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Ain el-Sabil

a Pleiades place resource

Creators: Nicola Aravecchia Copyright © The Contributors. Sharing and remixing permitted under terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License (cc-by).
Last modified Feb 28, 2023 05:36 PM History
Roman/late antique settlement, with visible remains of streets and mud-brick structures, including a church, two pigeon towers, and possibly residential units. Largely unexcavated.

25.5026822818, 29.0831246258

settlement, archaeological site


Ain el-Sabil is located in the Dakhla Oasis of Upper Egypt, 2.5 km southeast of the village of Ismant and less than 1.5 km southwest of the archaeological site of Kellis/Ismant el-Kharab.

The site extends up to 390 m from east to west and up to 220 m from north to south. Although its original extent is unknown, it does not seem to have been a significantly large settlement, especially in comparison with the neighboring village of Kellis. Ain el-Sabil is currently delimited to the north, east, south, and west by cultivated fields, which are dangerously encroaching upon the archaeological area.

The Dakhleh Oasis Project conducted a preliminary survey of the area in 1980. The site remained unexcavated until 2009, when an Egyptian mission of the local Coptic and Islamic Inspectorate, under the direction of Kamel Bayoumi, started digging in the southeast sector of the site. Investigation was conducted inside a few barrel-vaulted mud-brick rooms, which may have belonged to a domestic unit. Among the registered finds were several coins and Greek ostraka. A preliminary reading and analysis of the latter, carried out by Roger Bagnall and Rodney Ast, point to a fourth-century dating, which seems confirmed by considerable ceramic evidence scattered throughout the site.

In close proximity to the excavated area, the Egyptian team found a large structure undoubtedly identifiable as a church. Although not yet excavated, the building has a clearly discernible layout. The church is oriented to the east and has a basilical plan, consisting of a central nave and two side aisles. These are defined by two rows of mud-brick columns, which are preserved to their full height. The apse is rectangular in shape and is framed by two semi-columns. An arched niche is set into the sanctuary’s north and south walls, which open onto side pastophoria through small doorways. The church of Ain el-Sabil, the dating of which is yet unknown, seems to share some typological similarities with the Large East Church at Kellis.

Other visible remains –although unexcavated– include two main streets, running from northwest to southeast, large open spaces, and numerous clusters of mud-brick buildings of undetermined nature. Most rooms bear substantial traces of barrel-vaulted ceilings and rectangular or arched niches piercing the walls. These openings are often surrounded by rectangular bands of white gypsum plaster, following a decorative standard common to most sites in the oasis throughout antiquity.

Standing several meters above ground level are the remains of two mud-brick towers. The better preserved one is located in the southeast sector of the site and consists of two rectangular rooms parallel to each other. Traces of barrel vaults and rows of square holes, piercing some of the walls, are still visible inside. The second tower is located about 70 m to the north. Only scanty remains of its walls, though standing at a considerable height, can be seen. Comparative analysis with similar buildings suggests an identification of both structures as pigeon towers, a typical feature of the oasis’ landscape in Roman times and during Late Antiquity.

The close proximity of Ain el-Sabil to Kellis, their apparently similar chronology, and documentary evidence retrieved at Ain el-Sabil suggest that ties existed between the two settlements. Ain el-Sabil may indeed have been a small rural center economically and administratively dependent on the larger village of Kellis, as may have been the case for the site of Ain el-Gedida.

Nicola Aravecchia


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Nicola Aravecchia, Jeffrey Becker, Sean Gillies, Anne User, and Tom Elliott, 'Ain el-Sabil: a Pleiades place resource', Pleiades: A Gazetteer of Past Places, 2023 <> [accessed: 20 July 2024]

            {{cite web |url= |title=Places: 551781152 (Ain el-Sabil) |author=Aravecchia, N. |accessdate=July 20, 2024 2:55 am |publisher=Pleiades}}