Chapel, Monastery of St. Paul, on the Red Sea (the animal depictions of the four Evangelists are said by some to resemble the Egyptian funerary gods depicted on canopic jars)
Egypt is a predominantly Muslim country, yes, but like many Muslim countries (see posts of 4.16, 5.17 and 8.16) it has an important and numerous Christian minority. As in the Levant, the Christians of Egypt go back to Biblical times and well predate the advent of Islam, and are the remnants of what used to be the dominant religious group, in this case the local Orthodox sect known as the Coptic Orthodox Church. The Copts still form around 10% of the Egyptian population, are economically quite powerful and take a great deal of pride in their cultural identity. Among other things, the Copts believe themselves to represent the continuation of the Egyptian line from Pharaonic Egypt through Greco-Roman Egypt to the present, holding the Muslim Egyptians as relatively newcomers who came with the seventh century Arab conquest (southern Egypt or Nubia remained largely Christian until as late as the 14th century).
The Copts have suffered more persecution in Egypt than other Christian groups have in other Muslim countries, but the Copts have responded to their recent persecution and the rise of Islamic conservatives in Egypt by banding together strongly and making significant investments in their community, including the ancient Christian establishments of Egypt that are some of the highlights of a visit to the country.
The greatest assemblage of Christian buildings in Egypt is Old Cairo, or Coptic Cairo. Old Cairo is called Old Cairo because it was there before there even was a Cairo, itself a relatively modern city that was founded by the Arabs and then the Fatimids in the seventh and tenth centuries, respectively. Old Cairo is the modern name for the Roman fortification of Babylon, which in Byzantine times grew into an important Christian religious center with a high concentration of churches. Even today the holiest churches of Cairo are in Old Cairo, representing not only the Coptic Orthodox Church but also the Greek Orthodox Church. There’s even a Jewish synagogue.
More important to me than Coptic Cairo, however, was a visit to the monasteries of the Red Sea. These were the first Christian monasteries in the world–yes, the Egyptian desert is the birthplace of the Christian monastic movement–and so are arguably some of the most important Christian sites in the world for their impact on the development of the faith. Christian monasticism began with a desert hermit named St. Paul, who lived out his life alone in a cave in the desert, and was followed by St. Anthony, who in trying to follow the solitary life of a hermit actually ended up founding the world’s first monastery (and quite a large one at that, with up to 2,000 monks) not too far from St. Paul’s cave. St. Anthony’s hagiography was later written by Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, whose influence helped establish St. Anthony’s fame and the rise of the monastic movement throughout Christendom.
St. Paul and St. Anthony
Seeing the monasteries of St. Paul and St. Anthony was very meaningful to me, because I wrote my college senior paper on the Life of St. Anthony by Athanasius (one of my majors was Ancient Studies). I’ve also always thought that I would have made a good monk in another life. The desert monasteries, however, gave me a slightly different impression of the lives of St. Paul and St. Anthony than I had imagined. When I read about Anthony’s experiences in the desert, I imagined a very harsh existence full of heat and sun and thirst. I pictured a world of blinding light, where sheer deprivation and exposure led to visions of demons and God.
But of course such harsh conditions–total exposure in the desert–are not endurable; people cannot survive. The reality is that the monasteries are quite close to the Red Sea, which even if not the highway of international commerce that it is today would still have provided a transportation route to the hermits, as did the tracks to the Nile. And, even in the Egyptian desert, temperatures are quite bearable in the shade, whether that of a cave or of a thick-walled monastery or church. Both monasteries also benefit from springs (of course essential to the maintenance of life), and the water from the springs have been channelled to create little oases in the monastic grounds. In the case of St. Paul’s the spring is a very small one indeed–a drip–but the spring of St. Anthony sustains a small population, and the water properly used supports a beautiful garden with food plants and palm trees. The hermits lived in the desert wilderness, yes, but created for themselves areas of surprising beauty, life and tranquility, protected from the raw elements.
Monastery of St. Paul, on the Red Sea, founded after the death of St. Paul
Monastery of St. Anthony, on the Red Sea
Finally, the most famous Christian site in Egypt: the Monastery of St. Catherine’s in the Sinai. This site is important not only because it’s been the site of a Christian monastery (in this case Greek Orthodox, and not Coptic) since the fourth century, but because the location is believed to be of Biblical importance: where Moses spoke to the burning bush and received the Ten Commandments from God. The bush was silent during our visit.
Exodus Chapter 3: Now Moses was tending the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in flames of fire from within a bush. Moses saw that though the bush was on fire it did not burn up. So Moses thought, “I will go over and see this strange sight—why the bush does not burn up.” When the Lord saw that he had gone over to look, God called to him from within the bush, “Moses! Moses!” And Moses said, “Here I am.” “Do not come any closer,” God said. “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” Then he said, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. . . .”