Ecclesiastically, the Paromeos Monastery is dedicated to and named after the Virgin Mary. It is the most northern among the four current monasteries of Scetis, situated around 9 km northeast of the Monastery of Saint Pishoy.
Location of Paromeos Monastery
Etymology, foundation and ancient history
The Paromeos Monastery is probably the oldest among the four existing monasteries of Scetes. It was founded in c. 335 AD. by Saint Macarius the Great. The name Pa-Romeos or that of the Romans may refer to Saints Maximus and Domitius, children of the Roman Emperor Valentinian I, who had their cell at the place of the modern monastery.
According to Coptic tradition, the two saints went to Scetes during Saint Macarius the Great, who tried in vain to dissuade them from staying. Nevertheless, they remained and attained perfection before dying at a young age. A year after their departure, Saint Macarius the Great consecrated their cell by building a chapel and told the monks, “Call this place the Cell of the Romans”.
Another theory holds that the name refers to the Roman Emperors Arcadius and Honorius, disciples of Saint Arsenius. The latter was a Roman monk who established himself in Scetes, and the two emperors may have visited their teacher in his seclusion, thus giving the monastery its name.
Following the monastery’s destruction in 405 AD. by the Berbers and the Bedouins, Saint Arsenius returned to rebuild it. However, following a second raid by the Berbers in 410 AD., he retired to Troe, now a neighbourhood of Cairo known as Tura, where he died.
Besides Saint Macarius, the Great, and Saint Arsenius, other saints of the fourth and fifth century resided in the Paromeos Monastery, such as Saint Isidore and Saint Moses the Black, who was martyred at the raid of 405 A.D.
As a result of the attacks by the Berbers and the Bedouins, Pope Shenouda I of Alexandria (859-880) built walls around the monasteries of the Nitrian Desert. They were also covered with a thick layer of plaster. Their height varies between ten and eleven meters, and their widths are about two meters.
During the first half of the fifteenth century, the historian Al-Maqrizi visited the monastery and identified it as Saint Moses the Black. At that time, he found it to have only a few monks. Other famous visitors included Jean Coppin in 1638, Jean de Thévenot in 1657, Benoît de Maillet in 1692, Du Bernat in 1710, Claude Sicard in 1712, Sonnini in 1778, Lord Prudhoe in 1828, Lord Curzon in 1837, Tattam in 1839, Tischendorf in 1845, Jullien in 1881 and Butler in 1883. Information from them and a few other travellers provide that 712 monks lived in seven monasteries in this region, including twenty monks at the Paromeos Monastery in 1088, twelve monks in 1712, nine in 1799, seven in 1842, thirty in 1905, thirty-five in 1937, twenty in 1960 and forty-six in 1970. Today, some fifty monks inhabit the monastery.
Though the community of monks was relatively insignificant during this period, the Paromeos Monastery supplied one monk to the patriarchal throne in 1047, Pope Christodolos of Alexandria. In the seventeenth century, the monastery also provided two monks to the patriarchal throne, Pope Matthew III of Alexandria and Pope Matthew IV of Alexandria. The sanctuary also produced many outstanding theologians, including Father Naum, and Father Abdel Massih ibn Girgis el Masuudi, both of the nineteenth century. They proved to be a man of great holiness.
Today, the monastery still preserves much of its ancient character. It has five churches. The oldest church is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and contains the relics of Saint Moses the Black. It is considered the oldest church in Scetes, dating back to the sixth century. The second church is dedicated to Saint Theodore of Amasea, the third to Saint George, the fourth to Saint John the Baptist, and the fifth to Archangel Michael. The walls built by Pope Shenouda I of Alexandria are still standing today. The monastery also contains a keep, a tower, two refectories, and a guest house.
About two and a half kilometres northwest of this monastery, there is also the limestone cave of the late Pope Cyril VI. Marked by twelve wooden crosses, it is known as the Rock of Sarabamun and has become a popular place of pilgrimage. An iron lattice-work protects the entrance to the site. Within, the one-room cave is spacious. It is adorned with numerous pictures and icons of Pope Cyril VI. In the desert about the monastery, several caves continue to be inhabited by hermits.
Under Pope Shenouda III, Christian s performed some recent renovations at the monastery. An asphalt road to the monastery was built, and there have been several major cultivation projects. In addition, six water pumps, a sheepfold, a henhouse, and two generators were added, together with the construction of new residential cells inside and outside the proper monastery. There is now a clinic and a pharmacy to serve the monks, a spacious retreat centre for conferences, and a large, two-story guesthouse opened in January 1981.
Ruins and excavations
Since 1996, the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) and the Faculty of Archaeology of the University of Leiden have financed the archaeological research on the remains commonly known as the Monastery of Saint Moses the Black, near the Paromeos Monastery. Perhaps a late addition during the ninth century, an enclosure wall surrounded this monastery.
Within the old monastery, archaeologists discovered the remains of a square structure measuring some sixteen meters square in the southeastern corner of the site. Though its original purpose was at first unclear, it has now been determined to have most likely been a defensive tower, or keep that may have stood some twenty-five meters in height.
However, pottery from the 4th or early 5th century on the site suggests that this tower was built early for monastic purposes, particularly with a relatively small community of monks. It has been recommended that this may have been initially created as a Roman military structure to defend the Nitrian Desert and its salt production. Then, after being abandoned during the fourth century, it may have been used by newly arrived anchorites.
The nave walls are of poor quality and improvised masonry, suggesting that the Christians perhaps rebuilt the church hastily. In 1998, excavations uncovered a structure that proved later to be that of a church immediately north of the tower. A relatively well-preserved altar sits atop a one-step high podium. The actual sanctuary of this church is of better quality. It was reconstructed somewhat later, perhaps in the ninth or tenth century.
Blocks with several hieroglyphics
Remains, probably of an earlier structure and consisting of more solid masonry of finely cut limestone blocks, were found in the western part of the church’s nave. Since one of these blocks was inscribed with several hieroglyphics in high relief, it is very plausible that an Ancient Egyptian monument existed close to this site.