Fachbereich Geschichtswissenschaft
Monastic Mobility Between Mesopotamia and Egypt During Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages
Journeys Real and Imagined

The birthplace of monasticism, Egypt held a particular place of honor and admiration in the collective imaginaire of Syriac monastic communities, scattered throughout Mesopotamia. The phenomenon of the impact exercised by Egyptian monasticism upon is manifold. In the framework of this fellowship, I would like to investigate one particular aspect of Mesopotamian-Egyptian connection, that is the little-studied phenomenon of monastic mobility between the two important regions of Oriens Christianus.
One the one hand, there is evidence of real-life contacts between Mesopotamia and Egypt, taking form of short- or long-term visits of Syriac monks to the monastic centers in Egypt via pilgrimage routes during the sixth and seventh centuries, as well as later on. On the other hand, there is a number of hagiographical compositions produced in Syriac, in which the flow of monastic mobility goes in the opposite direction and several founding figures of Mesopotamian monasticism are portrayed as arriving there from Egypt. The most important witness in this regard is the Life of Mār Awgēn, a sixth-century composition in which the life and deeds of this semi-legendary founder of monasticism in Northern Mesopotamia, are described. The subsequent appearance during the seventh century and later of a number of monastic vitae, whose protagonists are associated with Awgēn in one way or another, constitutes a secondary stage in the evolution of this myth of monastic origins in Northern Mesopotamia.
Descriptions of monastic travel from Egypt to Mesopotamia constitute an indispensable narrative component of the Life of Mār Awgēn, and other hagiographical works of Awgēn’s cycle. While there can be little doubt regarding their fictional nature, this literary evidence poses questions why and how the motif of arrival from Egypt became such a crucial element in the formation of monastic collective memory throughout Mesopotamia. In the framework of my project, I intend to address these and other related questions by examining the two abovementioned bodies of evidence on monastic journeys between Mesopotamia and Egypt alongside each other. My working hypothesis is that the myth of monastic transfer from Egypt to Mesopotamia by Awgēn and his followers emerged towards the end of Late Antiquity, when the practice of monastic travel from Mesopotamia to Egypt underwent a process of reimagination and narrative reversal, and was made to perform an important ideological function in the process of crystallization of the emerging collective memory of Syriac monasticism.