Sunday,22 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1237, (12 - 18 March 2015 )
Sunday,22 July, 2018
Issue 1237, (12 - 18 March 2015 )

Ahram Weekly

Freedom in isolation

For the monks, a life in the desert isolates the heart and removes temptations affecting hearing, speech and sight. Stefan Weichert explores Saint Anthony, the world’s oldest functioning monastery in the Red Sea

Al-Ahram Weekly

With every step, every footprint, with every millimetre that brings you just a little bit closer to Saint Anthony Monastery, the feeling of being a tiny, insignificant person in an enormous world increases.

A 20-metre-high wall, built between the fifth and sixth century, surrounds the world’s oldest functioning monastery and makes it look like a fortress in the middle of the desert with nothing else for miles away. Today, visitors are welcomed through a small metal door, but it wasn’t always like that as threats from raiders made the monks cautious. They left the gate closed, allowing in only people they knew and supplies delievered by rope.

Inside the two-kilometre-long walls, everything seems most welcoming, and the breathtaking community comes alive with several churches, a garden and cells for monks to practise their religion. The silence inside is striking; only wind snatching the palm trees and sand irritating your eyes make you feel mortal.

Rising up from the sand, two tall towers pointing towards heaven with the Coptic Cross on top, are the first you will encounter in one of the bastions of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Many travellers have visited the monastery since the community was established in the fourth century and tried to describe the sight and grasp the beauty that met them.

Among them is the Armenian historian known as Abu Salih, who visited the monastery in the 13th century.

In a book entitled The Churches and Monasteries of Egypt and Some Neighbouring Countries, published in 1895, Abu Salih wrote: “This Monastery possesses many endowments and possessions at Misr (Egypt). It is surrounded by a fortified wall. It contains many monks. Within the wall there is a large garden containing fruit-filled palm trees and apple trees and pear trees and pomegranate and other trees… and it is said that the number of palms which the garden contains is about a thousand trees, and there stands in it a large, well built fortress... there is nothing like it among the other monasteries inhabited by Egyptian monks.”

FIGHTING THE DEVIL: It might seem odd to build a monastery out in the desert, 160 kilometres southwest of Cairo next to the Red Sea mountains, but it was obviously done because of the life of Saint Anthony who many consider the “Father of Monasticism”.

Saint Anthony was orphaned at the age of 18 and became inspired by the words of the Gospel: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven.” He followed the example and gave his possessions to the people who needed it the most, then sought a life in solitude with God.

Later in his life, Saint Anthony ventured into the wilderness to seek isolation. He found a natural cave, close to where Saint Anthony Monastery was built, which he made his home for the last 43 years of his long 105-year-life. Being in the desert, Saint Anthony fought with boredom and sinful thoughts, which made him ask God what he could do to get rid of them. In the image of a worker, God told him to follow the workers’ example – work, pray, work and pray.

Saint Anthony once said: “I saw the traps the Devil puts all over the world and I said to myself sadly, ‘What can one do to pass through these traps?’ and I heard a voice saying, ‘Humility is the way.”’

A monastic community developed after Saint Anthony’s death during the reign of Julian the Apostate in memory of their spiritual father who taught them that being in the desert would free them from three temptations: hearing, speech and sight; allowing only their heart to remain effected.

In the beginning, monks lived in caves separated from each other, but as more monks arrived in the area, they started to live closer, then built Saint Anthony Monastery in 356 AD, as we know it today. They lived completely self-sufficiently, which drew interest from raiders that attacked the monastery multiple times throughout the years to get access to the monks’ resources.

To remain protected, the monks built a fortress inside the walls to retreat in case of an attack. Only one entrance leads into the 15-metre-high, closed, sandstone built fortress. Monks would flee to safety by crossing a drawbridge from another building, by that way removing the only accessible way in.

Inside, the monks would have everything to survive for days such as water that came from a tunnel leading to a spring from the surrounding mountains. It created the foundation for a monk’s life in the desert. They believe it is a spiritual oasis and evidence of God´s care for his people.

LIFE OF THE MONKS: Tourists from all over the world are a normal sight in Saint Anthony Monastery today. They walk around in the narrow streets, some speaking Arabic, some English and others German, but all fascinated by the creations of men. Monks operate as tour guides and proudly speak of their life today and how it was in the past.

As their spiritual father lived his life, the life of the Saint Anthony Monastery monks consists of prayer and manual labour. Hard work is important for the monks to stay self-sufficient and to protect them from monotony. Manual labour today takes the form of work in the garden, the kitchen, bakery, workshops, construction or research in the library, and the making of handicraft. It was obviously different in the old days.

Furthermore, explains a monk at the monastery, life within has not been cut off from modernisation as it was prior to the 20th century, when travelling to the high walls took three to four days by camelback. Tourism has created a gift shop, and as one of the monks showed us around, his cell phone starts ringing. He apologises with a smile and quickly returns to his task. In addition, requests by younger monks for modernisation have created the need for the Internet and more modern toilets.

It’s not to the liking of all the monks, and the monastery tries to find a balance between the spiritual life and the needs of the people.

To avoid the daily tourist and the selfies, and the noise and questions that come with them, some monks leave during visiting hours to the mountains or inside their cells to be able to practise their ancient rituals, then return after tourist have left.  

Some monks take refuge in the old library where about 1,700 handwritten manuscripts are kept. The library had more handwritten manuscripts before the 15th century, but an attack by raiders resulted in burned manuscripts and a damaged monastery, one of many dark periods in the monastery’s history.

Most of these attacks came from raiders who penetrated the monastery’s defence installations, but not many monks had predicted the real danger rising from inside the monastery itself. Their servants, the Bedouins, attacked and killed all the monks, destroying the monastery and its library in the 15th century.

Obviously, the monastery was eventually rebuilt, but with the arrival of the new millennium, it needed renewed work. After eight years, the $14.5 million restoration work was completed in 2010. It made the monastery appear spotless for tourists to see while giving them a unique peak into the Coptic Orthodox religion and the life of the monks.

It reminds people of a time when self-sufficiency was necessary to survive and lives were valuable.

The restoration work was carried out on an ancient wall, a tower, two main churches and the monks’ quarters.

How to get there

Saint Anthony Monastery is located about 300 kilometres from Cairo, around a three-and-a-half-hour drive. Ain Sokhna is about 85 kilometres away, so you can take the scenic coastal road to Zaafarana from there. When you reach the lighthouse station in Zaafarana, a sign-posted turn showing the direction towards the monastery will appear.

Visiting times are between 4am and 4.45pm. The Divine Liturgy is celebrated daily in the monastery´s churches from 6am to 8am.

To be allowed to enter the monastery grounds, people are required to wear modest clothing. Furthermore, visitors are encouraged to be quiet. No smoking is allowed.

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