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The Monastery of Saint Antony the Great

Born in the Upper Egypt town of Coma near Heracleopolis in the year 251 A.D, St. Antony the Great, when orphaned at the age of 18, became a hermit and thus lived to 105 years old. He lived as an Anchorite, as still exists in Egypt, and it is said that he was tormented his entire life by flatteries and temptations of the devil. He, along with St. Pachomius, were two of the first exponents of Christian monasticism, which originated in the Egyptian desert. He is buried beneath one of the ancient churches (St. Antony) of the monastery. A book written by Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria, thousands across Europe to follow in the hermit’s footsteps.

St. Antony’s Monastery (Deir Mar Antonios), and its neighbor St. Paul’s, are both Coptic Christian and are the oldest inhabited monasteries in Egypt. Hidden deep in the Red Sea Mountains and relying on springs for their water supply, both still observe rituals that have hardly changed in 16 centuries. They are accessible by special tours from Cairo, Suez or Hurghada and a stay in either monastery can be arranged in advance.

St. Antony’s Monastery, which lies at the foot of Al-Qalzam Mountain near Al Zaafarana, was founded in 356 ad just after the saints death and is the oldest active monastery in the world.. We do know that St. Antony founded several monasteries during his life (though they would not have been recognizable in the modern use of the term), but alas they are no more. We know little of the monastery’s very early period. However, during the sixth and seventh centuries many monks from Wadi Natroun who were under frequent attacks by Bedouins migrated to St. Antony’s. But this monastery was plundered on many occasions also, being partly destroyed in the 11th century. Between the 12th and 15th centuries, the monastery flourished but was plundered again in 1454 by Bedouin servants. Due to such attacks, this is a fortress style monastery. Though Coptic today, over its many years the monastery was often multi-faith, housing monks of several different Christian religions.

Today it is a self-contained village with gardens, a mill, a bakery and five churches, the best of which is St. Antony’s Church. Egypt monasteries are experiencing a revival, and the monk population of St. Antony’s has grown considerably in recent years.

The Monastery has exceptional wall paintings of holy knights in bright colors and the hermit founders of the monastery in subdued colors and icons. These wall paintings, widely know to monks and art historians, were obscured by soot, candle grease, oil and dust, but recently, in a collaborated effort between the Supreme Council of Antiquities and the American Research Center in Egypt, these unique painting were restored. One set of the paintings is attributed to a team lead by a Coptic master named Theodore, while the other appears to be done by team with Byzantine influence. The oldest paintings date to the seventh and eighth centuries, while the newest are from the thirteenth century. In addition to the paintings, woodwork inside At. Antony’s Church was also restored.

There is also a library with over 1,700 handwritten manuscripts, but the Bedouin servants who plundered the monastery used many manuscripts for cooking fuel. At one time, there must have been a much more extensive library.

St. Antony’s Cave (magharah), where he lived as a hermit, is a 2 km hike from the monastery and 680 m. above the Red Sea. It offers stunning views of the mountains and the sea, and the chance to see a wide range of bird life. 

Posted by Fr. Moses Samaan

April 9, 2009