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The Foundations of Monasticism

Egypt is regarded by many Christians, regardless of denomination, as the home of Christian monasticism, and it is very easy to see why. The sheer number of Christian monasteries scattered about the East is astounding, from the 300 that were in Constantinople alone to the isolated Saint Catherine's at Mount Sinai. Yet it was Egypt that was seen as the heart of the monastic idea.

Christian monasticism emerged as a genuine movement during the early fourth century, but the spirit of monasticism was already present in Christianity with its ideas of asceticism and moderation. For the Christian East, the monk was by definition a solitary role, and there have been more Christian hermits in this area than in any other in the world.

It is Saint Anthony of Egypt who is credited with the founding of monasticism, along with his fellow countryman Saint Pachomius. Yet even they were only expanding on an idea that had already existed. Yet Anthony still deserves the praise due to him, for his true innovation was to move the monastic community away from the distractions of society and the city and into the wilderness, which he did, founding his first hermitage in AD 305.

Unlike monasteries in the West, the monasteries of Egypt and the surrounding area had no centralized orders, rather, each one was an autonomous unit. Many of the early monasteries in the East were founded and maintained by the rulers and nobility, others by groups of the citizenry wishing to have prayers said for themselves and their families. The size of the monasteries also varied greatly. Some were highly organized enterprises, owning large amounts of land and commercial interests, while others were hermitages of only three or four members. After Saint Anthony, there were two basic types of monasticism in Egypt, and later on, the world. There was the eremetical, or hermit, style and the cenobitic, monasteries in which the residents led a communal life.

These Egyptian ascetics each lived very similar lives to the others of their type. They took vows of chastity and poverty, and if part of a monastic community, obedience to the abbot. They practiced long and frequent fasts, some abstained from alcohol and meat, and they supported themselves by doing services for the lay people nearby, such as helping with labor or the selling of some small handicrafts. The largest monasteries were often self-sufficient, owning farms and herds, as well as making everything they needed, from the clothes they wore to the bread that was on their table. If they did make any money for anything they did, they kept only what they needed to subsist and gave the rest to the poor. While crowds of the poor often joined monasteries (vows of poverty being nothing new to them, and at least they would have food, clothing, and shelter), later on many of the upper class joined as Christianity spread across class and caste. Quite a number of the latter were educated and were employed by the Church in various intellectual occupations such as catechists, clerks and doctors. From the very beginning, the early Christian Church had a place and a task for everyone.

St Catherine Monastery and Mount Sinai
Venerated by Christians, Jews and Muslims as the site of the God’s revelation of the Ten Commandments, Mount Sinai, 5012 feet high above sea level , overlooks the valley where Moses have heard the Lord speaking from a burning bush.

The bush is now enshrined in St Catherine’s Monastery, nestling in a valley at the foot of the Mount, surrounded by high walls and lush gardens.

The visitors are keen on climbing the mountain to watch sunrise.

The Monastery of St Catherine is a Greek Orthodox foundation. Its origins date back to 337 AD, when the Byzantine Empress Helena ordered the construction of a chapel around the putative Burning Bush, already a focus for hermits and pilgrimages.

The monastery was named after St Catherine “the daughter of Kistery” who has tortured to death by her father for she succeeded in converting 50 of his followers to Christianity in 307 AD.

We enter through a small gate in the northern wall near Kleber's Tower (named after Napoleonic general who ordered its reconstruction) rather than the main portal facing west, which has a funnel for pouring boiling oil onto attackers. Built of granite, 10-15m high and 2-3m thick, St Catherine's walls are essentially unchanged since Stephanos Ailisios designed them in the sixth century.

Emerging from the passage, a right turn takes us past Moses's Well, where the then-fugitive from Egypt met Zipporah, one of Jethro's seven daughters, whom he married at the age of forty. Walking the other way and around the corner, you will see a thorny evergreen bush outgrowing an enclosure. This is the transplanted descendant of the Burning Bush Whence God Spoke to Moses: "Come now therefore, and I will send thee unto Pharaoh, that thou mayest bring forth my people the children of Israel out of Egypt" (Exodus 3:10) . Sceptics may be swayed by the news that it's the only bush of its kind in the entire peninsula, and that all attempts to grow cuttings from it elsewhere have failed. The Bush was moved to its present site when Helena's chapel was built over its roots, behind the apse of the Church of St Catherine.

A granite basilica, St Catherine's Church was erected by Justinian between 542 and 551; the walls and pillars – representing the months of the year and hung with icons of the saints venerated during each one – have ornately carved capitals, loaded with symbolism. At the far end, a lavishly carved and gilded iconostasis rises towards a superb mosaic depicting Jesus flanked by Moses and Elijah, with Peter, John and James kneeling below – unfortunately it's roped off and hard to see behind the ornate chandeliers and censers suspended from the coffered, eighteenth – century ceiling. Behind the iconostasis is the Chapel of the Burning Bush, only viewable by special dispensation. The narthex displays a selection of the monastery's vast collection of icons, running the gamut of Byzantine styles and techniques, from encaustic wax to tempera. The church's bell is rung 33 times to rouse the monks before dawn.

Other parts of the monastery are often closed to laypersons. Amongst them are an eleventh – century mosque, added to placate Muslim rulers; a library of over 3000 manuscripts and 5000 books in various languages , surpassed only by the Vatican's; and a refectory with Gothic arches and Byzantine murals.

The monastery of Saint Anthony
Saint Anthony is often called "the Father of the Monks". He is credited with the founding of Christian monasticism, and many of his ideas are still used to this day by modern monks and nuns. Most of what we know about Anthony comes from the writings of Saint Athanasius the Apostolic, a disciple and close friend of Anthony's. Anthony was born about AD 251 and was the son of a well-to-do family from middle Egypt. When he was eighteen his parents died, leaving him sole guardian of his younger sister Dious. Six months later, while attending a church, he heard the scripture passage of Jesus and the rich young man, in which Jesus says, "If you would be perfect, go, sell all you have, give to the poor, and follow me (Matt. 19:21)." He took this as a personal invitation from God and sold most of his inherited property, gave much of the money to the poor and the rest to his sister and placed his sister in the care of a community of holy women. He sought guidance from a holy man near Coma in the ways of the Christian ascetic: prayer, fasting, and holiness. After a time of study, Saint Anthony left on his own and began living in the manner of a mountain hermit, living in a cave and praying for the salvation of the world. At the age of thirty-five, he moved to Pispir and remained there in solitude for twenty years. During that time, many came to live near him and copy his holy life. He became their spiritual leader, teaching them by word and by example the life of the ascetic. Anthony also taught them to perform manual labor between prayer times as an additional contribution to society.

When the persecutions began again against the Christians in Egypt at the hands of Maximinus Daia in the early 300s, he went to Alexandria and ministered to those in prison. After the persecutions ended, he returned to his life of solitude. He returned to Alexandria once more to support Pope Athanasius against the Arian Heresy in 352, and many came to see the aged holy man as he walked through the city, but he returned to his desert soon after, society no longer having any hold on him. Contrary to popular belief, Anthony founded no formal monastery and his Rule was simply work and prayer. Anthony also designed the first monastic uniform, an all-purpose robe of white linen fastened about the waist with a sturdy leather belt. This has become the basic pattern for monastic garb all over the world and in all times since. Many came to Saint Anthony for advice, spiritual help, and healing. Saint Anthony died in 356 at the age of one hundred and five and was buried secretly by Macarius and Amatas, two of his most loyal monks.

St. Anthony's Monastery (Deir Mar Antonios), and its neighbor St. Paul's, are the oldest monasteries founded in the Egyptian desert . 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.

St. Anthony's was founded in 356 AD, just after the saints death. Between the 12th and 15th centuries, the monastery flourished but was plundered in 1454 by Bedouin servants. Today it is a self-contained village with gardens, a mill, a bakery and five churches with exceptional wall paintings of holy knights in3 bright colors and the hermit founders of the monastery in subdued colors and icons. 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. Anthony'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.

The monastery of Saint Paul
The monastery of St Paul has always been overshadowed by St Anthony’s. Its titular founder was only sixteen when he fled Alexandria to escape Emperor Decius’s persecutions, making him the earliest known hermit. Shortly before his death in 348, Paul was visited by Anthony and begged him to bring the rope 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 cave 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 also Deir Anba Bula , 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 the 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.

The monastery is smaller than that of St Anthony and a little more primitive-looking. In its main church of St Paul, the murals, too, are less fluid – though better preserved. 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 seventy-old monks and their guests, so water is brought in from outside.

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