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‘For the great agape now practiced towards the poor who come to the holy monastery ...’: (P.KRU 106): Care for the poor in Late Antique Egypt

Strand Campus, London

21 Jan palimpsest Part of CHS Late Antique & Byzantine Seminar Series (Spring)

Caption: Palimpsest ivory diptych, c. AD 400-700, BM 1920,1214.1 (Courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum)

Joint event with the Centre for Late Antique & Medieval Studies

 Dr Elisabeth R. O'Connell (British Museum)


In the last quarter of the sixth century the derelict remains of an ancient Egyptian temple were given over by local townspeople to the Monastery of the holy martyr Phoibammon in order to serve its superior “in the work of the agape for the poor” (P.KRU 105). The monastery’s charitable mandate over the next two centuries is confirmed by the survival of four its superiors’ wills, transferring the property to their successors. Several more wills and other documents belonging to local townspeople, including several women, further demonstrate the mechanics of providing for the poor through charitable donations given to saints upon the death of the testator.

This remarkable corpus of more than dozen documents on papyrus allow a rare and privileged view of the process whereby individuals give to the saint, represented by his monastery (Papaconstantinou 2012; Schenke 2016), in order to secure salvation after death (O’Connell forthcoming). This paper will draw on the wide body of recent work on charitable giving (Brown 2002, 2012, 2015, Holman ed. 2006, Finn 2006, Stathakopoulos ed. 2007, Spieser and Yota ed. 2012) to detail why members of this community gave to the poor, the mechanics of giving, and how they ensured their future commemoration.  

Elisabeth R. O’Connell is Byzantine World Curator, The British Museum (BM). She completed a PhD in the Ancient History and Mediterranean Archaeology Graduate Group at the University of California, Berkeley, specialising in Late Antiquity. Since she joined the Museum, her research has focused on the archaeology of Byzantine and early Islamic Egypt, integrating the study of ancient texts and their archaeological contexts. She is editor of Egypt in the First Millennium AD (2014), Abydos in the First Millennium AD (2019), Egypt, empire and the formation of religious identity (forthcoming) and co-editor of Egypt: Faith after the pharaohs (2015), which accompanied the BM exhibition with the same title (2015–2016). Her wider research interests include the social history and material culture of the Byzantine Empire and its successors.

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