Secreted amid the arid Red Sea Hills, Egypt’s two oldest monasteries – dedicated to St Paul and St Anthony – trace their origins back to the infancy of Christian monasticism, observing rituals that have scarcely changed over sixteen centuries. You don’t have to be religious to appreciate their tranquil atmosphere and imposing setting, however, and there’s also scope for birdwatching in the vicinity.
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The Monastery of St Anthony
The Monastery of St Anthony
Around 30km south of Ain Sukhna, the fly-bitten town of ZA’FARANA is the nearest settlement to the Red Sea monasteries. West from here, a wide valley cleaves the Galala Plateau and sets the road on course for the Nile, 168km away. Called Wadi Arraba, its name derives from the carts that once delivered provisions to the monastery, though legend attributes it to the pharaoh’s chariots that pursued the Israelites towards the Red Sea.
Travelling for 33km along this road brings you to a turn-off to the south, from where a dramatic ridge of cliffs known as Mount Qalah can be seen in the distance, with the Monastery of St Anthony situated beneath. The monastery was founded shortly after Anthony’s death in 356, although a sojourn by St John the Short is all that’s recorded of its early history. An influx of refugee monks from the monasteries at Wadi Natrun occurred during the sixth century, followed by a wave of Melkite monks in the seventh. Subsequently pillaged by Bedouin and razed to the ground, the monastery was restored during the twelfth century by Coptic monks, from whose ranks several Ethiopian bishops were elected. After a murderous revolt by the monastery servants, it was reoccupied by Coptic, Syrian and Ethiopian monks.
The permanent brethren who now live at the monastery are university graduates and ex-professionals – not unlike the kind of people drawn to monasticism in the fourth century AD. A typical day at the monastery begins at 4am, with two hours of prayer and hymns followed by communion and Mass, all before breakfast.
Inside the monastery
The monastery is effectively a self-contained village complete with lanes of two-storey dwellings, churches, mills and gardens of vines, olives and palms, surrounded by lofty walls with an interior catwalk – although most of the buildings themselves are recent compared to the monastery’s foundation. An English-speaking monk will give you a partial tour of the monastery, though some areas are off-limits. Highlights include the keep, a soot-blackened bakery and a library of over 1700 manuscripts.
The oldest of the five churches is dedicated to the monastery’s namesake, who may be buried underneath it. Don’t miss the wall paintings, some of which date from the seventh century and have been restored to their former glory. During Lent (when the gates are locked and deliveries are winched over the walls) monks celebrate the liturgy in the twelve-domed Church of St Luke, dating from 1776. A small museum details the monastery’s history; next door is a well-stocked bookshop. The community remains dependent on water from the monastery’s spring, where Arab legend has it that Miriam, sister of Moses, bathed during the Exodus.
St Anthony’s Cave
Early morning or late afternoon is the best time to go up to St Anthony’s Cave (maghara), 2km from – and 276m above – the monastery (bring water). After passing a sculpture of St Anthony carved into the mountain rock, you’ll face 1200 steps (a 45min walk) up to the cave, but the stunning views from 680m above the Red Sea reward your effort. Technicolour wadis and massifs spill down into the azure gulf, with Sinai’s mountains rising beyond. The cave where Anthony spent his last 25 years contains medieval graffiti and modern tilbas, scraps of paper bearing supplications inscribed with “Remember, Lord, your servant”, which pilgrims stick into cracks in the rock. Birdlife – hoopoes, desert larks, ravens, blue rock thrushes and pied wagtails – is surprisingly abundant, and you might glimpse some shy gazelles.
The Monastery of St Paul
The Monastery of St Paul
The Monastery of St Paul has always been overshadowed by St Anthony’s. Its titular founder (not to be confused with the apostle Paul) was only 16 and an orphan when he fled Alexandria to escape Emperor Decius’ persecutions, making him the earliest known hermit. Shortly before his death in 348, Paul was visited by Anthony. Paul begged him to bring the robe of Pope Athanasius, for Paul to be buried in. Anthony departed to fetch this, but on the way back had a vision of Paul’s soul being carried up to heaven by angels, and arrived to find him dead. While Anthony was wondering what to do, two lions appeared and dug a grave for the body, so Anthony shrouded it in the robe and took Paul’s tunic of palm leaves as a gift for the pope, who subsequently wore it at Christmas, Epiphany and Easter.
The monastery (called Deir Amba Bula or Deir Mari Bolus) was a form of posthumous homage by Paul’s followers: its turreted walls are built around the cave where he lived for decades. To a large extent, its fortunes have followed those of its more prestigious neighbour. In 1484 all its monks were slain by Bedouin, who occupied St Paul’s for eighty years. Rebuilt by Patriarch Gabriel VII, it was again destroyed near the end of the sixteenth century.
Inside the monastery complex
The monastery complex is much smaller than St Anthony’s and a little more primitive looking. It boasts four churches, but the Church of St Paul is its spiritual centre, a cave-church housing the remains of the saint. The church walls are painted with murals generally thought inferior to those of St Anthony’s, though they have been well preserved. A monk will show you round the chapels and identify their icons: notice the angel of the furnace with Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and the ostrich eggs hung from the ceiling – a symbol of the Resurrection. The southern sanctuary of the larger Church of St Michael contains a gilded icon of the head of John the Baptist on a dish. When Bedouin raided the monastery, its monks retreated into the five-storey keep, supplied with spring water by a hidden canal. Nowadays this is not enough to sustain the monks and their guests, so water is brought in from outside.