The saintliness of sand
On Coptic Christmas, Mohamed Wassim turned his lens to the Monastery of Saint Paul
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St Paul Monastery, secluded in the desert; the bell at the tower, used until the 20th century to notify the monks of visitors; an icon displaying the Virgin and Christ Child; taking a tour at the Dome of the Martyrs; Qummos Daniel on his daily sojourn; moments spent in the prayer cave; the ancient water wheel enshrined within the monaster
Located in the Eastern Desert, Saint Paul Monastery remains one of the most popular in Egypt, attracting a regular horde of visitors tempted as much by the desert journey as by the architectural and spiritual experience. In AD 250 -- so the story goes -- the saint fled Alexandria from the wrath of the heathen Emperor Decius; he was only 16. He found a place of hermitage in a cave flanked by a palm tree and a spring, where, nearly a century later in AD 343 he was eventually joined by Saint Anthony, who saw him come out of the cave in a dream and found his way to him.
Saint Paul had been provided for by a crow, who brought him half a loaf of bread every day, which grew to a whole loaf on the arrival of Saint Anthony. Soon after that Saint Paul confided in Saint Anthony that his death was near, and that he wanted his body to be covered in a cloak of Bishop Athanasius's; on his return from fetching the cloak Saint Anthony found Saint Paul's soul departed. He was at a loss how to bury him for lack of a spade; it is believed that two lions appeared, dug a hole with their paws, and left. Both saints were commemorated 30 years later by Saint Jerome, and later by Saint Athanasius: Saint Paul became known as the First Hermit, and Saint Anthony as the Father of Monasticism. For its part the cave became a place of pilgrimage, and the two monasteries grew around its site.
Not so long ago a visitor could only get to Saint Paul by hiring a camel in Beni Sueif; a separate, 25km journey was required to get to Saint Anthony. Today the Al-Sukhna Highway reduces the journey to a straightforward 120km drive. The monastery had been closed for restoration work until 2006, when it reopened: Qummous Daniel offers a complete tour of the premises, featuring the waterwheel and rock art of ancient monks, as well as a full historical account of the site.
Source: William Lyster, Monastery of Saint Paul , Cairo: American Research Centre in Egypt, Inc.