Centre for Textile Research


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Published in Maria Mossakowska-Gaubert, ed., Egyptian Textiles and Their Production: ‘Word’ and ‘Object’ (Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine Periods) (Lincoln, NE: Zea Books, 2020).

doi 10.32873/unl.dc.zea.1082


Copyright © 2020 Lise Bender Jørgensen


Around AD 400 a group of Christians were looking for a new home. An abandoned Roman military fort at what is now called Abu Sha’ar, c. 20 km north of Hurghada on the Egyptian Red Sea coast, became the answer to their prayers. Steven Sidebotham of the University of Delaware excavated the site in 1987-1993. The fort had been established in AD 309-311 to house a mounted unit, the Ala Nova Maximiana, guarding the Via Nova Hadriana. The military phase was however short-lived: the soldiers abandoned the fort before AD 400. The new settlers turned the former military headquarters into a church, complete with a martyr’s tomb, and left various inscriptions, graffiti and Christian crosses on the walls. According to Sidebotham’s early excavation reports the Christians were monks or hermits. Later, he describes this later phase of Abu Sha’ar as an “ecclesiastical center”. This is due to the find of an almost complete papyrus in the church that papyrologists Roger Bagnall and Jennifer Sheridan date to the 5th century AD: a letter from Apollonius to Father John and his daughter Sarah, deploring the capture of his city but rejoicing in the saving of Father John and all of his dependants. That the dependants of Father John included at least one woman suggests that Abu Sha’ar was a settlement of Christians rather than a monastery or, perhaps, a place of pilgrimage to the now forgotten martyr’s tomb. A graffito saying “I, Andreas, traveller to India, came here…” may have been left by a pilgrim. It is unknown when the Christian settlement ended; supposedly this happened peacefully in the 7th century or later, perhaps associated either with the Sassanian invasion in AD 619-629 or the Muslim conquest in AD 640/641.

The items found during Sidebotham’s excavations at Abu Sha’ar included more than 1100 textile fragments that were examined by myself (1990-1991) and A. Marion I. van Waveren (1993). Most of them are from the military phase, but a significant number belong to the Christian settlement. The latter came from Trenches N (kitchen), R horrea (stores), R/N (kitchen/stores), the upper layers of D, O and V (principia/church), T (mill/oil press), Y (street/ stores), W (north gate) and Z (store) (fig. 1). In previous presentations and publications my main focus has been on the early group; now it is time to take a closer look at the textiles of the Christian settlement.