|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
4 - 10 January 2001
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Samir Naoum heralds Coptic Christmas with a short pilgrimage to the Fayoum village of Al-Hammam's recently restored monastery and salutes its little-known namesake
The Coptic Christmas Eve (Al-Layla Al-Kabira, or the "Big Night") on 6 January traditionally ends 43 days of fasting, in which eating meat is forbidden. For most of Egypt's Coptic community, this Saturday evening will probably be spent at midnight mass, followed by a traditional meal, but religious holidays are also a time of pilgrimage.
Seasonal pilgrimmage: Christians and weekend travellers alike have discovered the recently-renovated Monastery of Anba Ishaaq, so-called for the man who spread Antonian monasticism in the area
photos: Samir Naoum
At the edges of the Western Desert, just beyond the agricultural lands of the large fertile depression known as Fayoum, is the village of Al-Hammam, which houses the once obscure monastery dedicated to the Holy Virgin known as Deir Al-Hammam. Also known as the Monastery of Anba Ishaq (Father Isaac), Coptic tradition recounts that the religious community was founded by one of the disciples of Saint Anthony -- the so-called father of monasticism. By far one of the more picturesque monasteries in Fayoum, the monastery is thought to date as far back as the third century.
Encouraged by Anthony's way of life, followers went on to establish monastic communities in Fayoum, northern Sinai and elsewhere. Many of Saint Anthony's disciples are celebrated by historical texts and religious orders, but Father Isaac is not one of the better-known hermits, despite evidence that he was one of those who actively spread Antonian monasticism. According to a surviving manuscript he was a native of a village near Memphis, who responded to a vision to submit to a life of piety and prayer in the desert. Isaac then travelled to the Western Desert, where he found a large number of isolated hermits.
Reaching Al-Hammam along rural tracks is not particularly easy, which explains why, until recently, few people went there. Now that the monastery has been renovated, large numbers of visitors make their way here on holy days and weekends -- some to see an ancient monastery partly restored to its former glory, others for a religious experience. Curious weekend travellers have begun to swell the numbers as well.
The monastery is easy to identify. I would advise those who want to visit it to do so by car and approach from Lahun barrage, on Bahr Al-Youssef Canal (identified by the distinctive brick pyramid of Senusert II). Travel about six kilometres north-west, ask for Al-Hammam village and you're there. Just beyond the village, white newly restored domes topped with crosses can be seen rising above a barren mound flanked by desert expanse. If you approach across the sand, you will see mounds of brick and cement outside the wall of the monastery -- obviously, it is still undergoing repair.
The monastery is not large, and was originally built of unburnt brick, remains of which can still be seen today. For over a century, its most distinctive feature was its eastern wall, which became covered with a thick layer of wasp nests during a long period when the monastery was uninhabited. Pilgrims in early days were well warned to beware the monastery's unusual guests, but today, after a healthy stretch of re-population, the stinging insects have all vacated. Their hives, however, have become such an interesting mark that one could almost refer to it as an architectural feature: a thick layer of rough surface around which brick and stonework have been constructed.
I entered the large wooden monastery door, and approached the church through a newly-tiled courtyard lined with benches. Families were grouped together in the shade of some trees and children were happily exploring the compound. The church named after the patron saint is not large; it has a single altar. The Church of the Holy Virgin has three apses; the central one dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the southern to Saint George and the northern to Saint Bishoy. The baptismal font that stands to the north is an ancient one, while the church itself is adorned with brightly-coloured neo-Coptic icons.
Excavation and conservation of monasteries all over Egypt is being financed in various ways: from government funds through the Ministry of Culture to funds raised by individual supporters and local Coptic communities, as well as joint projects with foreign institutions and organisations. Restoration of the Monastery of Anba Ishaq was carried out in 1987. While areas were being cleared of rubble, the body of a young martyr was found, with signs of torture on his body. His relics remain in the monastery and pilgrims talk at length about the fact that his hands had not decomposed, and that crosses could be seen on each wrist.
Legend, embellished historical accounts and outright fiction have much to tell us about Saint Anthony and monastic life in Fayoum. The first ascetic to establish a formal community of monks on the Red Sea coast, it is he who introduced monastic garb and developed semi-cenobitic community life. He encouraged hermits to live in isolation, but introduced regular meetings, when monks would gather together for mass, prayer and a meal.
The story goes that an angel of the Lord appeared to Saint Anthony and told him to go to the desert in the Fayoum, where he would find a community of holy men who would listen to his call. Anthony then left the Red Sea coast, setting off in the direction of a certain Lake Arsanius. It is said he crossed the lake by walking on its waters to the opposite shore, and came to the place where the hermit Isaac lived. Anthony asked Isaac to call together all the other hermits in the area and they formed a congregation in the "Church of the Angel" -- a rock-hewn cave that exists to this day. There Saint Anthony anointed the hermits, declared the whole congregation to be monks and returned to the Red Sea.
Isaac, who had originally lived as an anchorite (a solitary hermit), forthwith took on the role of spiritual leader. He went first to the Gabal Al-Barmil area of Giza, then moved to the monastery now named after him in Mofset, or Enfast as it is better known today. In each place Isaac introduced Antonian monasticism, encouraging the isolated hermits to lead a semi-communal life. His next destination was Gabal Al-Khazain, near Alexandria, where he lived until his death in 356.
It seems that Isaac's relics were brought to the Monastery of the Virgin Mary in Al-Hammam because it had come to be known as the Monastery of Anba Ishaq. The original monastery appears to have been enlarged, as when British archaeologist Flinders Petrie visited the monastery in the 19th century, he observed outlines of a much larger monastery on the ground. He mentioned that there were rubbish mounds outside the "older deir," where valuable scraps of papyrus, perhaps attesting to the activities of the monks, or perchance providing fuller details of how Antonian monasticism spread in the Western Desert, were found.
The monastery was first mentioned in modern history by 13th-century Arab historian Abu Makarem. He said it was spacious, well located and had fine architectural features. Later, the monastery was deserted and fell to ruin. When Petrie visited the site in the 19th century (he noted that the monastery was then occupied by a married priest and his family), he attributed it to the sixth century. In recounting his investigations, Petrie noted that Johann Georg, the duke of Saxony, had visited it just before him and had attributed it to the eighth century.
All newly-restored churches and monasteries have set up museums, either in the grounds or in converted chambers and ancient refectories. At the Deir Al-Hammam, the museum boasts a plethora of Pharaonic, Coptic and Roman artefacts attesting to occupation of the area over a long period of time.
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