Imagining the future in late antique contracts

The payment of rent in kind, the delivery of pre-paid wine, and the repayment of a loan in kind; all depend on the not always predictable outcome of a harvest – especially in premodern societies. Agricultural entrepreneurship was a risky business, as one was dependent on the vagaries of natures. Nature’s pace was relatively predictable – yet one could never know when impactful deviations from the common agricultural calendar, like a belated Nile flood, would occur. Agreements about future payments and deliveries nevertheless keep an economy going. In this blogpost, we will have a look at how late antique Egyptians dealt with the uncertainty of the future in their day-to-day transactions.

It was not uncommon for city dwellers to pre-order some wine from the vineyards surrounding their city. They would pay upfront and agree with the supplier on a delivery later on, like in papyrus SB 16 12486. Likewise, the payment of rent in kind by a tenant would often be scheduled after the harvest. In case of a loan of seed, for instance, the repayment was planned to take place after the borrowed seed had come to fruition and was harvested. What connects these transactions is their promised execution in a relatively loosely defined future. Wine deliveries often specify the month in which delivery is due, but the rent and loan (re)payments sometimes only refer to the moment of repayment as occurring ‘after the harvest’.

For this short survey, we will not dive into the specific contract types of Roman private law, nor into the difference between transactions determined by a strict interpretation of the law (stricti iuris) or made in good faith (bonae fidei). Of concern here is the imagination of the future in the time clauses (dies) we find in various kinds of agreements. The clauses we are dealing with in this blogpost are all dies a quo, postponements of a due date. This means that an obligation to e.g. repay seed loaned out for sowing is due from the moment the contract exists but is postponed to a later date. Time clauses always refer to an event that will surely happen, either at known moment in time, dies certus, or inevitably, but surely, dies incertus quando.

Both types appear in the examples above. At first sight, the dies certus clause seems to be vaguer in contracts that speak of a month rather than a day. Mentioning a month instead of just one day is, however, a clever dealing with an uncertain future that testifies to knowledge of agricultural reality. The last day of that month in this case is the ultimate dies a quo after which the creditor could give the debtor a default notice. The delineated month protects the rights of the creditor. The ‘month dies’ is also beneficial to the debtor. First of all, one has to always keep in mind that, in Roman law, the payment of a debt before a due date does not automatically absolve the debtor of his obligation towards the creditor without the explicit consent of the latter. Additionally, one can hardly plan a harvest so precisely that a debtor with a fair amount of certainty can live up to the promise of delivery on one specific day. By choosing a dies (literally: day) with a month’s length and choosing the month in which comparable deliveries usually take place, the debtor can more realistically fulfill his obligation and he prevents possible additional storage costs for his wares.

The same logic applies to the vaguer ‘after the harvest’-clauses, which are dies incertus quando. This more flexible clause is more favorable to the debtor since the harvest is the point of reference and determines the possibility of the creditor to give notice of default.

In both situations, in the ‘after the harvest’-clauses even more so than in the ‘month’-clauses, agricultural reality plays a major role in how contracts parties envisage the uncertain future. Contracts concerning future deliveries shows how the agricultural rhythm and human knowledge thereof deeply influence the use of time in legal agreements and the imagination of what is to come.

Kevin Hoogeveen

Blog: How did Christians in late antiquity “pray without ceasing”?

Late antique Christians, and monks in particular, were supposed to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17). But what did this mean in daily life? How many prayers were considered appropriate and what tools did monks have to keep track of their prayer count?

Early Christian church regulations, which are best preserved in Syriac but also partly attested in Coptic, instruct Christians to say the Lord’s prayer thrice a day (Didache 8.2; second century), and later, to observe six prayer times: before dawn, at dawn, in the morning, at noon, in the afternoon and in the evening (Apostolic Constitutions 8.34; fourth century).

John Cassian (d. 435), who temporarily lived as a hermit in Egypt as a youth, observed that monks across Egypt observed a fixed number of twelve prayers during the night and evening services, as early monastic leaders had established (Institutes 2.2.3-4; 420s). These prayer moments marked the start and end of a day respectively, and were prayed collectively or individually, in view of the fact that hermits in Nitria only met on Saturday and Sunday to attend mass (Lausiac History 7.5).

Pachomius (d. 346), founder of eleven monasteries in southern Egypt – for monks and nuns separately – compiled the first monastic precepts, which are known from Jerome’s Latin translation as ‘the Rule of Pachomius’ (385-420). These regulations make a distinction between communal prayers by the entire community at night, noon and in the evening (nos 20, 9+24, 121), and prayer in the houses in the afternoon, during which six prayers and six Psalms were to be recited (no 155) – twelve prayer units in total. Palladius (d. 431), who had also lived as a monk in Egypt, added that an angel instructed Pachomius to let the monks pray twelve units at night, twelve during the day, twelve at lamp lighting and three in the afternoon (Lausiac History 32.6; ca. 420).

In the two monasteries and one nunnery headed by Shenute (d. 451) near Sohag (southern Egypt) communal prayers took place before dawn, at noon and in the evening, and prayers in the houses in the morning and the afternoon. According to Shenute’s Canons, a prayer round consisted of six units (of a Psalm and a prayer?), and the prayer moments in the houses should normally last three rounds, but in Summer, when the hours were longer than during the rest of the year, monks and nuns had to pray four rounds (Canons 2.166-168). In the morning, four rounds were the norm, but five were prescribed when people woke up too early, and three when they overslept (Canons 2.169-172).

Anecdotes on hermits living in Scetis, Nitria and Kellia (northern Egypt; ca. 400) refer to daily private prayers, listing high numbers to impress and edify the audience. Moses, the penitent Ethiopian robber who became a highly respected hermit and priest, prayed 50 units, and Macarius of Alexandria and Evagrius both recited 100 units (Lausiac History 19.6, 20.3, 38.10). Paul of Pherme kept track of 300 units by putting 300 pebbles in his lap and dropping one each time he finished a prayer, until there were no pebbles left. Nevertheless, he felt inadequate upon hearing that a virgin in a certain village reached 700 units (Lausiac History 20.1-2; seven prayer moments of 100 units?). According to Macarius the Great, it was not necessary to make long prayers: ‘It is enough to stretch out one’s hands and say: “Lord, as you will, and as you know, have mercy”’ (Sayings of the Desert Fathers, Macarius the Great 19). These numbers came on top of the system of twelve prayers.

Later references to private prayer relate to seventh-century bishops with a monastic background in southern Egypt. After Basil requested Bishop Abraham of Hermonthis (d. 621) to ordain him deacon, he promised to perform one hundred prayer units daily (O. Crum 33). According to literary tradition, Bishop Pesynthios of Koptos (d. 631) used to pray 400 units at night plus an uncountable number of units by day, when he stayed in the desert in the neighboring district during the Sasanian occupation of Egypt (620s; Sahidic Encomium, ed. Budge, fol. 77a)

How did monks and pious Christians keep track of the number of their prayers, especially when they strived for 100 units or more? It is likely that they used prayer beads or prayer ropes (with 100 knots?), which they could easily take with them, but late antique examples have not been archaeologically attested. A quick search for prayer ropes leads to later Byzantine traditions that attribute their introduction to Anthony the Great (d. 356) or Pachomius, as well as to eighteenth-century Coptic icons that depict monastic saints holding a beaded string, and modern Coptic examples (fig. 1).

The only archaeologically attested object that was possibly used for counting prayers is a wooden box inlaid with bone, which displays regular rows of holes on three levels (83 holes in total) and contains smaller objects that can be used as dice (Louvre, E 21047; fig. 2). A small wooden cross used to be attached to the top of the box. Albert Gayet found the object in the tomb of Thaïas in Antinoopolis (Middle Egypt). The Christian woman was buried on a bed of palm branches, in a tunic with silk decoration and leather mules with gilding, while a fine muslin veil covered her face. The way she was buried suggests that she was a religious upper-class woman or even a martyr. Debunking the popular theory that she was the reformed courtesan Thaïs (fourth century), recent scholars dated Thaïas to the seventh century and identified her box as a game board. However, the fact that it was found upright between her folded hands, with the cross turned towards her – like rosaries in later Catholic burials – supports Gayet’s hypothesis that Thaïas used the object as a prayer marker (chaplet).

A later blog will examine the relation between prayer and work.

Fig. 1 Prayer beads of Abuna Gregorius el-Suriany, for 100 units, at Deir el-Surian, in Wadi el-Natrun (el-Sayed Kitat and Hanafy Hassan 2020, fig. 23)
Fig. 2 Game board or chaplet in the position how it was found in Thaïas’ hands (Gayet 1902, 51; upside down)

Blog: Customized festival calendars

In every society there are communal feasts, when most people are free from work and schools are closed. Here in the Netherlands, there has been some discussion lately concerning the inclusiveness of these feast days. Why should feasts with a Christian origin, such as Pentecost or even Christmas, be nationwide holidays for everyone, including people without a connection to Christianity? This situation means that people with a different cultural or religious background, are forced to take up vacation days for their (non-Christian) feasts. This is something people with a Christian background, however distant, do not have to do, whether they are religious or not. Some companies are now offering all of their employees extra days off instead of the fixed days, enabling people to schedule their own holidays. In that way, everyone is able to shape their own festival calendar.

In Roman Egypt a similar arrangement seems to have existed. Some people could choose for themselves which days to take off work for festivals. This was only the case for free, relatively wealthy people, like business owners. For others, however, the opportunities had to be regulated. Especially in contracts regarding apprenticeships we can read about such secondary employment conditions. That of a boy who was to undergo a five-year training to become a weaver is exemplary. He had the following line in his contract, dated to the year 183 CE:

‘The boy shall have twenty holidays in the year on account of festivals without any deduction from his wages after the payment of wages begin’. (P.Oxy. 4 725)

In another contract dated to the end of the second century (P. Oxy. 14 1647), we find a comparable arrangement for an enslaved girl, allowing her eighteen days off for festivals.

Eighteen to twenty days off a year seems quite a generous amount, but of course the apprentices did not have the luxury of a weekend, or one fixed rest day every week – the week was in fact barely known in the Roman Empire at this date. These twenty days are marked for festivals, but since the festivals are not specified in the agreement, it looks like these apprentices were free to choose for themselves which festivals to participate in. We know from other sources that there were many more festive days than twenty in a year, so they still had to make a choice. Unfortunately, we have no information on the amount of feast days the weaver scheduled for himself. 

A more complicated situation arises in an apprenticeship contract dated to 264CE:

‘And if the boy is idle on any days during the time that he is receiving wages, or (may it not happen) is ill, he shall stay with the overseer for the same number of days, working without wages. And the boy shall have, on account of festival holidays, Tybi, Pachon, the Amesysia seven days, at the Serapeia two days.’ (P. Oxy. 31 2586)

This unnamed boy gets days off for festivals as well, some of which are specified. The Amesysia was a weeklong festival for the goddess Isis, and the Serapeia were celebrated at the temple of the god Serapis. These festivals were apparently so popular at the time, that everyone was participating in them or at least was expected to participate. In another contract the Isis festival is specified as a reason for days off as well, underlining the popularity of this festival. There is, however, some debate on the interpretation of the days off in Tybi (27 December to 25 January) and Pachon (26 April to 25 May). As there are no festivals for Isis or Serapis during these months, some scholars suggested that this meant that the boy was free from work for the entirety of the two months. Because this seems excessive and would contribute to a significant increase in free days compared to our earlier sources, it appears more likely that the boy also receives seven unspecified free days in the months Tybi and Pachon, to be scheduled at will.

The total of free days then amounted to 23 days, which is more in line with the 18 and 20 days mentioned earlier.

In a fourth-century monthly overview of provided camel transportation (CPR 19.66), the presumed owner of the camels kept a meticulous list of delivered goods per day and of the number of camels needed. On some days, he did not record any activity, but these days were ‘free’ (ἀργία). This could mean that there were simply no goods for him to transport or that he decided to take the day off. For instance in the month Tybi, he did not work on Tybi 6 (1 January, the Roman Kalends festival); Tybi 8 (3 January, still part of Kalends festival); Tybi 11 (6 January, the Christian feast of Epiphany, that emerged during the third and fourth centuries); Tybi 17 and Tybi 29. As the first three dates could be connected to a festival, it seems quite likely that at least some of his free days were spent celebrating a festival. Or that there was no work for him, because his clients were at a festival.

Unfortunately, not every month is included in this document, but based on the extant data, the days off would amount to roughly 40, which would be quite a high number just for festivals. It seems therefore safe to assume that the ἀργία-days of the camel owner included both festivals and days where business was slow, which could have overlapped.

This brief analysis shows that in all probability there was some room for individual choices regarding the participation in festivals in Roman Egypt. Celebrating a festival together will make people feel part of a community. But it could also lead to stricter boundaries between communities, if they celebrate different feasts at different times.

This Easter weekend, many people in the Netherlands will have come together with family or friends and perhaps enjoyed a special meal. As Easter is a fixed national holiday, not everyone will have deliberately chosen to celebrate the feast. But because it has been traditionally celebrated for years now, the festivities do contribute to our national festive rhythm, while in the meantime providing us with chocolate eggs.

Elsa Lucassen

Blog: The origin of the leap year

Every four years, the month of February counts 29 instead of 28 days. Yesterday, this happened again. In this way, our calendar keeps up with the astronomic speed with which the earth runs its course around the sun. Adding this day to February was a measure implemented by Julius Caesar in 46 BCE. It was part of a larger calendrical reform meant to get rid of a discrepancy of no less than 90 days (!) between the Roman calendar of his day and the seasons the months and festivals referred to. Some authors, like Appian and Dio Cassius, say the Egyptian way of measuring time in a calendar had inspired Caesar.

Egypt was indeed clearly ahead of Rome in terms of calendrical knowledge. Before Caesar’s reform, Rome had a calendar of 12 months (of 31, 29 or 28 days) which together formed a 355-day year. This year was irregularly expanded with an intercalary (i.e. thirteenth) month. Such a system of inserting an intercalary month also existed in ancient Greece, but there the months strictly followed the moon, and a regular cycle for intercalation was developed to keep the lunar year in line with the solar year, which made the result less chaotic. Egypt, on the other hand, had long had a perfectly regular 365-day calendar, with twelve 30-day months and five epagomenal (i.e. additional) days at the end of year. The Egyptian astronomers realized that this calendar too moved out of line with the seasons. Already in 238 BCE, there was an attempt to add an extra day to the end of the year every four years to solve this problem. This was decided in the so-called decree of Kanopos, which was inscribed on stone in both Greek and Egyptian. In this decree, priests from all over Egypt expressed their intention to honor the royal couple of Ptolemaios III and Berenike II with a special feast day. To ensure the Egyptian New Year would always coincide with the rising of Sirius, ‘the star of Isis’, this royal holiday was planned as an extra epagomenal day in a four-year cycle. Sadly, this plan was never really implemented, probably due to the unwillingness of priests themselves.

Priestly unwillingness probably also played a role in the persistence of Rome’s flawed calendar. Here the pontifex maximus was responsible for intercalation. Although the problems of the Roman calendar were well known by the second century BCE, the pontifices were very reluctant to change anything to the traditional calendar, which was charged with religious meaning. Their decision whether or not to add an additional month, on the other hand, was often given in by political motives, even when this led to a clear discrepancy between calendar and astronomic reality. When Caesar became pontifex maximus he decided to bring an end to this. To remedy the calendar’s backlog, he added three extra months to the year 46 BCE. For the next years, he added one or two additional days to seven of the months, and turned the king’s intercalary month into an intercalary day. But he was very careful not to change too much, realizing very well that calendar change is a very sensitive topic. He for example kept the alternation between longer and shorter months (which survives up to today), and added the leap day to February, after the sixth day before the Calends of March, that is at the same moment the intercalary month had traditionally been added. This insertion in this particular place is also why the leap day was known as the ‘bissextus’, the ‘second-sixth’ day before the 1st of March.

Caesar sorted out the problem, but those who came after him managed to make a mess out of the calendar again. His successor to the function of pontifex maximus of Rome added the intercalary day every third year instead of every fourth, which again led to a discrepancy between calendar and astronomical year. The emperor Augustus finally restored order to the galaxy by correcting this pontifical mistake.

Caesar’s reform assumed that the length of an astronomical year is exactly 365,25 days long. This is just a tiny bit too long. Only by the sixteenth century CE, the slowly growing discrepancy became an issue. It again was a pontifex maximus of Rome, pope Gregory XIII, who reformed the calendar. His primary concern was not, however, a perfect synchronization of the calendar with the astronomical year in the way it had been designed by Caesar. Gregory wanted to celebrate Easter as the first Council of Nicaea (in 325 CE) had decided a good Christian should. Therefore he only skipped 10 days. Three more would have brought us back in line with Caesar.

Kevin Hoogeveen and Sofie Remijsen


The main source for this blogpost was: Roland Färber and Rita Gautschy (eds.), Zeit in den Kulturen des Altertums. Antike Chronologie im Spiegel der Quellen (Cologne 2020).

Blog: When do we get to see bears and panthers fighting?

Roman animal hunts, so called venationes, were rare occasions. Seeing wild animals in the arena as they attacked each other or were confronted by human fighters was an exciting sight that spectators did not often get to experience. Outside of Rome and Constantinople, these spectacles were organized in the context of the imperial cult. The priests, who took on the office for the duration of one year, had the responsibility to put on festivities for the civic community. In the case of provincial high priests, these annual festivities involved inviting delegations of all cities of their province to the capital and putting on lavish shows for their entertainment. Invitations to the spectacles were placed in the cities of the province, advertising the duration of the event as well as what types of animals would be shown. However, not every priest could afford to present animal hunts and thus opted for less costly displays instead. This means that in the provincial cities of the late antique Roman empire, animal hunts were at most a yearly occasion.

The financial possibilities of the priests limited how often animal hunts were shown. But the spectacles also had to adhere to imperial legislation, which restricted when they were allowed to be presented. In Late Antiquity, the emperor issued several laws that aimed to reconcile Christian feast days with the spectacles, which were denounced by Church leaders as immoral. By the end of the fourth century, it was no longer allowed to show spectacles on Sundays and by the early-fifth century, the period of Lent and Easter was supposed to be spectacle-free, as were Christmas and Epiphany. These measures can be understood as an attempt by the imperial government to appease Christian voices who relentlessly polemicized against the spectacles and at the same time recognized that they were popular entertainment which the population expected in regular intervals.

For fourth-century Antioch, the capital of the province of Syria, we have insights into the intricacies of organizing animal hunts for the provincial assembly through the correspondences of the Antiochean rhetor Libanius. He tells us that the games had lapsed for a long time before his cousin decided to take on the heavy financial burden of procuring animals and hunters from far-away regions. The population of Antioch thus lived several years without animal hunts being shown in their city. All the more excitement and anticipation was attached to the shows of the cousin, for which Libanius aimed to acquire panthers and bears. We also learn from the rhetor that the spectators were so excited to see the animal spectacles that they would arrive on the previous evening at the amphitheatre and sleep on the stone seats to reserve the places with the best view:

“In the case of other entertainments, people stroll along to them at daybreak, but for the beast fights, they suffer under the night sky and think the stone benches softer than their beds, and the spectators’ eyes anticipate the beast fighters in action!” (Lib.ep.1399, transl. by Bradbury (= B4))

In fact, getting to the venue in time seems to have been crucial to obtaining a good seat. Some tried to reserve a seat by inscribing it – we find such inscriptions in all types of venues, from amphitheatres and theatres to stadia and hippodromes – but this approach seems to have had its limits. A seat inscription from Aphrodisias in Asia Minor reads: “Reserved – don’t quarrel” (Jones 2008, cat.-no. 65.86) which, in turn, tells us that quarreling was not uncommon, with or without inscribed reservation.

The most exciting part of animal hunts were the wild animals themselves. But they also provided the biggest hurdle for the organiser: transporting lions, panthers, or bears to a city just in time for the spectacles was a challenging endeavour. Negligent planning could easily lead to trouble. A fifth-century law from the Codex Theodosianus tells us about wild animals that were on their way to Constantinople and had been kept in the city of Hierapolis in Asia Minor for an astonishing four months, forcing the city to provide shelter and fodder for the animals while the presence of the ferocious lions terrorised the population. The imperial law reacted to this unbearable situation by limiting the amount of time wild animals transports were allowed to stop in any provincial city to seven days.

Vessel in the shape of a kept bear, Western or Eastern Rome, 3rd-4th century AD, cast copper, 13.8 x 16.7 x 9.2cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), acc.-no.: 66.18. Photo credits: Metropolitan Museum of Art, digital catalogue.

A similar inconvenience happened to Libanius’ cousin while he was trying to put together his animal hunts in Antioch. A letter from the emperor arrived, telling him that he was not allowed to proceed with his shows as planned. The reason was that the emperor himself was to arrive at Antioch and he wanted to enjoy private animal hunts for himself and his close circle. The cousin was supposed to reserve the bears and panthers he had acquired for the enjoyment of the emperor. This meant, as Libanius laments in his letter, that the cousin was either to disinvite all delegations from the provincial cities or to display the animals without killing them as to preserve them for the emperor – but what fun would that be?

“So tell me, what’s he going to do? Will he call off the assembly by announcing that people are to remain in the country and wait for winter? What could be more embarrassing or more costly? For what crime will he endure that punishment? Or will he be obliged to invite the cities and do the rest of it, but then pray over the bears and order no one to wound them even with a judge’s staff? What sort of pleasure is that? How is that not laughable?” (Lib.ep.218, transl. by Bradbury (= B3))

Additionally, the cousin would have to continue to feed the animals until the emperor would reach Antioch, which apparently could take several more weeks or even months. Libanius warns that the costs of keeping the animals much longer than planned could turn out ruinous for his cousin. Unfortunately, we don’t know how the situation resolved since only two of Libanius’ letters on this issue survive. But of course we hope that the cousin in the end was able to present his animal hunts the way he planned and that the people of Antioch got to enjoy a spectacular show.

Konstanze Schiemann

Cited sources:

  • Libanii opera. Vol. 10: Epistulae 1-839, ed. by R. Foerster, Leipzig 1921.
  • Libanii opera. Vol. 11: Epistulae 840-1544, ed. by R. Foerster, Leipzig 1922.
  • Selected Letters of Libanius. From the Age of Constantius and Julian, transl., introd., and with notes by S. Bradbury (= Translated Texts for Historians 41), Liverpool 2004.
  • Jones, T. 2008: Seating and Spectacle in the Graeco-Roman World, PhD-thesis, McMaster University, Hamilton. Accessed online 18th September 2023:

Blog: Coptic expressions for the days of the week

In Sahidic, the main variant of Coptic in late antiquity and the early Islamic period, there are three incomplete sets of names for days of the week (Table 1). Words for Sunday, Friday and Saturday were adopted from the Greek version of the Bible, whereas the days from Monday to Friday were numbered and written in full in Coptic. In the 1940s and early 1950s, the Austrian Coptologist Walter C. Till gradually identified a third set of names that refers to “fasts” and “intervals”, but until recently, scholars still struggled to interpret these. When writing his PhD dissertation (published in 2020), Frederic Krueger rediscovered both their meaning and Till’s findings. As all these publications are in German, and not all of them are available online, it is good to discuss Coptic expressions for the days of the week in a more accessible medium. In addition, the Lived Time project offers the opportunity to examine the use of different sets of names in particular types of texts and regions.

The names of Biblical origin include:

  • ⲧⲕⲩⲣⲓⲁⲕⲏ, “the Lord’s day”, for Sunday (Κυριακή, short for  Κυριακὴ ἡμέρα; Rev. 1:10);
  • ⲡⲥⲁⲃⲃⲁⲧⲟⲛ, “the Sabbath”, for Saturday (τό Σάββατον, from the Hebrew Shabbat, “rest”; Ex. 20:10);
  • ⲧⲡⲁⲣⲁⲥⲕⲉⲩⲏ, “the Preparation (day)” for the Sabbath, for Friday (παρασκευή; Luke 23:54).

The Coptic versions are preceded by a definite article, which is a ⲧ- before the feminine nouns, and the masculine article ⲡ- before ⲡⲥⲁⲃⲃⲁⲧⲟⲛ. Sometimes, ⲡⲥⲁⲃⲃⲁⲧⲟⲛ means “the week”.

The numerical names start with Sunday as the first day of the week: as the seventh day of Creation, on which God rested, was a Saturday, Creation must have started on a Sunday. Monday is ⲡⲉⲥⲛⲁⲩ, “(day) two”, Tuesday ⲡϣⲟⲙⲛ̄ⲧ, “(day) three”, Wednesday ⲡⲉϥⲧⲟⲟⲩ, “(day) four”, Thursday ⲡϯⲟⲩ, “(day) five”, and Friday ⲡⲥⲟⲟⲩ “(day) sixth”. These words consist of a Coptic cardinal number and the definite masculine article ⲡ-/ⲡⲉ-. Sometimes, the numerical names are spelled with ⲙⲉϩ-, the prefix to ordinal numerals, from ⲡⲙⲉϩⲥⲛⲁⲩ, “the second (day)”, for Monday, to ⲡⲙⲉϩⲥⲟⲟⲩ, “the sixth (day)”, for Friday.

Walter Till played a significant role in establishing the third set of names. When publishing Coptic farmers’ almanacs, collections of calendrical and meteorological omens used for planning agricultural activities, he discovered that ⲧⲕⲟⲩⲓ ⲛ̄ⲛⲏⲥⲧⲓⲁ, “the little fast”, and ⲧⲛⲟϭ ⲛ̄ⲛⲏⲥⲧⲓⲁ, “the great fast”, indicate Wednesday and Friday respectively (1943). ⲧⲛⲏⲥⲧⲓⲁ ϣⲏⲙ, “the little fast”, and ⲧⲛⲏⲥⲧⲓⲁ ⲱ (or ⲟⲩ), “the great fast”, are attested as well (1947). These expressions refer to the early Christian tradition to fast every “fourth day” to remember Jesus’ betrayal by Judas,[1] and every Friday to remember his crucifixion (Didascalia v. 13), two weekly fasts that are still observed by the Coptic Orthodox Church. Till surmised that Thursday was ⲡⲟⲩⲱϣ ⲛ̄ⲧⲙⲏⲧⲉ, “the interval in between”, or just ⲡⲟⲩⲱϣ, “the interval” (1947). His hypothesis is confirmed by a Sahidic lectionary fragment from Aswan (tenth century?), which also demonstrates that the hitherto unclear expressions ⲡϣⲟⲣⲡ ⲛ̄ϩⲟⲟⲩ ⲛ̄ⲟⲩⲱϣ, “the first interval day”, and ⲡⲙⲉϩⲥⲛⲁⲩ ⲛ̄ϩⲟⲟⲩ ⲛ̄ⲟⲩⲱϣ, “the second interval day”, refer to Monday and Tuesday (ed. Drescher 1951). Till discussed these alternative names in a festive volume (1953), and included them in the revised edition of his Koptische Grammatik (1961).

A quick survey for the Lived Time project reveals the text types and regions in which the expressions for week days appear (Table 2). Apart from the documentary texts, most examples postdate late antiquity. Interestingly, the day of the week is never included in dating formulas in Coptic contracts, which indicates that they were not considered relevant for calendrical purposes. In funerary inscriptions they are rare as well, appearing only in two epitaphs from the Monastery of St Jeremias at Saqqara, which refer to Thursday and Sunday by Greek numerical names written in digits: ἡ(μέρας) ε, “day 5” (AD 787), and ἡ(μέρας) α, “day 1” (AD 806).

As for the names of Biblical origin, ⲡⲥⲁⲃⲃⲁⲧⲟⲛ and ⲧⲕⲩⲣⲓⲁⲕⲏ indicate Saturday and Sunday in all text types. ⲧⲡⲁⲣⲁⲥⲕⲉⲩⲏ only occurs in a homily and in the lectionary from Aswan, which records no less than three words for Friday, as the three scribes who compiled it used different words.

Coptic numerical names are rare as well: they are only found in the lectionary from Aswan (ⲡⲙⲉϩⲥⲛⲁⲩ–ⲡⲙⲉϩⲥⲟⲟⲩ), and in a note in a literary manuscript from the White Monastery near Sohag (ⲡⲉϥⲧⲟⲟⲩ and ⲡⲥⲟⲟⲩ).

The examples for “the little fast” and “the great fast”, on the other hand, are more numerous. The spellings with ⲕⲟⲩⲓ and ⲛⲟϭ appear in a letter from the Hermopolite region, a Coptic farmers’ almanac, a literary manuscript, and the lectionary from Aswan. These attestations do not point to a particular region or period, unlike ⲧⲛⲏⲥⲧⲓⲁ ϣⲏⲙ and ⲧⲛⲏⲥⲧⲉⲓⲁ ⲟⲩ, which are found in monastic / ecclesiastic correspondence from early seventh-century Western Thebes. Some letters were addressed to the hermit Epiphanius (ca. 615–620), the leader of a hermitage, and to Bishop Pesynthios of Koptos, who stayed at this hermitage in the 620s. The expressions were used by monks, clergymen and laymen.

Expressions with ⲡⲟⲩⲱϣ for Thursday are recorded in different kinds of sources from all over Egypt: letters from Western Thebes, an inscription at the Monastery of St Jeremias at Saqqara, a literary text from a monastery near Edfu, and the lectionary from Aswan. The “first interval day” and “second interval day” for Monday and Tuesday appear in letters from Western Thebes (the hermitage of Epiphanius) and in the lectionary from Aswan, where “first” and “second” are replaced by digits (ⲁ ⲛⲟⲩⲱϣ and ⲃ ⲛⲟⲩⲱϣ).

In short, a quick survey reveals that ⲧⲕⲩⲣⲓⲁⲕⲏ and ⲡⲥⲁⲃⲃⲁⲧⲟⲛ are the standard words for Sunday and Saturday, whereas there are no less than five different words for Friday (ⲧⲡⲁⲣⲁⲥⲕⲉⲩⲏ, ⲡⲥⲟⲟⲩ, ⲡⲙⲉϩⲥⲟⲟⲩ, ⲧⲛⲟϭ ⲛ̄ⲛⲏⲥⲧⲓⲁ and ⲧⲛⲏⲥⲧⲓⲁ ⲟⲩ). In general, numerical names for Monday to Thursday mainly appear in lectionaries, and alternative names for Monday to Friday in letters. Most examples of alternative names come from a mixed monastic / ecclesiastic milieu in Western Thebes (early seventh century), where monks, clergymen and laymen alike used the expressions ⲧⲛⲏⲥⲧⲓⲁ ϣⲏⲙ and ⲧⲛⲏⲥⲧⲉⲓⲁ ⲟⲩ, “the little fast” and “the great fast”, for Wednesday and Friday respectively. By contrast, ⲧⲕⲟⲩⲓ ⲛ̄ⲛⲉⲥⲧⲓⲁ and ⲧⲛⲟϭ ⲛ̄ⲛⲏⲥⲧⲓⲁ, which have the same meanings, appear in sources from different parts of Egypt and in different types of texts. Interestingly, Biblical, numerical and alternative names can also be found together in a single source: the lectionary from Aswan, which was compiled by three scribes, who used different expressions. Further research is likely to reveal more (late) examples of names of week days in lectionaries and literary texts.

Renate Dekker

Relevant literature

  • Till, W.C. “Bemerkungen zu koptischen Textausgaben. 7–8”, Orientalia. Nova Series 12 (1943), 328–337, particularly 330–332.
  • Till, W.C. “Neue koptische Wochentagsbezeichnungen”, Orientalia. Nova Series 16.1 (1947), 130–135.
  • Till, W.C. “Die Wochentagsnamen in Koptischen”, Publications de l’Institut d’études orientales de la Bibliothèque Patriarcale d’Alexandrie 2 (= Tome commémoratif du millénaire de la Bibliothèque Patriarcale d’Alexandrie), Alexandria 1953, 101–110.
  • Till, W.C. Koptische Grammatik, Leipzig 1961 (revised version; first edition: 1955), 88–89.

[1] Two interesting things come into play here. First, the day did not start at sunrise, but in the night before, just as “there was evening, and there was morning – the first day” (Gen. 1:5). Second, according to the Didascalia (preserved in Syriac and Latin), the Last Supper and Jesus’ arrest took place on Tuesday eve (that is, Wednesday), Jesus remained in detention on Wednesday, and was handed over to Pilate on Thursday. In general, the Eastern and Western Church traditions remember Judas’ plan to betray Jesus on Wednesday, the Last Supper and Jesus’ arrest on Thursday, and his delivery to Pilate on Friday.

Blog: The popular legacy of an ancient Roman festival

A great feast, celebrated with family and friends, tables loaded with delicious food and sweet things, plenty of wine, houses decorated with boughs, the habit of giving each other gifts, sometimes singing songs together- of course I’m talking about the feast of … New Year!

Our New Year’s festivities have a long history and can be traced back to the Romans, where it was known as the Kalends. In the Roman calendars, the Kalendae are always the first day of the month. The Kalends of January therefore means the first of January and the start of the new Julian year. It was historically celebrated in Rome to mark the appointment of the new consuls for that year, with a public feast and a sacrifice to Janus, the god of the beginning and end, after whom the month was named. In the first centuries of the common era the Romans had conquered a large part of the Mediterranean region, and while they imposed their governors and administration on the whole Empire, they did not impose their own calendar on the provinces. Nevertheless, the Kalends of January festival became popular in the areas under Roman rule. This is striking, as many of the provinces had their own local calendars and their own New Year’s traditions, on a different day of the year.

In the provinces the Kalends appear to have been mainly an occasion for private feasts within the household, or possibly with extra guests, where gifts were sometimes exchanged. A particularly nice example is the following letter, from a girl called Therpe to her father, sent in Egypt sometime between the late fourth and fifth centuries:

‘To the master of my soul, truly the most esteemed, my father Theon, Therpe. Before anything I pray God the Almighty about your health. (…) Inform me so that I receive the leg ornaments so that I can wear them at the feast, because mine broke. Don’t I deserve the cakes and the spiced wine of the Kalends? You did not send me anything, not even a bit of money for the feast. Send D… so that she makes my himation. Do not forget the ornaments. I pray for your health for a long time, lord father.’ [1]

We see here that Therpe is looking forward to the delicacies and that she is eager to make a good impression at the feast itself. She complains almost petulantly about the lack of gifts from her father, so it is clear that these kinds of things were expected at the festival, at least in the higher classes, to which Therpe appears to belong.

A social gathering with a nice dinner and gifts, – what could possibly be wrong with that?

But some people disagreed. In the fourth century, Christianity became more and more dominant and church leaders grew more influential. When he was a priest in Antioch, the later archbishop of Constantinople John Chrysostom, for example, wrote about Christians participating – to his horror – in the Kalends festival. According to him, this was a ‘pagan’ festival, and celebrating it was an affront to the Christian faith, and very inappropriate for pious Christians. People shouldn’t give presents with the expectation to get a present in return, it was much better to give alms out of charity, without expecting anything back. Instead of indulging in food and drinks, fasting was the better option for ‘real’ Christians. The fact that he felt obliged to speak about these matters, however, proves that many Christians did participate in the festivities. Therpe was one of these. At the beginning of her letter she writes: ‘Before anything I pray God the Almighty about your health.’ This formula is an indication that she considered herself to be a Christian, but that didn’t stop her from celebrating the Kalends. The festival also survived in a purely Christian world; in later Islamic sources we find warnings for Muslims to stay away from the ‘Christian’ Kalends festival, which indicates that it was still celebrated by later Christians.

From other sources we learn that from the fourth century onwards, the festivities on the first of January became rowdier and wilder in Rome and the provinces. There is talk of masquerades in the streets, with people dressed up as animals, as a different gender or as the traditional gods, singing loudly until the early hours of the morning. Sometimes, children or adults were said to go by the houses, singing and asking for sweets or coins. To the modern observer, these are of course recognizable features, reminiscent of Carnival and Halloween, or in the Netherlands ‘Sint Martin’ in the north, and Three Kings Day in the south. In the Roman world, these rowdier elements had originally belonged to the Saturnalia, a festival celebrated in December – very close to January. The period between the old and the new year is sometimes portrayed as a grey area, an in-between zone, where the normal rules of society don’t apply, but a certain festive license reigns. This is still recognizable in the modern feasts mentioned above.

A masquerade like the ones practiced during the Kalends festival in the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries, from the “Alexander Romance.” MS Bodley 264, fol.21v. Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

Ironically, many of the characteristic elements of the Kalends feast such as the decorating of the houses and presents, have found their way to a popular Christian feast today, Christmas, despite the quite harsh criticism from the Christian authorities. How precisely that has happened, is still, up to a certain point, shrouded in mystery. Christmas is a newer festival that started to appear in the late fourth century, when the Kalends festival was already widespread and popular. In my research I will further look into this interconnectedness between festivals. It seems safe to say that festivals within the same season influenced each other to a certain degree, the newer Christian feasts included. The way the early Christian church used its influence to gain a measure of control over the festival calendar by appropriation, among other tactics, is still speculative at this point. But regarding the Kalends feast, it appears to be a case of ‘If you can’t beat them, join them’.

Elsa Lucassen

[1] SB 20.14226, translation R. Bagnall & R. Cribiore. Women’s Letters from Ancient Egypt, 300 BC – AD 800, Ann Arbor 2006, 237-38.

Blog: Glocal dating. The reception of Justinianic reform in dating formulas.

In 537 CE, emperor Justinian ordered all officials charged with drawing up documents and all notaries of the Eastern provinces to have their dating formulas comply to a format that named him and his successors first. Egyptian scribes were used to a different system. Did the scribes pay heed to this imperial instruction? In this blogpost, we look at the speed of the implementation of this Justinianic instruction in the provinces. First, we turn our attention to how scribes used to count regnal years in Egypt. Then we dive into Justinian’s reform in more detail, after which we return to papyri from Egypt. We end with a short excursion outside of Egypt, to test whether it is justified to draw more general conclusions from the known Egyptian situation.

In Egypt, scribes tended to count the first regnal year of an emperor from the day of his accession until the Egyptian new year’s day, the 1st day of Thoth, 29 August (Bagnall & Worp 2004: 43). For Hadrian, to name just one example, this meant that the first year of his rule lasted from 8 August 117 until 29 August 117, not even one month (Sijpesteijn & Worp 1978: 239 n.3). The regnal year of an emperor was, in other words, not counted as the 365 days between the day of the emperor’s accession, his dies imperii, but in civil years according to the Egyptian calendar, from 1 Thoth to 1 Thoth, starting in the year of his accession.

In the sixth century, the emperor Justinian tried to reform the ways in which the officials and notaries of his realm dated documents. While placing himself in a long illustrious line of Aeneas ‘King of Troy and Prince of the Republic’, Romulus, Numa Pompilius and Augustus, Justinian ordered all scribes of the Empire to date documents in the following way: “The year of the reign of the most holy and august emperor”, followed by consul of that year, the indiction, the month and the day (Nov. 47). Cities that, according to local traditions, used to count years in local eras, often starting at the day of their independence, were still allowed to do so. Scribes could add it after the prescribed formula. Askalon in the First Eparchy of Palestine, for example, was one of the cities that had such a system.

Justinian’s justification for his reform, according to the novella’s text, was not increased efficiency thanks to the standardisation of dating formulas, but the surety that the name of the emperor would become immortal like that of Augustus. He also wanted every official document to be a reminder of the Empire. Justinian, furthermore, made clear one had to count a regnal year from the day of accession until the next day of accession, as had long been the normal practices in most provinces apart from Egypt.

As Bagnall and Worp have already established, dating by regnal years virtually disappeared in Egypt from 337 AD onwards, except for in the Herakleopolite and Oxyrhynchite nomes, where it persisted until the end of the fourth century (Bagnall & Worp 2004: 45). Oxyrhynchus developed its own Era based on counting post-mortem regnal years (Bagnall & Worp 2004: 56-58). The first known papyrus that contains the ‘correct’ Justinianic formula is P. Harris 2.238 from 539, but ‘wrong’ formulas keep occurring for a long time afterwards. During Justinian’s reign, the provinces of Arkadia and the Thebaid developed distinctive interpretations of the Justinianic prescription as they used two different regnal formulas: one calling the emperor ‘most holy’ (in the Thebaid) and the other calling him ‘most holy and most pious’ (in Arkadia) (Bagnall & Worp 2004: 47). Soon after, more variations come into use, of which Bagnall and Worp provide an overview (Bagnall & Worp 2004: 48-54).

A quick look at a non-Egyptian papyrological dossier from Nessana, Palestina, shows Justinian’s novella was implemented in a different way in this formerly Nabatean city. In 537, the year the emperor issued his novella, we see how the year of the Bostran Era follows the consulate without any mention of the emperor in P. Ness. 1.3. In 566 (P. Ness. 3.22), 569 (P. Ness. 3.24), and 570 (P. Ness. 3.26), approximately thirty years after novella 47, the Bostran Era is consistently inserted between emperor, regnal year and consulate on the one hand and month and day number on the other. Justinian’s instructions were to add local dating customs after month and day number. Papyri from Nessana provide us with only a snapshot of society in the Negev and the province of Arabia Petraea. Nevertheless, it is remarkable to see yet another local reception of imperial legislation.

Variations are minimal, but as we see provinces and regions develop their own ways of implementing imperial legislation regarding dating formulas, inside and outside Egypt, we can plausibly conclude that dating formulas bear witness to a glocalised reception of Justinian’s intructions in (at least) the Eastern provinces. Glocalisation is the adaptation, or rather local translation, of global phenomena according to local custom. To what extent this was the case for other legislation remains to be seen. The fact that something as relatively insignificant for the lives of people as a dating formula cannot escape the influence of local tradition begs the question of how Justinianic law was received regarding topics more imbued with tradition and with a larger impact in the private sphere, such as inheritance.

Kevin Hoogeveen

Blog: Sunday rest and discourses of difference

The rhythm of our modern lives is set by the alternation of weekdays and weekend. This alternation between work and rest goes back to the early Jewish and Christian introductions of the Sabbath and the Sunday respectively as a weekly day of rest. This one day apart sets the pace of peoples’ lives. Jewish communities were – by far – the first to live according to a seven-day pace, but it was with the Christian day of rest that this lifestyle spread far and wide.

Although we can barely imagine life without these regular days of rest, the Christian Sunday was not introduced easily or quickly, even though the concept of a cycle of seven days was already known in the Roman Empire before Christianity. (For the planetary week, see the earlier blog by Elsa Lucassen.)  In the early days of Christianity, when Christian communities were actively trying to distance themselves from their Jewish heritage, the Sunday was strictly a day of religious celebration, not one of rest. In 321, however, the Roman emperor Constantine decreed that all judges, artisans and people in the cities should abstain from work on the holy Sunday. The closing day of the court was quickly implemented, as attested in the proceedings of a low-profile court case in a provincial town in Egypt in 325. But the Roman authorities had little influence of the everyday lives of artisans and city-dwellers. The broad survey of precisely dated papyri in the Lived Time project shows exactly how little.

For our project, we look, among other things, at precisely dated activities in texts. Often the date of the activity is the same as that of the text, as the production of a text (e.g. a contract, an account, a meeting etc.) is a side-product of the activity. The temporal patterns in the production of texts therefore represent the temporal patterns of a broad spectrum of economic, administrative and social activities; and the patterns for specific types of texts reflect the rhythms of specific activities. If one would look at the temporal patterns in modern text production, one would see, a steep decline of work emails and bills in the weekend, but perhaps a rise of shopping receipts on Saturdays. In the documents written in fourth-century Egypt, we find no such pattern: people produced just as many documents (of the same variety of types) on Sundays as on other days of the week. This is similar in the fifth century, but starts to change in the sixth century, when the documentary record clearly drops on Sundays and peaks on Mondays.

To get a better sense at what was happening here, we can zoom in on the papyri of one town in Egypt, Aphrodito. The discovery of the enormous archive of the local big man Dioskoros, which relates to both his and his father’s personal administration as well as to the village more broadly, has made this small town in the sixth-century in the words of Giovanni Ruffini “the best document place per capita in the entire ancient world”. This archive suggests that every administrative office representing the Roman authorities was closed on Sundays. This is in line with Roman law, which had, since the first law by Constantine, added more and more aspects of government that were not allowed on Sunday, such as tax collection. Sermons by high profile clergymen show that the Church too promoted Sunday rest in the sixth century (see the SOLA database). This phenomenon is sometimes referred to as the ‘sabbatization’ of Sunday.

Instances of activities in 6th-century Aphrodito sorted by weekday
Instances of activities in sixth-century Aphrodito sorted by weekday

But the local population had clearly not yet interiorized this idea of obligatory rest. The pattern (somewhat fewer private documents than on other days, followed by a peak on Mondays) suggests they worked somewhat less on Sundays, but they were hardly restful. The most logical scenario is that on Sundays they spend a part of the day normally devoted to work to attending mass (a regular activity that did not produce texts, and is therefore much harder to locate in our evidence) and that they used this religious get-together also as a social occasion to arrange more complex business meetings on the following day, hence the peak on Monday. As major transactions generally involved a notary and witnesses acceptable to both parties, this kind of business could not be done on the spot.

Aphrodito is also the finding spot of another large archive, this time from the early eighth century. This second find creates the opportunity to see how the rhythm of village life had evolved in the intermediate 150 years, during which Egypt transformed from a Roman province to an integral part of a Muslim empire. The archive of Basilios, the local head of the administration who was in direct contact with the Arab governor in Fustat, contains little information about private activities, but an analysis of the temporal patterns shows clearly that he organized his administration in contrast to the rhythms set by Fustat. The governor sent him a never-ending stream of orders. Repeatedly, messengers arrived at his door on Sunday. This kind of demands on his time were outside his control. But every activity the Christian Basilios did have under control had to wait: he and his team stuck to their day of rest. This shows that under this new foreign domination, the observance of Sunday rest shifted from a norm set from above, but often ignored in private contexts, to a practice valued by the local population as a mark of their own Christian identity in a discourse of difference.

Sofie Remijsen

This blog is based on: Remijsen, S. (2022). Business as Usual? Sunday Activities in Aphrodito (Egypt, Sixth to Eighth Century). In U. Heil (Ed.), From Sun-Day to the Lord’s Day: The Cultural History of Sunday in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, Turnhout, pp. 143-186.

Blog: How monks at a hermitage in Kellia established the time for eating

In Late Antiquity, Kellia (“the Cells”) was an internationally renowned monastic community located ca. 60 km southeast of Alexandria, on the edge of the Western Desert. According to monastic tradition, it was founded by the fourth-century hermit Amun of Nitria. Following the advice of Antony the Great, “the father of Christian monasticism” (d. 356), he chose a location twelve miles from Nitria, so that hermits from this community could first eat at the ninth hour (ca. 3PM) and visit the brethren in Kellia before sunset, and vice versa. Being known as a place where hermits lived a more strict ascetic life, Kellia was famous for its holy men, who attracted admirers seeking spiritual edification or intercessory prayer. Notable pilgrims from abroad include Rufinus of Aquileia (Italy), translator of the History of the monks in Egypt, and Palladius of Galatia (in central Turkey), author of the Lausiac History, an account of Egyptian and Palestinian monasticism. Kellia is also known as one of the main locations in various Sayings of the Desert Fathers, which exists in several versions, has been translated in many languages and is still popular as spiritual literature today.

Covering an area of about 11 km (7 miles) in length, Kellia consisted of more than 1,500 buildings, organised in seven clusters ranging in number from 30 to 550 constructions, including churches and freestanding hermitages. The earliest hermitages are likely to have been very simple, consisting of at least a cell and a prayer niche, but the buildings uncovered during French and Swiss excavations include more facilities, for the hermit himself and his disciple (or disciples), and represent a later development (sixth century). They were surrounded by a rectangular enclosure wall and comprised the habitation unit of the elder in the northwest, a kitchen in the northeast and a courtyard with a well and probably a vegetable garden in the east. The elder’s rooms included an oratory with a niche in the east, a cell with a store room and a workroom, which were usually separate spaces. The disciple had his own habitational unit, usually to the south of the elder’s rooms, which also consisted of separate spaces for living, praying, working and storing food. Depending on the number of occupants, there were two or more latrines against the south wall of the enclosure. One of the larger hermitages in Qusur el-Ruba‘iyat, called Kom 88 by French archaeologists (the Arabic word “kom” refers to an archaeological mound), also included a multi-storey tower against the south wall, where the elder and his disciple could hide in case of attacks by marauders.

Kom 88 measured about 28 × 39 m. The French team partly excavated it, uncovering the habitation unit for a disciple, a silo, communal rooms and a kitchen on the north side, and part of the tower and a room with two latrines against the south wall (Fig. 1). The habitation unit of the elder and the vestibule leading to it were located to the northwest. Two rooms preceding the vestibule probably served as waiting rooms for visitors wishing to meet the elder: the walls were decorated quite elaborately, with crosses and floral designs, and many visitors left (Bohairic) Coptic graffiti with requests for prayer for deceased loved ones or for their own sake. Another Coptic inscription, in the niche in the west wall of the southern room, was painted by an occupant for a practical reason: it is a shadow table recording the average length of a shadow in feet for each Egyptian month at the ninth hour, which enabled the hermits to determine when it was mid-afternoon – time to break their fast and eat a meal, usually the only one of the day (Fig. 2).

The columns of the months and the length indications are badly aligned, as if the hermit painted them one after the other and got confused about which lines should correspond, but the table is supposed to indicate that it was time to eat in Paoni (end of May and most of June), when the shadow measured 7 feet (2,13 m), and in Koiak (end of November and most of December) when it was 15 feet (4,57 m). The other values increase and decrease according to a regular pattern (Fig. 3). It is the only known shadow table in Kellia and differs from other examples in Egyptian monasteries, which record shadow lengths for multiple hours per day (at Deir Abu Hennis, south of Antinoöpolis, and at Deir Anba Hadra near Aswan) or for the first and fifteenth days of each month (Bawit).

The shadow measured for calculating time was usually that of a standing man and the lengths recorded in the table are not exceptional, but if a man cast the shadow, another person was needed to measure it, as the standing man could not move. For a single person it would be easier if a fixed pole of similar height was positioned in such a way that even the longest shadow would remain completely visible on a flat surface, without colliding with the shadows of other constructions. As Egypt is located in the Northern Hemisphere and the sun moves from east to west, causing the shadow to turn to the northeast, the best position for a standing man or pole seems to have been in the southwest, so that the shadow would fall between the elder’s rooms and the tower.

Inspired by anecdotes in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, I can imagine that the usual routine of the occupants of Kom 88 was as follows: while the elder followed his own regime of praying, meditating and working in his habitation unit, the disciple would prepare the meal and check the length of the shadow. At the ninth hour, he would call the elder through a conduit in the northwest corner of the room where the shadow table is, and they would eat together. When the elder was entertaining guests, they would be invited to join them, before returning home.

Renate Dekker

Further reading

  • [D. Brooks Hedstrom], “Yale Monastic Archaeology Project North (YMAP-North): Kellia and Pherme”, Yale Egyptology: Current expeditions, Yale University 2023 (with further references).
  • R.-G. Coquin and several others, “Neuvième campagne de fouilles aux Kellia (avril 1983): rapport préliminaire”, Annales du Service des Antiquités de l’Égypte 70 (1984-1985), 107-124 (esp. 117-124 and pls. III-V on hermitage 88).
  • R. Dekker, “Amoen van Nitrië”, Lucepedia: Digitale theologische encyclopedie, Tilburg University, 2012.
  • A. Delattre, “Une curieuse table d’ombres au monastère de Baouît”, Le Muséon 123 (2010), 273-286 (re-edition of the shadow table at Bawit, with a list of other shadow tables in Egypt and Nubia, including the one at Kellia, on p. 7, under e.)
  • A. Guillaumont and others, “Kellia”, in: A. S. Atiya, The Coptic Encyclopedia 5, New York 1991, 1396b-1410a, available online in the Claremont Coptic Encyclopedia, Claremont Graduate University, 2009–present.