White Monastery
Community ID
Alternate Names
Monastery of Apa Shenoute
Upper Egypt. In late antiquity, the monastery was in the Panopolite nome under the metropolis of Panopolis.
Modern Location
Sohag in Upper Egypt
Date Founded
Fourth century
Foundation Information

Pcol founded the White Monastery in the fourth century. Around 385, a monk named Shenoute (348-464), Pcol's nephew, became the third head of the monastery. His letters and sermons provide the majority of our textual documentation concerning the White Monastery (3-5).

Notable Heads

Pcol founded the White Monastery (3).

Ebonh succeeded Pcol (32).

Around 385, Shenoute (348-464) succeeded Ebonh and became head of the White Monastery. Shenoute had lived in the monastery since he was seven, and he continued to live there until his death. Shenoute was active in the monastery and played an important role as a religious and civic leader in the surrounding community and throughout Egypt. In 431 he traveled to Ephesus in Asia Minor and took part in the Council of Ephesus. There he defended Alexandrian theology during debates on the christological controversy (Monophysitism).

Shenoute was a prolific author. Shenoute wrote nine letters to the whole monastery, to the male or female communities within the monastery, and to individuals in the community. He also recorded many of his sermons that he preached while head of the White Monastery.

Vitae of Shenoute have been preserved in Coptic, Arabic and Ethiopic (3-5).

A monk named Besa succeeded Shenoute (29).

Population Counts

2,200 men and 1,800 women in the late fourth century (3).

Other Ecclesiastical Relations

Pachomius, who promoted communal monasticism in Egypt, influenced Pcol when he founded the Whithe Monastery. Like at Pachomian monasteries, at the White Monastery, monks lived in houses headed by a house-master or mistress. Inside each house a single monk or pairs of monks lived in cells (14-17).

Apa Pshoi, the anchorite associated with the Red Monastery and a contemporary to Pcol, visited the female community and acted as a spiritual leader. This indicates that the female community had relationships with at least the Red Monastery and possibly other monasteries in the area (53).

Social Characteristics

The White Monastery was a communal monastery, where various communities lived at some distance from one another but simultaneously existed as a whole. In specific, men and women who lived separately made up the monastic community, as well as hermits who were associated with the monastery but lived alone in the surrounding desert (14). Elder monks acted as heads of the communities. Below the elders, monks, called mothers or fathers, served as heads of individual houses. Heads of houses reported to the elders, and the elders reported to the head of the monastery (26-28). Within the women's community, there were three positions of leadership: the elder, the mother, and the house second. At times it is clear that the elder was female, although this does not consistently seem to be the case (77-78).

If a monk was found transgressing the monastery's rules, a superior would demote the misbehaving monk's rank, beat the misbehaving monk, or, if necessary, expel him or her. Shenoute's letters record that ten women received beatings for disobedience, insubordination, homoerotic activity, stealing, lack of spiritual development, illicit teaching, and lying (26-28).

While the elder and the female heads of houses were accountable to the head of the monastery, it is clear from Shenoute's letters that the women at the White Monastery often disagreed with Shenoute and objected to his visits to the female community. Pcol never visited the female community, and Ebonh only came to consecrate the Eucharist. Shenoute's letters do not give explicit reasons for the womens' objections to his visits, although he does imply that during one visit when he tore his cloak out of grief and frustration in front of the women, at least one female monk perceived this act as a sexual threat. Shenoute eventually stopped visiting the women but implemented new authority structures that would allow for his control over the female community. Under this new system, it is unclear if the elder who supervised the female community was male or female (32-34). Although Shenoute stopped visiting the female community as judge, he did continue to share meals with the female community (35).

Shenoute's letters to the female community express concern over various types of misbehavior. These include stealing food, women forming factions within the monastic community, homoerotic activities, a woman refusing promotion within the community, gossiping, and jealousy. As we only possess the letters written by Shenoute and not the letters written by the female community, we must reconstruct these controversies based solely on Shenoute's perspective (31-50).


Under Shenoute's leadership, the White Monastery provided bread for the hungry and sheltered refugees during military raids by foreigners (3).

Other Economic Activities

In addition to prayer and worship, daily life in the monastery focused on the production of food and clothing. Monks worked in agricultural production, in food preparation, and as doctors. Female monks were responsible for making clothing. In addition to supporting the monks, the monastery also supported the surrounding villages and those seeking hospitality and charity (17-20).

Art & Artifacts
State Of Medieval Structure

While remains of the monastery still stand, the monastery buildings do not survive intact and have not been excavated. The church building still stands and its white walls provide the modern name of the monastery (17).

Dina Boero