It has long been established that pious donations on behalf of the faithful were an essential part of the economic sustenance of churches and monasteries in the egyptian chôra during the Late Antique/Early Islamic period. Careful studies of literary and documentary texts alike have shown that the intercession of the saints before God, aimed at saving the soul of the person making the donation, was a veritable commodity, an important source of profit for monastic communities. Much scholarly attention has been directed at a large dossier of 8th century coptic legal documents from Western Thebes which attests to a vivid “market” of monasteries providing access to the local saint’s intercession in exchange for a prosphora donation. In many cases, it seems clear that the intercession prayer is intended to come into play after the donor’s death, which is why coptological discussion of prosphora donations to egyptian monasteries has essentially been restricted to the case of prosphora mortis causa specifically. A newly identified dossier of 6th/7th century coptic documentary texts from the monastery of Apa Ezekiel in the mountain of Hermonthis south of Thebes, the first of the hermonthite desert monasteries to emerge in any detail from a general obscurity owed to a lack of excavations and textual evidence, sheds new light on the monastic practice of exchanging the intercession of the local saint against pious gifts to the monastery: a number of letters written by the abbots of the Ezekiel monastery reveal the rhetorical strategies by which monastic leaders sought to motivate potential donors, who were often members of village elites, thus highlighting the role of religious authority in regulating economic exchange between the desert monasteries and the secular network of the villages in the hermonthite pagarchy. A careful look at the language of these letters furthermore allows for a refined understanding of the terminology of prosphora donations in this region; the thusfar rather obscure designation “Angel of the Topos” becomes apparent as referring to the patron saint of a monastery, specifically in his capacity as heavenly intercessor before God. Last but not least, there is now a strong case to be made that many of these arrangements are, in fact, aimed at prosphora inter vivos deals, meaning that the monks also offered prayers on behalf of pious donors for their immediate health, success, and prosperity.
Living on a Prayer: Intercession of the Saints as a Marketable Commodity and Monastic Strategies of Negotiating for Pious Donations – New Evidence from the Region of Hermonthis, Upper Egypt, in the Late Byzantine Period