The Monastery of Saint Anthony was established by the followers of Saint Anthony, who was the first Christian monk. The Monastery of St. Anthony is one of the most prominent monasteries in Egypt and has strongly influenced the formation of several Coptic institutions and has promoted monasticism in general. Several patriarchs have come from the monastery, and several hundred pilgrims visit it each day.
Location of Monastery of Saint Anthony
The Monastery of Saint Anthony is a Coptic Orthodox monastery standing in an oasis in the Eastern Desert of Egypt, to the southern part of the Suez Governorate. This monastery lies in the Al-Jalalah Al-Qibli mountain range in the Eastern Desert along the Red Sea, about 48 km before Al-Zafarana, and between the foot of Mount Al-Qalzam. Hidden deep in the Red Sea Mountains lies 334 km (208 mi) southeast Cairo, Ras Gharib, Red Sea Governorate.
Life of Saint Anthony
Saint Anthony is a Christian saint born to a wealthy family in Lower Egypt around 251 AD. He was orphaned at the age of eight years. Most of his knowledge comes from Athanasius of Alexandria’s biographical work, Vita Antonii. This biography depicts Anthony as an illiterate and holy man who received an absolute connection to divine truth through his existence in a primordial landscape.
St. Anthony dedicated his life to God and the church due to Saint Mark’s words, “give up all of his belongings and seek God”. Therefore, at 34 years old, Anthony gave away all of his property and worldly possessions. Then, he ventured into the Eastern Desert to pursue a life of humility, solitude, and spiritual reflection. Indeed, Saint Anthony accepted the words he heard literally. Consequently, it caused him to venture into the desert to live a life of asceticism. Therefore, Saint Anthony made his abode in a small cave where Saint Anthony lived ascetically. Although St. Anthony was not the only monk, he attracted many followers and disciples. However, he became one of the fathers of modern Christian monasticism.
Isolation was a necessity. A few years after the death of Saint Anthony, his followers settled around the place where the hermit lived. The Monastery of Saint Anthony was built between 298–300 during Constantius Chlorus. In the original settlement, his followers established only the most important buildings. They lived in solitary cells surrounding a communal worship centre where they performed the Divine Liturgy. They took their daily meals in a basic refectory. As time passed, the focus on asceticism diminished, and Saint Anthony’s followers developed closer relationships to foster safety, convenience, and mutual fellowship. The life of an Antonian monk thus slowly evolved from one of solitary asceticism to one that allowed a communal way of living.
The area of the Monastery of Anba Antonios
The monastery’s area is 18 acres. It also possesses approximately 350 acres, which belong to the holiest and oldest monasteries in the world. With the passage of saints’ emperors in Coptic Orthodox history, this monastery enjoys the Church of the Cross and the Resurrection.
The Monastery as a Refuge
In the sixth and seventh centuries, many monks from the monasteries of Scetes fled to the Monastery of Saint Anthony to escape frequent attacks by Bedouins and Berbers. During this time, the monastery experienced a constantly shifting and sometimes mutual occupation by the Coptic monks from Scetes and the Melkite monks from the east. In 615, John the Merciful, the Melkite Patriarch, sent Anastasius of Persia, the head of the Monastery of St. Anthony at that time, large sums of money and asked him to take some Melkite monks whom the Persians persecuted. These Melkite monks then continued to oversee the monastery until the late 8th century.
In 790, Coptic monks from the Monastery of Saint Macarius the Great in the Desert of Scetis disguised themselves as Bedouins to steal the earthly remains of St. John the Short, who had lived and died in the Monastery of St. Anthony in the 5th century. The Ethiopian Synaxarium describes how they deceived the Melkite monks into accomplishing this task:
They could not fulfil their mission for the moment, for the saint’s body was guarded by the Melkite Chalcedonians who dwelt in the sanctuary. Then, the judge from among the Arabs said to the Melkite bishop who sat in the monastery:
make all your men get out of the church, for I wish to enter the church myself and stay here this night.
The bishop did as the judge commanded, and the Coptic Monks made ready their beasts outside the town and entered by night, took the body, and returned to the desert of Scetis.
Peace and persecution
Although the monastery of St. Anthony enjoyed relative peace and security in its remote area, there were short periods of intense persecution. The monastery itself was plundered several times by the Bedouins of the Eastern Desert, who partly destroyed it in the 11th century. There was also a rebellion by the Kurds and the Turks. When Kurds defeated their leader Nasir al-Dawla, the remains of his army invaded and pillaged the Monastery of Saint Anthony. In addition, they looted the nearby Monastery of Saint Paul, the Anchorite. Nasir al-Dawla Abu Muhammad al-Husayn ibn Hamdan was a descendant of the Hamdanid dynasty. He became a general of the Fatimid Caliphate, ruling Egypt as a de facto dictator in 1071–1073.
Monks restored the monastery in the 12th century, and thus it flourished throughout the next few centuries. Monks built a fortress-like structure also around the sanctuary for protection from invaders. Abu al-Makarim describes the unparalleled excellence of the monastery at the beginning of the 13th century:
This monastery owns many endowments and possessions in Egypt. Many monks live inside a fortified wall surrounding it. There is a large garden within the wall with fruitful palm trees, apple trees, pear trees, pomegranates, and other trees besides beds of vegetables and three springs of perpetually flowing water. Monks use these springs to irrigate the garden and as drinking water. One hectare and a sixth in the green form a vineyard supplies all needed. The number of palms the park contains amounts to a thousand trees, and there stands a large, well-built qasr in it. There is nothing like it among the other monasteries inhabited by Egyptian monks.
Early European visitors
During the later crusades, European priests and diplomats began to tour Egypt as a part of their pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Ludolph of Suchem, a parish priest in the diocese of Paderborn, mentions his visits to the “many cells and hermitages of holy fathers,” many of which live under St. Anthony. In his “Description of the Holy Land”, he describes the miraculous fountain of St. Anthony:
In this desert, there is a place beneath an exceedingly tall and narrow rock, wherein St. Anthony used to dwell, and from exceeding rock there flows a stream for half a stone’s throw, until it is lost in the sand… this place is visited by many for devotions and pleasure, and also by the grace of God and in honour of St. Anthony many sicknesses are healed and driven away by the fountain.
Crusade of Nicopolis
In 1395, during the Crusade of Nicopolis, Ogier VIII d’Anglure journeyed to Egypt with several French pilgrims. He compared the Monastery of St. Anthony to the Saint Catherine’s Monastery, stating that it was even more beautiful and noted the holiness and charity of the Jacobite monks.
By the early 15th century, the monastery had become an established pilgrimage destination. Pilgrims were commonplace to inscribe their name, coat-of-arms, and arrival date on the monastery’s walls.
In the late 15th century, the monastery was devastated by the same Bedouins the monastery employed. Moreover, they killed all of the monks. It then followed that Syrian monks began to occupy the monastery. They helped rebuild it at the beginning of the 16th century. After the monastery’s restoration, Ethiopian and Egyptian monks co-inhabited the monastery for some time.
The missioners only briefly mentioned the monastery. Franciscan missionaries sometimes used the place to prepare missionaries in the 17th century. However, the monastery slowly fell entirely into ruin, and the few monks that lived there extensively relied on support from the nearby village of Bush. until the 19th century, various travellers’ accounts stopped by the monastery. However, the monastery was in such disarray that it lacked even a door, and travellers had to enter via a rope and basket operated with a pulley system.
Before the dawn of the 20th century, the only way to get to the monastery was through the monthly camel caravans. These caravans brought in food and other necessities from the nearby village of Bush. A journey along the desert path that extended from Kuraymat, a city along the Nile between Beni Suef and Helwan, to the monastery used to take three to four days. The monastery received very few visitors, but those who did come were often high in status. Those visitors are Georges Cogordan, the French ambassador to Egypt in 1901, and Johann Georg, Duke of Saxony.
The monastery became much more accessible after paving the Suez–Ras Gharib Road in 1946. Visitors can now reach it from Cairo in just a few hours. During the first decade after construction, fewer foreigner visitors significantly increased, with about 370 visitors between 1953 a d 1958. Since then, the monastery has become a more popular destination for Egyptians, offering religious retreats and family excursions to Egyptian Christians. Now on holiday weekends, there are typically more than a thousand visitors.
Visit Time to the Monastery
The monastery receives its Coptic visitors daily from 04:00 am until 6:00 pm. It allows the entrance to the archaeological sanctuary is from six in the morning, immediately after the rosary.