In Egyptian desert, cells of earliest monks
In Egyptian desert, cells of earliest monks
By Michael Slackman
SEPTEMBER 29, 2005
ZAFARANA, Egypt Men have retreated to the desert for centuries in search of God, drawn by the quiet and the isolation, by a feeling of divine presence in the barren landscape, in the sand, the wind and the sun.
Maximous Elantony, a Coptic monk, knew that. He too was drawn to the desert in search of a relationship with God. But he could hardly believe it when he recently helped to discover some of the earliest physical evidence of Christians who made that quest as well.
Follow Maximous inside the 15th-century Apostle Church in the desert near the Red Sea and see history in the torn up floor. Frozen in time, hidden for hundreds of years beneath one church, and then another, are what Egyptian antiquity officials say are the oldest monk cells ever discovered, dating to the fourth century. They are so well preserved it is as if someone just lifted off the roof.
"When you live in a quiet place, like a cell, and you are not busy with anything but God, you start to hear yourself and to see yourself," Maximous said during a recent tour of the unearthed cells. "We only want to be busy with God, to hear God, to see God."
Maximous has lived for 27 years inside the walls of St. Anthony's Monastery, an outpost of Christianity 160 kilometers, or 100 miles, southwest of Cairo. It is generally considered the birthplace of Christian monastic life.
During the third century there were Christians who sought piety through abstention and self-denial. But St. Anthony is credited with taking those practices a step farther when he went to live in a cave in the mountains of the desert, not far from the monastery that bears his name, around the year 270.
The monastery is breathtaking, rising up from the sand, two tall towers, each topped with the Coptic cross, dotted with churches and cells for 110 monks.
But it is the green that is so striking, the green that historians say drew Anthony, the green palm trees that signal the presence of water. It is easy to feel a divine spirit when water suddenly rises from the desert floor.
And so the men who sought to live like Anthony built cells in the ravines of a craggy, bare mountain, with all they needed to survive, and quiet.
They made their cells of bricks and plaster, durable but lost over the years, buried beneath Apostle Church.
Maximous is deeply interested in the past and is busy working with crews that have dug and scratched away at layers in every corner of the monastery. He said he knew that his predecessors used to build basins into the floor of their churches for what he called a "water mass." So he began looking.
Working with contractors, and with the help of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, he found one basin, and then, mysteriously, a second.
The second was a bit deeper down than the first, and in the wrong position to have been part of Apostle Church. "The direction of this one, could not be for this church," he said pointing at the second basin.
So they kept digging, pulling away flooring and stone until they found the foundation of an 8th-century church, the entire foundation beneath the floor of the 15th-century church.
So they kept digging, and beneath that found a stone with a Coptic inscription: "Forgive me, Savior. Forgive me, Lord," is roughly what it said. Maximous tried to take the stone out of the ground, but it would not budge. So they kept digging.
"This was a complete surprise," Maximous said, pointing at the monk cells, which, he said, date to the fourth century. In the corner of one there was a brick stove used for cooking. Another was a room for praying. The cells told a story of monks who lived together, with several people in one cell. There was also a basin that was used to soak palm fronds, which they used for weaving things like mats and baskets.
The of discovery of something valuable can, at times, bring out qualities more human than divine and that is the case here as well.
"He's claiming he discovered it," said Hassan Muhammad Soliman, director of the Red Sea district for the Supreme Council of Antiquities, who accompanied Maximous on the tour. "We discovered it when we were renovating."
The monk smiled through a bushy beard and dismissed Soliman as a government bureaucrat. "We are in a big fight with the inspectors," he said of Soliman. "They don't like this kind of work."
Exploring the past also tends to inspire reflection of the present, and as Maximous spoke about the that cells he helped find he commented on how much life has changed for Coptic monks in Egypt.
The struggle back then was to avoid being killed by Bedouins roaming the desert. The struggle today is to hold onto the solitude that drew the monks here in the first place.
"To be a monk is to let yourself free of everything, to connect yourself only with God," he said.
"When society changed, they changed, too," he said of those who today become monks.
He said the younger monks wanted access to e-mail, and he himself carries a fancy cellphone.
They want suitable toilets, too. "Those are for modern monks," he said, a bit condescendingly as he pointed to newer housing on the monastery grounds.
But they also get tourists and pilgrims, busloads in the summer, who traipse through the monastery, taking pictures, making noise. The monastery, once sealed shut, is now open for tours daily, and monks are the tour guides.
For a time, tourists were allowed to spend the night, but that was a bit much for the monks at St. Anthony's. So starting three years ago, all tourists were required to leave by 6 p.m. Even now, Maximous is happy to show off the monastery's historic sites but that does not include the cells the monks are actually living in.
He appears reluctant to take visitors into the library, where there are 2,300 ancient manuscripts, and steps in only after banging repeatedly on the door so that anyone who wishes to can hide or leave.
Some of the older monks are so put off by the change in their environment that they take food and head into the mountains, to spend the day in a cave, only to return after the tourists have left.
Still, Maximous has a plan for Apostle Church that is certain to attract even more tourists.
He wants to restore the monk cells, then cover then over with a glass floor so the church may once again be used for prayer without burying the historic evidence of early monk life in the desert.
"We are trying to find a balance between our spiritual life," Maximous said, "and the needs of the people."
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