St Antonius monastery, Egypt
If we hadn’t come across a small sign at the side of the paved road, we’d probably have just gone on driving into the desert. There’s very little by way of landmarks. We had heard about a monastery from the people at the Ain Sukhna Red Sea resort. Hidden deep in the mountains, and surrounded by the Eastern desert, it sounded intriguing, and so off we went into the afternoon to see the oldest Coptic monastery in the world.
St Anthony travelled into the desert to lead the life of an ascetic. We heard that he gave away his wealth and began to practice monasticism in the desert, living in a cave. He gathered followers who lived with him in the desert. After his death, they established the monastery in 4 AD.
Driving up to the gates of the Coptic monastery, we realized it was more of a village. There’s a mill, a bakery, and five churches. Made of sandstone, surrounded by the Wadi Arabah mountain range, the setting is stunning.
From the dark interiors of a chapel, a bearded monk with an aromatic swinging censer appeared. He spoke about the underground springs supplying fresh cool water to the monastery throughout its existence. Outside the sun raged in a gunmetal sky, yet inside, there was welcome coolness. We entered the chapel after taking off our shoes, gazing at the carvings and sculptures of the saints, and knights. The oldest paintings were dated to the 7th and 8th centuries! It’s impossible to not be moved as you look upon the wooden ceiling where the beams let in slanting rays of sunlight. To think that here, a band of monks and ascetics battled forces both within, and without.
Archway leading further inward
The monastery, we were told, was attacked many times by desert marauders. Thus the fortress-like feel. The Father pointed out a drawbridge used to protect the monks when the Bedouins attacked.
Roaming the grounds, we saw palm trees standing sentinel-like, and an olive grove where the monks harvest fruit. The Father showed us a library where earlier monks had translated theological works into Arabic. The monastery was renowned for this library during the 12-15th centuries.
The garden where the monks grow food
Today it is a working monastery, with many monks living in the quarters. Two major pillars of the lives of the monks are prayer and work. Living in a communal setting, they engage in activities like gardening, construction work and researching in the library.
Despite it being a busy day, with lots of tourists/pilgrims, an inexplicable air of calm pervades the monastery. About two kilometers away is the cave where St Anthony lived. We’d have to climb 1200 steps to reach it, and though the idea was tempting, we declined the offer.
Tips for visiting
So here’s what you need to remember:
- The monastery is open 9-5 every day, except during Christmas and Lent
- Please cover your head, shoulders and legs
- Getting there is easily arranged with tour guides from Cairo
- It is possible to drive in from Hurghada as well
- There’s no charge, but you can leave a donation