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Women of the Western Desert: life in the oases villages of Egypt from Late Antiquity and the Byzantine period

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posted on 2022-10-18, 03:58 authored by Christine Mair

The women who resided in the oases villages of the Western Desert of Egypt during the third to seventh centuries have a story to tell. Their story can be reconstructed from the footprints they have left in the desert, remnants that offer precious glimpses into their lives while living and working in those remote areas and harsh conditions. This thesis explores these imprints with the aim of compiling a comprehensive picture of the everyday roles allotted to these women within the home and community. 

Seldom are the voices of women in antiquity heard, their existence rarely acknowledged in the historical record before the 20th century. Since then, interest in the role of women in the public and private spheres, and their contribution to society as a whole, has substantially increased. In a similar vein, I have undertaken to investigate the oasite women in terms of their family life, socio-economic participation and religious involvement. Consequently, the evidence presented in this cumulative study will not only contribute to the history of women in general, but will also promote a more nuanced history of Roman and Byzantine Egypt. 

This study gathers and assesses for the first time the archaeological and literary sources pertinent to the women of the Western Desert. The evidence used mirrors the activity of several multidisciplinary research projects carried out in this area over the last decades. The varied and diverse data, collected through a thorough survey of archaeological reports, provides a comprehensive record of the women's lives in the oases west of the Nile during Late Antiquity. Paramount to this investigation is the vast array of textual material, the major proportion originating from Kellis. Documents written by women are few, the majority being penned by males to their female counterparts. Their letters home are, for the most part, personal and affectionate, and while not directly echoing the 'female voice', their substance sheds light on many aspects of the women's lives. 

To my knowledge, there has been no research to date that focuses on the everyday lives of the female inhabitants of the oasite villages. To fill this lacuna, my study encompasses the manifold facets of their lives from infancy to death, as revealed in the textual and material evidence. I present my findings here so that these women can claim their place in that society and plant their footprint firmly in the historical record. 


Table of Contents

Research overview -- 1: Geographical and historical framework -- 2: Women in society -- 3: Family life - from infancy to death -- 4: Religion -- 5: Conclusion -- Bibliography -- Appendix A - mothers as identifiers -- Appendix B - linguistic origin of oases female names -- Appendix C - analysis of oases material -- Appendix D - use of Nomen


Thesis submitted in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD


Thesis (PhD), Macquarie University, Faculty of Arts, Department of History and Archaeology, 2021

Department, Centre or School

Department of History and Archaeology

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Victor Ghica

Additional Supervisor 1

Malcolm Choat


Copyright: The Author Copyright disclaimer:




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