Between Cairo and Luxor are a sprinkle of gems that most tourists skip out on during their trip to Egypt. For those that have a little extra time to spare, the first stop is to visit the Middle Kingdom tombs at Beni Hassan. Another 223km (138 miles) south down the Nile rests two very important sites, near the sleepy town of Sohag, in regard to the development of early Christianity.
Sohag, like most small Egyptian cities, is rough around the edges but is a very important area for Egypt’s Coptic Christian population. In addition to the two early Christian churches that stand nearby, the area is home to one of the largest Coptic communities in Upper Egypt.
The reason for stopping in the are is to visit the two ancient christian churches, White and Red Monastery. Both are within a half day trip of Sohag. Keep in mind that there is no entrance ticket to these churches but a donation is gladly excepted.
White Monastery is one of the earliest surviving churches in Egypt, dating all the way back to 400 CE. The monastery looks more like a fort than a church due to the heavy exterior walls that still surround the less preserved church today. Apparently the outer walls are not enough to protect the church today as security in and out of the complex is very tight. Every car is inspected for bombs and all IDs inspected.
As was common practice during the Christian period, ancient Egyptian temples were deemed paganism and were dismantled and reused in the construction of churches. As you walk around the outer and inner walls, you can spot some hieroglyphs and pieces of old Egyptian Gods in some of the blocks.
As for the church itself, only the inner most sanctum remains today, but due to the outer walls, it is easy to see the original cross shaped layout of the church.
Inside the surviving part of the church are some frescoes, darkened with age, inside the domes of the nave and apse. Although very worn, you can make out a depiction of Christ in the middle dome and a depiction of the Virgin Mary in the other. There are some other surviving frescoes, including one of a saint on one of the columns.
Keep in mind that this is still an active monastery so proper dress (no shorts or sleeveless shirts) and respect is expected.
Just 5 km down the road from White Monastery is Red Monastery, the reason you came all this way for. The church is simply stunning due to the incredibly well preserved frescoes that adorn most surfaces of the church. The founding of the church is unknown but tradition has held that the church was founded by Saint Pishay, while historians date the church to somewhere around the 6th century CE.
After passing through a similar security check as White Monastery, you will pass through a gate with a vast open area filled with ruins. The ruins supposedly contain the remains of a brewery which are very difficult to make out.
Be prepared for your mind to be blown once you step through the monastery doors as the combination of the level or preservation and bursting of colors that fill your eyes is awe inducing. The inner sanctum of the church is covered from floor to ceiling in brightly colored frescoes, using colors that we have not seen in any churches previously. Green, red, and yellow dominate as a beautiful display of biblical figures, animals, and geometric patterns cover everything before your eyes. It is easy to spend a while in just this one room as there is so much to take in and see.
While in the church, be sure to check out the two side rooms which also have some interesting frescoes.
Getting to the Monasteries
Getting to the monasteries requires visitors to hire a taxi in Sohag. Be sure to agree on a price and amount of waiting time before you depart for the monasteries. Even after doing this, our driver still tried to argue more money out of us on our return journey. Be sure you are specific with what you want and for what price and you will be ok. Stay firm and don’t let the driver bully you around if they decide to do so. We ended up paying 100 EGP ($5.50) to have the driver for a two hour period of time (2018).
Where to Stay and Eat
Dahab Hotel is cheap, relatively clean, and has super friendly and curious staff who will surely entertain you after visiting the churches. The hotel is located less than a block away from the Sohag train station, making it an easy hop on and hop off point. In 2018, a room for two cost 170 EGP ($9.50) and included AC (Shared bathroom).
The staff at Dahab Hotel were extremely curious about Claire and I and we probably took more photos with them than we took at the monasteries. By the time we left, we had met and drank tea with most of their family as we went back and forth in conversation relying solely on google translate. Luckily there was one guest who could speak english, making conversation much easier one of the nights we stayed. By the time you leave, you will feel apart of their family and have photos with every member!
As for food, there are very few appealing options. The only decent food nearby is a very busy Falafel shop that is only open to mid day and a BBQ chicken restaurant that also sells other typical Egyptian cuisine. Both are located just behind Dahab Hotel in the busy ally towards the Nile. You can also buy fruits here during the day.
A Worthy Stopover En Route to Luxor
Breaking up the train ride from Cairo to Luxor is highly recommended if you have time to spare. The ancient tombs at Beni Hassan, and the early Coptic churches of Sohag help divide the long journey into smaller sections and allow visitors to get off the beaten path without having to venture too far from it. From here, you could carry onward to Luxor or make a stop at one of Egypt’s most impressive temples at Dendera.