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