The father of all monks
The world's oldest monastery has had a facelift to smooth out the cracks. Nevine El-Aref
sees what the conservationists have been up to
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A panoramic view of the Monastery of St Anthony; a huge wall painting featuring the Christ enthroned and his apostles at the small chapel where St Anthony used to pray
"If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven; and come, follow me." Way back in the third century, a man from Upper Egypt named Anthony took these words of Jesus quite literally and turned his life upside down. In 285, at the age of 34, Anthony gave away some of his family's estate to his neighbours and sold the remaining property, donating the funds thus raised to the poor. He placed his unmarried sister with a group of Christian virgins in a type of proto-nunnery, and he himself became the disciple of a local hermit.
Leaving the place of his birth, he headed towards the settlement of town Zafarana on the Red Sea coast. There he took up a residence in a cave at the foot of the nearby mountains, with little more than a spring and a cluster of date palms to sustain him. Anthony now dedicated his life to trying to implement the words of Jesus, and he became the first known Christian ascetic and the spiritual father of all monks. Upon his death in 356, his followers built cells for themselves which formed the core of what was to become a large monastery bearing the saint's name. During the sixth and seventh centuries, many of the monks at Wadi Natroun near the north coast fled to St Anthony's Monastery to escape attacks by nomadic tribesmen. Similar raids were being carried out at St Anthony's, so a fortress-like structure was built around it for protection.
More recent buildings have turned the monastery into a village in itself, with gardens, a mill, a bakery and five small churches. Walls are adorned with paintings of knights in bright colours and hermits wearing more subdued gowns. The oldest mural can be dated to the seventh and eighth centuries while the latest date from the 13th century. The monastery also has a library containing more than 1,700 manuscripts.
Over the span of time, the monastery was plundering and destroyed by successive attackers. Soot, candle grease, oil and dust covered the paintings and cracks decorated parts of its walls. In 2002 an eight-year-long restoration project was launched to restore this great Coptic monument. In collaboration with the American Research Centre in Egypt (ARCE) the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) restored all the monastery's wall paintings. The main surrounding wall was renovated along with the two main churches, the monks' living quarters and a defensive tower. A modern sewage system was also installed.
The old church, the church of St Anthony, is a small building with a nave divided into two domed bays and with three altars. To the south is a small chapel.
The church walls are decorated with colourful murals featuring several religious scenes. Among these is one showing St Macarius the Great with a cherub showing him the place where he should build his monastery. The chapel is also decorated with paintings featuring an impressive Christ enthroned in mandorla flanked by the Virgin Mary and St John the Baptist.
The restorers found traces of two earlier layers of paintings. These are very small badly preserved except for one example from the oldest layer found on the soffit of the sanctuary arch of the chapel of the four living creatures. The Christ enthrones and busts of his apostles in medallions may be dated to the sixth to the seventh century.
During restoration work, archaeologists stumbled upon what is believed to be the ruins of the original monks' living cells dating from the fourth century. The ruins are now protected under a glass floor that leaves it visible to pilgrims.
"This project was carried out through the collaboration of both Christians and Muslims," said Zahi Hawass, secretary- general of the SCA. Hawass pointed out that all these antiquities, whether Muslim, Christian or Jewish, were a part of Egypt's national heritage.
During the official inaugural ceremony of the restored monastery which took place two weeks ago, Hawass told journalists that he hoped everyone in Egypt would now forget the violence that erupted between Muslims and Christian last January in the Upper Egyptian town of Nagaa Hammadi.
"Such incidents can happen between two brothers," Hawass said. "The ascetic St Anthony has become a symbol of tolerance and demonstrates religious harmony and peaceful coexistence between all Muslims and Christians in Egypt."