St Anthony Monastery
St Anthony Monastery; The Coptic monasteries of St Anthony and St Paul are among the holiest locations in the Coptic religion and Egypt‘s and Christianity’s oldest monasteries.
The creation of St Anthony’s religious community, concealed among the desolate rocks of the Eastern Desert, marks the beginning of the Christian monastic tradition.
Both monasteries are interesting and inspirational places to visit if you’re interested in Egypt’s long Christian history, and the surrounding desert environment is just magnificent.
St. Anthony is known as the “Father of Monasticism.”
Although St Paul is regarded as the first Christian hermit, St Anthony is regarded as the Father of Monasticism. Anthony was born in the year 251 as the son of a provincial landowner from a tiny Upper Egyptian village near Beni Suef.
At the age of 18, orphaned with his sister, he was already more interested in the spiritual than the worldly, and he quickly handed up his portion of the fortune to the needy. Anthony travelled into the Eastern Desert after studying with a local holy man, living in a cave and seeking isolation and spiritual redemption.
However, news of his sanctity quickly spread, and hordes of followers flocked to adopt his austere lifestyle. Anthony returned to the desert after a short stint in Alexandria ministering to Christians imprisoned by Emperor Maximinus Daia in the early fourth century.
He was chased once again by enthusiastic followers, but he managed to retreat even farther into the desert in quest of solitude. However, after settling in a cave on a secluded mountain, his followers created a loose community at its foot, and so the first Christian monastery was founded.
Anthony’s disciples multiplied swiftly, and within a few decades after his death, practically every town in Egypt was encircled by hermitages. Soon after, the whole Byzantine Empire was engulfed in a monastic zeal that had swept over Italy and France by the following century.
It’s strange that, despite his power, Anthony spent his life trying to get away from people. When he died at the elderly age of 105, his one and only yearning for seclusion was eventually granted, and the site of his tomb became a well kept secret.
St. Anthony’s Monastery Facts
The closest village to the Red Sea monasteries is ZA’FARANA, some 30 kilometers south of Ain Sukhna. A broad valley cuts through the Galala Plateau west of here, setting the route on track towards the Nile, which is 168 kilometers distant.
Wadi Arraba takes its name from the carts that previously transported food to the monastery, however tradition relates it to the pharaoh’s chariots that chased the Israelites across the Red Sea.
Traveling 33 kilometers down this road leads to a turn-off to the south, from where a stunning ridge of cliffs known as Mount Qalah may be seen in the distance, with the Monastery of St Anthony located underneath.
The history of this ancient monastery dates back to the 4th century AD, when monks started to settle at the foot of Gebel al-Galala al-Qibliya, where their spiritual leader, Anthony, dwelt.
The monastery was built soon after Anthony’s death in 356, however its early history is only known through a trip by St John the Short.
During the sixth century, an inflow of fugitive monks from Wadi Natrun monasteries occurred, followed by a flood of Melkite monks in the seventh.
Within the monastery
The monastery is effectively a self-contained village, complete with lanes of two-story dwellings, churches, mills, and gardens of vines, olives, and palms, surrounded by lofty walls with an interior catwalk – despite the fact that the majority of the buildings themselves are relatively new in comparison to the monastery’s foundation.
A monk who speaks English will give you a tour of the monastery, while certain parts are off-limits. The keep, a soot-blackened bakery, and a library with over 1700 manuscripts are among the highlights.
The oldest of the five chapels is dedicated to the monastery’s namesake, who is perhaps buried underneath it.
Don’t miss the wall paintings, some of which date back to the seventh century and have been beautifully preserved.
Monks perform the liturgy at the twelve-domed Church of St Luke, which dates from 1776, during Lent (when the gates are sealed and deliveries are winched over the walls).
A tiny museum chronicles the monastery’s history, and a well-stocked bookstore is located next door.
The community is still reliant on water from the monastery’s spring, where, according to Arab mythology, Miriam, Moses’ sister, washed during the Exodus.
The Cave of St. Anthony
Early morning or late afternoon is the optimum time to visit St Anthony’s Cave (maghara), which is 2 kilometers from – and 276 meters above – the monastery (bring water).
After passing a St. Anthony sculpture cut into the mountain rock, you’ll confront 1200 stairs (a 45-minute trek) up to the cave, but the spectacular views from 680m above the Red Sea will be worth the effort.
Wadis and massifs in technicolour cascade into the blue gulf, with Sinai‘s highlands towering beyond.
The cave where Anthony lived his last 25 years is covered with mediaeval graffiti as well as contemporary tilbas, pieces of paper with supplications imprinted with “Remember, Lord, your servant,” which travellers press into gaps in the rock.
Birdlife abounds, including hoopoes, desert larks, ravens, blue rock thrushes, and pied wagtails, and you may see some timid gazelles.