The Monastery of St. Antony

Because this is my first post on a Coptic topic, it is worth briefly exploring Egypt's Coptic heritage. By tradition, Christianity was brought to Roman Egypt in the middle of the first century by Saint Mark the Evangelist. The church he established in Alexandria was a powerhouse of the early Christian world with such influential theologians as Athenagoras, Clement, Didymus and Origen. The last of these is considered the father of theology. Out of Egypt's early church also came a duo that changed Christianity forever and whose effects are still fundamental to the religion today: Arius and Athanasius. 

In the fourth century, the two church leaders began a dispute over the nature of Christ that still represents a major divide between various churches. Arius professed the idea that within the trinity God the Son was inferior to God the Father and was created by Him. This was contrary to Athanasius's position that God the Son was eternal and one with the Father. This conflict led to the Council of Nicea in 325 CE, which affirmed Athanasius's opinion and led to the writing of the Nicene Creed. Over the next century, further disputes within the greater Christian community occurred. Finally, a dispute between the early churches erupted at the Council of Ephesus in 449 CE. By 451 CE, at the Council of Chalcedon, the Coptic Church separated from the rest of Christendom. 

Since that time, the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria has continued to make many contributions to modern Christianity, while at the same time remaining rather obscure to mainstream Christians. This rather quiet anonymity may be due to its isolation as a minority in a majority Muslim population. But regardless, the Coptic Orthodox Church is a major player in Christendom as the largest Christian minority in the Middle East and as a vibrant community in its own right. The church has its own pope, Pope Tawadros II and a large diaspora community. Its ecumenical work in recent years with the Roman Catholic Church and some protestant groups has helped to raise its profile. But at heart, the church is a mystery to most Western viewers. 

Within the practice of Coptic Christianity, there are two major themes: fasting and monastic living. Regarding the first topic, a fast generally requires an abstention from any animal product including milk and eggs, and occasionally, in high fasts, the fast includes fish products as well. Fasts occur on every Wednesday and Friday, regardless of church season, and before and during various holidays throughout the year. If counted altogether, a devout Copt fasts more than half of the days of the year.

The other point around which the church focuses is on its monastic communities. Many Coptic families make trips to monasteries around Egypt as their major use of vacation time. Indeed, this is encouraged by the churches and trips are frequently organized to travel to monasteries throughout the country. Egypt's tradition of Christian monasticism is the oldest in the world and it was in these monasteries that many of the church's traditions and beliefs were kept alive through many centuries of invasions and later during Muslim majority rule. So let's see where it all began, the world's first Christian monastery: the Monastery of Saint Antony (Anthony) the Great.

The Monastery of St. Antony (cc. 4th Century)

 On the gate to the monastery. (Photo by author)

On the gate to the monastery. (Photo by author)

Of course, the details of the story of St. Antony's life are based mostly in hearsay and tradition taken with a lot of faith. That said, St. Antony is supposed to have been born in the area of Beni Suef to a wealthy landholder around 251 CE. Orphaned in his teenaged years and left a small fortune, Antony gave up his wealth at the age of 18 after having read the Bible's repudiations of money and materialism. Shortly thereafter, St. Antony settled himself in the Eastern Desert near the Red Sea in the same area as another hermit, St. Paul. Overtime other Christians throughout Egypt having heard of Antony's asceticism and faith, followed in his footsteps. Soon, a small community developed around him. This was to become the world's first group of monks - the world's first Christian monastery. 

With time, however, the solitude that Antony had sought disappeared as the monastic community continued to grow. Seeking more quietude and seclusion, St. Antony moved into a cave in the mountains overlooking the fraternity of monks below. It was in this cave that he would spend the last 40 years of his 105 year life. 

This new form of devotion and faith, monasticism, quickly spread throughout Egypt and the Byzantine world. Within one hundred years, monasteries could be found in Italy and France; and shortly thereafter, icons of St. Anthony of Egypt were found as far away as Ireland. Most people cannot imagine traditional Christianity without monks and nuns, but it all started with one man in the Eastern Deserts of Egypt.

Below are a collection of photos from the Monastery of St. Antony. Enjoy!

 The long stairway to the cave where St. Antony spent his last forty years.  If you look carefully on the upper-right side, you can see the end point. (Photo by author)

The long stairway to the cave where St. Antony spent his last forty years.  If you look carefully on the upper-right side, you can see the end point. (Photo by author)

 Close-up of the landing at the cave of St. Antony. (Photo by author)

Close-up of the landing at the cave of St. Antony. (Photo by author)

 St. Antony's cave with pilgrims at the entrance. (Photo by author)

St. Antony's cave with pilgrims at the entrance. (Photo by author)

 Looking down at the monastery from the cave. The two gates frame the entranceway. (Photo by author)

Looking down at the monastery from the cave. The two gates frame the entranceway. (Photo by author)

 Another view of the monastery with the desert beyond. (Photo by author)

Another view of the monastery with the desert beyond. (Photo by author)

  This drawbridge was the only access to the monastery's keep, which was located in the middle of the monastery complex. During the 8th and 9th centuries, Bedouin raiders attacked the monastery frequently. The drawbridge allowed the monks to hide inside the keep and have relative protection from the desert raiders. (Photo by author)

This drawbridge was the only access to the monastery's keep, which was located in the middle of the monastery complex. During the 8th and 9th centuries, Bedouin raiders attacked the monastery frequently. The drawbridge allowed the monks to hide inside the keep and have relative protection from the desert raiders. (Photo by author)

 The monks of the monastery still eat around this table, continuing a centuries' old tradition. (Photo by author)

The monks of the monastery still eat around this table, continuing a centuries' old tradition. (Photo by author)

 Icons inside the Church of St. Antony within the monastery complex. Recently restored with help from Italy, some of the icons are supposed to date to the 5th century. (Photo by author)

Icons inside the Church of St. Antony within the monastery complex. Recently restored with help from Italy, some of the icons are supposed to date to the 5th century. (Photo by author)

 A fresco representing the gospel writers: St. Matthew (the winged man) and St. Mark (the winged lion). (Photo by author)

A fresco representing the gospel writers: St. Matthew (the winged man) and St. Mark (the winged lion). (Photo by author)

 Detail of the other side of the same fresco representing the two other gospel writers: St. Luke (winged ox) and St. John (winged eagle). (Photo by author)

Detail of the other side of the same fresco representing the two other gospel writers: St. Luke (winged ox) and St. John (winged eagle). (Photo by author)

 Looking towards the altar and the iconostasis (icon wall separating the congregation from the main altar). The white hanging orbs are ostrich eggs. Present in all Coptic churches, they represent the resurrection and rebirth in Christ. (Photo by author)

Looking towards the altar and the iconostasis (icon wall separating the congregation from the main altar). The white hanging orbs are ostrich eggs. Present in all Coptic churches, they represent the resurrection and rebirth in Christ. (Photo by author)

 Looking down the main avenue through the monastery with monks' quarters on both sides. (Photo by author)

Looking down the main avenue through the monastery with monks' quarters on both sides. (Photo by author)

Sources:

Jill Kamel, Christianity in the Land of the Pharaohs: The Coptic Orthodox Church, (Cairo: American University in Cairo, 2002).