Two related articles are provided here in electronic format:

Reproduced from C. A. Hope and G. E. Bowen, eds, Dakhleh Oasis Project: Preliminary Reports on the 1994-1995 to 1998-1999 Field Season, Oxbow Books, Oxford, 2002:

Reproduced from G. E. Bowen and C. A. Hope, eds, The Oasis Papers 3, Oxbow Books, Oxford, 2003:

An extensive list of publications relating to Ismant el-Kharab is also available for consultation.