Ancient Buddhist-looking monks


Very curious no!


The skirt with the tied top doesn’t look Buddhist to me, nor do the animal skins in the bottom graphic. I am curious about the shaved heads, though. Any idea what period of Egypt these are from?

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Nice, thanks. Do you have any more details on the pictures?

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They are not monks but high-ranking priests. They wore leopard-skins. The leopard was considered a sacred animal, personification of the ancient sky-Goddess Mafdet. The shaving of the head was a purification-ritual.
Although they had to observe periods of celibacy, they were generally allowed to have one wife.


Venerable @sujato … in the first photo they are probably sealing the coffin of a newly mummified body with some kind of purifying wine. In the second they are making an offering to two goddesses, most likely in the context of prayer to a deceased person (see the two women wailing at his/her departure). I’m not really sure though.

As for shaving body hair, it may well have been some kind of sila “kor wat”, ancient Egyptian though instead of Thai! And indeed they often shaved eyebrows as well. :).

@AndyL, as for the date, depictions like these existed consistently all over the various dynasties, nothing special about them. I have no further info regarding the exact date of these particular pictures. And there are so many things “non-Buddhist” in them more than what your eyes have caught. But i felt the resemblance was striking still, despite of the presence of all those things non-Buddhist!

Ayya @Vimala … impressive!!


Did you ever hear the hypothesis that the “Theraputai” of the Hellenistic world might have been Buddhists? Apparently they were present in certain parts of Egypt (Alexandria) around the time of Jesus. Over time and across cultures, Vs can be replaced by Bs and Ps, and Ts by Ds. So the theory goes that Theravada might have become Theraputai. The Theraputai were “healer-worshipers.” I believe they were considered moral philosophers and contemplative, they chanted, and I think may have worn robes and shaved their heads - I found out about this theory from watching an Ajahn Brahm youtube clip :grin:

Some Christian historians think the Theraputai were Essenes (a group of Jewish physicians), but this seems to be disputed. Some people think Jesus may have encountered and/or even trained with the Theraputai before his teaching career began.

I’m guessing this doesn’t have much to do with the OP, but seems tangentially related. I think it is sort of interesting, anyway!


Friend @Garrib … Interesting to learn that ven. Ajahn Brahm had talked about this. Yes of course the Theraputae are very interesting; I visited the place where they lived near lake Mariot, Alexandria, it’s still very auspicious there!

We know little about them, but they stand out in very Buddhist ways. They seem to have disappeared quickly following the consolidation of the Christian faith in the Roman empire. A both interesting and violent episode in history!

Their appearance in Egypt seem to coincide positively with the dates of King Asoka’s missionaries to Greece, about that time ships between the two intimate civilisations did not cease crossing the Mediterranean. Just round that time we also find the only Eastern Buddhist object also in Alexandria, a stone with the Dhamma wheel inscribed on it. But this one is argued to had been brought by traders, and we’re not even really sure the circular inscription represent the Dhamma wheel (there used to be a photo of it online but I can no longer find it! I must say I remember it did look like Dhamma wheel).

Their lifestyle though is the most significant indication, and it was unparalleled by any other group around them at that time. Alexandria was then like a cosmopolitan free commune for scientists, intellectuals, and spiritual practitioners from all backgrounds, especially those who resisted Christianity.

The Theraputae were withdrawn, celibate, wore robes, shaved facial hair, and they were famous for their uncompromising virtue and frugality. They lived in communities separated by gender. Then the nuns would come in the evening to join with monks for the chanting to which you refer, and the content of which was astonishingly never documented in a culture where documentation was an obsession! Suggesting that the language of the chanting was not known. At this time Hebrew was known, and indeed we find the earliest Hebrew texts in Alexandria. The same dilemma applies to the word “Theraputae”, it simply means nothing in any language known then in this part of the world.

We will probably never be sure about who they were, but few researchers -& I agree with them- find their Buddhist identity to be at least equally probable, if not more probable, to a Jewish one. But we literally have two contemporary documents (contemporary to their appearance that is) which say anything about them.

My unfinished PhD project was about itinerant communities, including Roma. I was tracing contemporary communities in Europe back to their possible ancient origins in other far away parts of the world, including Egypt! While I couldn’t prove any particular lineages, yet the evidence was strong that small and marginalised communities were much more resilient than we naturally think, they could survive long and migrate across hostile societies, wars, and natural disaster, without losing their spiritual culture and heritage.


Wow - thanks a lot for the response Dhammarakkhita. That is really fascinating stuff. Would love to learn more about this!