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Ever Since A.D. 270, the Need to Get Away From It All

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  • Bill Samsonoff
    2005.09.28 NYT: September 28, 2005 Ever Since A.D. 270, the Need to Get Away From It All By MICHAEL SLACKMAN ZAFARANA, Egypt - Men have retreated to the desert
    Message 1 of 1 , Oct 2, 2005
      2005.09.28 NYT:

      September 28, 2005

      Ever Since A.D. 270, the Need to Get Away From It All


      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.

      The Rev. Maximous Elantony was one of those men 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 Father 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
      monastic 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," Father Maximous said during a recent tour of the unearthed
      cells. "We only want to be busy with God, to hear God, to see God."

      Father Maximous is a Coptic monk who for 27 years has made his home
      inside the walls of St. Anthony's Monastery, a fortress of
      Christianity 100 miles southeast of Cairo that 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 further 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, two tall towers rising up from the
      sand, 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
      where water emerges from the desert floor.

      And so the men who sought to live like St. Anthony built cells in the
      ravines of a craggy, bare mountain with all they needed to survive,
      and with quiet. They made their cells of bricks and plaster, durable
      but lost over the years, buried beneath Apostle Church.

      Father 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 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

      So they kept digging, pulling away flooring and stone until they
      uncovered the foundation of an 8th-century church 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. Father Maximous tried to take the
      stone out of the ground, but it would not budge. So they kept digging.

      "This was a complete surprise," Father Maximous said pointing at the
      monastic cells.

      In the corner of one is a brick stove that was used for cooking.
      Another was used for prayer. 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.

      Exploring the past tends to inspire reflection on the present, and as
      Father Maximous spoke about the 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.
      Today it 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, adding that today's monks are
      nevertheless a different breed.

      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 with no gate at all, 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. So
      starting three years ago, all tourists were required to leave by 6

      Even now, Father Maximous is happy to show off the monastery's
      historic sites, but will not show 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 tourists that they take
      food and head into the mountains to spend the day in a cave,
      returning only after the crowds have left.

      Still, Father Maximous has a plan for Apostle Church that is certain
      to attract even more tourists. He wants to restore the monastic
      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 monastic life.

      "We are trying to find a balance between our spiritual life," he
      said, "and the needs of the people."

      Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
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