The Red Monastery church was built in the sixth century on the desert’s edge, west of the modern city of Sohag. It stands today as a remarkable remnant of Egypt’s Byzantine past. The large church is now the only remaining element of the original monastery complex, but it is still an important component of the country’s history and contemporary religious cultural heritage. The triconch sanctuary alone makes the monastery a domestic and international rarity, as it is one of the few surviving churches worldwide with a basilica plan and three large semicircular apses surrounding the main sanctuary area.
The interior of the church contains some of the world’s best-preserved Byzantine religious artwork and design. Nearly every inch of the walls and semi-domes are painted with murals in elaborate patterns and colors, depicting animals such as gazelles and peacocks, floral designs, geometric patterns and Christ, His Mother and Old Testament prophets. This richly decorated interior is one of the most significant features, as it provides a unique insight into the iconography and religious architecture of Byzantine Egypt. Thanks to a medieval addition to the church in the form of a shell-layer of mud-brick walls, the original interior walls were protected from damage and survived for over a thousand years without care or professional intervention. Whether these walls were intentionally installed to protect the murals is unknown, but they successfully acted as a buffer between the murals and destructive elements like weather and human interaction.
The church continues to play a dynamic and important role in the life and identity of the local Egyptian Christian community in Sohag and the surrounding region. Well-attended services are held weekly on Fridays and Sundays, and family celebrations such as weddings and baptisms are frequent. Monastic schooling and training for would-be monks is also an active part of the daily rhythm of the church and continues the legacy of living religious heritage that the church has embodied for over 1,500 years.
Based on the historical, cultural and social value of the ancient church, the American Research Center in Egypt, in partnership with the U.S. Agency for International Development, embarked on a project to conserve its extensive interior murals in December 2002.
Conservation work on the church’s paintings focused initially on the triconch sanctuary. Many of the murals were covered in dirt, smoke residue and in some cases varnish, which required removal during conservation. Many details that had been compromised by time, such as a partially surviving cross and accompanying inscription in the central niche of the eastern apse, were restored to function in the religious use of the sanctuary. The conservation work also revealed that the original murals had been expanded in different eras, starting in the medieval period.
The community importance of this site was a major component of the project, especially in recent years, and as work on the triconch was coming to an end a roundtable discussion involving community stakeholders, scholars and conservators was held at the monastery. Local people from the church and surrounding community have also benefited from training in awareness of heritage significance and maintenance skills, such as providing guided tours for visitors. This element has been the means of engaging the local community in the value of the conservation work as part of the monastery’s own development plans.
Improvements were made to the church’s functional and aesthetic components, such as the replacement of old doors and storage closets, repairs to pillars and plaster work, roofing repairs, the installation of a new altar table, and a new electrical wiring and lighting system. The updates to the lighting system were crucial to improve the illumination of the church’s interior, to highlight the conserved murals, and to eliminate further deterioration of the murals. Additionally, UV filtering windows were installed in the upper levels of the church to prevent sunlight from damaging the murals.
Conservation work in the sanctuary was completed in 2014, over a decade after work began. It is considered one of the ARCE’s most successful conservation and community outreach projects. ARCE continues to work at the Red Monastery on projects outside the sanctuary, and the church is celebrated as a local pillar of the Egyptian Christian community’s history and practice. It is now recognized among the greatest Late Antique monuments, sharing company with the church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, San Vitale in Ravenna and the church at St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai.