Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 April 2012
Issue No. 1092
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Celebration of the spirit

Sherif Sonbol connects the dots between the most famous pilgrimage destination in Poland and a monastery in Egypt

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The Black Virgin's Altar at Jasna (Yasna) Gora Monastery in Czestochowa

At Jasna (Yasna) Gora Monastery in Czestochowa, people queue for days to see the Black Virgin Icon. I was surprised, however, at the end of mass when the monks were carrying a very similar banner to that of the Egyptian Anba Bola (St Paul) The First Hermit. But first, I must begin my journey to Poland at an Egyptian monastery.

When I was photographing Churches of Egypt, I was honoured to gain access to most of the famous monasteries and churches in the country. I had received permits from the Pope's Office and Antiquities Authority, and although some monasteries were very welcoming I spent a long time at others negotiating entry to the holiest places. At one of those monasteries, I camped outside the gates in the middle of the desert for almost three days until I was finally allowed to come inside.

I found the warmest and most humble monks at the Monastery of Anba Bola by the Red Sea. It is located on the road to Hurghada at Zaafarana and is accessed by a short road through the mountains. There is a hotel at Zaafarana, but if you prefer five-star accommodations you can stay at Ain Al-Sokhna, (about 60km north). If you drive west for another 80km in the desert, you would reach the Monastery of Anba Antonios (St Anthony), Father of All Monks. This road is almost entirely deserted except for trailer trucks, and I almost got killed by a drowsy driver if it wasn't for the blessings of all those saints.

St Anthony and his "friend" St Paul are the two most important figures in the history of world monasticism. They both met here at Anba Bola's cave in the early days of monasticism, and both lived on either side of Mount Olzim (Qulzum) in Wadi Al-Araba near the Red Sea.

Father Antonios founded the first community of monks in the world and was accordingly named Father of Monks. One day, at age 90, he felt he was a pioneer and the greatest -- and perhaps in his prayers mentioned that to God, who instructed him to climb to the other side of the hill to meet someone even greater than himself. Anba Antonios did that and was astonished to find an even older hermit, Anba Bola, who mentioned that he already knew about Anba Antonios. The 90-year-old stood corrected and gave Anba Bola the title that stayed with him forever: The First Hermit.

Anba Bola was a little suspicious about his visitor, but when God sent a crow with a full loaf of bread (instead of the daily ration of half a loaf) Anba Bola knew this was a message from God that the stranger was sent by Him. They talked and prayed together, and since Anba Bola was dying, he asked his new found friend to bring him a cloak to be buried in. Antonios hurried to his monastery to bring back the cloak that was a gift from St Athanasius of Alexandria and ran back; at 90, the trip took him four days.

He arrived at Anba Bola's cave and found him kneeling in prayer but also dead. While considering how to bury his friend, two lions entered the cave and came towards him. They licked his feet and moved around with him to mark the spot where they should dig the grave. Then St Anthony took off St Paul's cape made of palm tree leaves and dressed him in St Athanasius's cloak and buried him. A more elaborate rendition of the tale by St Jerome can be found at

So, I arrived at the grave in the cave inside the monastery and it seemed that the relics must have been moved somewhere else, most likely Constantinople. The old monastery walls surrounding the original caves, some churches, and some of the monks' cells did not originally have doors. However, after several attacks by Bedouins and others they decided to build walls without gates or entrances. Visitors needed to identify themselves first and if they were welcome, a basket made of palm tree leaves was lowered to hoist them up like an elevator.

This continued for centuries until King Farouk ascended the throne of Egypt and decided to tour his country, including the remote monasteries of Anba Antonios and his friend Anba Bola. Since it would have been inappropriate to hoist the king up in a basket, the monks dug a gate in the walls to welcome their beloved monarch. Although the visit is not well documented, I did find inscriptions about it on the walls of Anba Antonios's historical church.

But back to Anba Bola's monastery. Visitors there have to wait briefly until someone opens the gates and jots down the car licence plate number. You continue on a desert road inside the walls and suddenly see the stunning cathedral in the middle of nowhere where monks spend their days worshipping, making beautiful buildings and growing vegetables. Over time, monastic rules have changed and today only university graduates are allowed to join the order. While discriminatory, the rule ensures that monks are there because they were called by God not to find food and shelter.

A short drive down the road are the walls of the Old Monastery and new cells. If you need some refreshments, there is a small restaurant serving drinks, sandwiches and snacks in the parking lot outside the Old Monastery walls. In the distance, you can spot the churches built in the surrounding mountains. To me, it seemed like an archaeological miracle, but the monks speak of it as if it were nothing -- just something to while away time. There are also hermits who live in the mountain and come down once a in a while to visit. It is a place that truly inspires you.

But let me lead you back to Poland. We arrived in Warsaw and headed to Krakow led by our guide Dorota Bobecka, a Polish businesswoman. The road was under construction in preparation for the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship, since the final tournament will be hosted by Poland and Ukraine between 8 June and 1 July, 2012.

On the way, we stopped at the best known restaurant in Cz_stochowa located at Hotel Mercure. In bygone days under communist rule, the hotel was called Patria and was the most sophisticated in the city where many dignitaries -- as well as business tycoons -- were regulars at the hotel restaurant. Everything has changed now, and so has the clientele.

We had dinner for about 60 zlotys (around 15 Euros) and met legendary journalist Barbara Chybalska who is a Cz_stochowa resident. Chybalska insisted that I should visit the Jasna G--ra (Bright Mountain) Monastery on the way back. I hesitated somewhat and explained that if I go I might like it, and if I liked it then I might want to take photos using the big bulky tripod, and if I used it I might need special permits, etc. She promised to work on it.

And she was as good as her word. She got the necessary permits and we headed to the monastery, which is located in the centre and its tower can be seen from all directions. Upon our arrival, Father Robert Jasiulewicz, the monastery's spokesman, met us and guided our tour. Father Jasiulewicz suggested we should first see the 'Stations of the Cross', but I was not that enthusiastic because I knew there are greater treasures at the monastery other than the 14 stations depicting the stops Christ made in his final hours. Most Roman Catholic churches contain this series of small plaques with reliefs, placed at intervals along the side walls of the nave. He explained that mass was in progress inside the Cathedral and since I can't take pictures there until it was over, I should see the 14 stations first.

I agreed and hoped I would not waste my day. As we headed to the 14 stations I was confused; the women leading the way walked outside the Cathedral and instead of trying to find the small plaques, scaled the great wall surrounding the monastery. Then they suddenly stopped and I was taken aback, in awe. The first of the 14 stations was in front of me: a huge statue on a high base outside the walls of the castle. So, this is why Father Jasiulewicz had insisted; it was marvelous and unlike anything I had seen before. Later, he rejoined us and explained that this scale of the 14 stations is common at Polish monasteries.

He took us on a quick tour and told us about the visit by Pope John Paul II (who was Polish) to the monastery. Suddenly, he moved quickly and explained that mass will stop for only 30 minutes in the altar of the famous Black Virgin Icon, so we must hurry to take pictures.

The Black Madonna is one of the most famous in the world and although scientists love to destroy the romance and beauty of every story we know, they did not entirely succeed here. The origins of the icon and the date of its composition are still hotly contested among scholars, according to Wikipedia. The reason being that it is painted over another after the original was destroyed in 1430 by fanatics who believed that there should be no artwork in Christianity. The same group destroyed images all over the world, even in Egypt. This specific painting was not fully destroyed as the original canvas it was painted on was believed to be holy, because it was believed to be a tablecloth from the home of the Holy Family.

And thus, Jasna G--ra Monastery in Cz_stochowa is the most famous shrine to the Virgin Mary in Poland and the country's greatest place of pilgrimage. To my astonishment, they had cleared the entire shrine for me. So I got to work quickly, taking photographs as fast as I could. I was blessed by their kindness and to be touring the shrine on my knees. The altar holds many symbolic items, the most valuable being -- other than the Icon itself -- the belt of Pope John Paul II covered with martyrs blood during the assassination attempt on his life. I also saw a large wall decorated with the crutches of people who could walk after visiting the monastery.

Just as I was finishing up, Father Jasiulewicz suggested I should stay for mass at the main Cathedral. I obliged and towards the end was surprised to see a procession of monks come in carrying the banner of St Paul with the symbols of a tree and raven, and two lions of gold. I was confused again, especially that after mass there was a recorded Coptic mass in Arabic.

Father Jasiulewicz explained: "We, as monks living and serving in monastery of Jasna G--ra since 1382, are members of the Order of St Paul the First Hermit, called Pauline Fathers. Before his death, the founder of our order, Blessed Euzebiusz of Ostrzyhom (Hungary), offered all monks the protection of Anba Bola of Thebes (because he lived in the Thebes desert). Therefore, all Pauline monks regard St Paul as their patriarch and spiritual father."

He continued, however, "our ties with Egyptian monks are very recent and some of us visited there as part of a UN mission in the Middle East. Before that, because of the political situation, such contacts between our monasteries were not possible. We knew from literature that some Christian monks lived around the Cave of St Paul in the Egyptian desert, but we never connected."

Father Jasiulewicz further added: "As a sign of friendship, we would love to offer to the monks in Egypt the relics of Anba Bola, so they can keep them in their monastery where he originally lived."

And to answer the most puzzling part of the day, that little matter of an Egyptian Coptic mass in the Cathedral, he revealed: "Once a year we celebrate the Feast of St Paul the First Hermit in all our monasteries around the world on 15 January, nine days before we have a solemn novena to St Paul. During your visit to Jasna G--ra, you were part of this service."

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