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Desert Fathers

Egyptian monastery shelters tradition and enlivens the Coptic faith

Along a billboard-flanked highway two hours northwest of the smog of Cairo, a group of pilgrims steps out of a bus and into a realm safeguarding traditions dating to the earliest days of Christianity.

They have come to pray at one of the living centers of their deep-rooted Coptic faith. Deir Al Sourian is one of four ancient monasteries in Wadi Natrun, a valley in Egypt’s Western Desert.

Founded by disciples of Egyptian Christianity’s first saints, the monastery is today home to 145 monks. Many live as hermits, but the community strives to maintain a balance between nurturing the spiritual lives of its monks and sustaining modern Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church. The strictures and piety of monasticism govern the daily life of the monastery, but it also opens its doors to pilgrims and tourists who come to pray, appreciate its historical treasures and immerse themselves in the oldest traditions of the Coptic faith.

The monastery’s abbot, Father Mattaos, is eager to protect the monastery as a sanctuary for spirituality, but also recognizes its role in serving Egypt’s Copts, who number between 6 million and 10 million.

“I became a monk out of love for our Lord and for the sake of our Lord only, without the distractions of the world,” said Father Mattaos, who has been a monk for 38 years and abbot since 1993.

The abbot, however, was more than happy to entertain a group of pilgrims and pose for photographs with young children. “Fridays and Sundays are holidays,” he said, “and many people visit us on their spiritual journey.”

Only a limited number of monks, however, are in contact with visitors; others remain in seclusion. The guests also do not usually stay the night. “We do not want them to become a distraction,” the abbot said.

Protected by 40-foot-high earthen walls, the monastery is said to be shaped like Noah’s Ark. The monastery’s portal opens to a courtyard with a four-story keep on one side and the seventh-century Church of the Holy Virgin on the other.

Within a short distance are chapels, a library, a shop selling icons, a water fountain, public toilets, office buildings, residences, workshops, storerooms, a kitchen, a dining room and other structures that vary in age.

Monks clad in black robes solemnly stroll about, while others greet visitors at a reception desk and organize tours of the chapels. They explain the monastery’s history, show the recently discovered frescoes and lead prayers.

Father Yehnes was leading a tour through the monastery. He was an accountant before entering monastic life 16 years ago, although he said he had considered a religious vocation since he was a child.

“I wanted to be a monk when I was very young,” he explained. “I saw St. Bishoi, the founder of the monastery, in a dream when I was a child. I first came to Wadi Natrun when I was 14 and stayed a month, then came back every year during holidays.

“A monk became my spiritual guide and advised me to experience the world before becoming a monk. I took many jobs, my last being with the Bank of America. I was very successful,” adding sheepishly, “but I did not taste sin.”

His life at the monastery connects him and visitors to a life first begun by St. Anthony in the third century. One of Anthony’s disciples, St. Macarius, established a regular community in Wadi Natrun during the fourth century.

During the early period, monks lived in caves as hermits, but by the sixth century it became necessary to build defensive structures, such as walls and keeps, for the safety of the monks during attacks from marauding tribes.

Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Al Sourian – literally, the Syrian – takes its name from a community of Syrian monks who lived there alongside the Copts from the eighth to the 16th century. Before the arrival of Islam in the seventh century, there were 600 monasteries and 30,000 monks in Egypt. Today, 22 monasteries house 1,500 monks and eight convents some 600 women religious.

Monks at Al Sourian start their day chanting morning prayers at 4, immediately followed by the Divine Liturgy from 5:30 to 8. They then go to work at their assigned jobs within the monastery, as carpenters, mechanics, gardeners or farm hands. Monks usually eat twice a day – at 3 p.m. and again six hours later – and have their individual rhythms for private prayer.

A few monks live as true hermits in caves an hour’s walk from the monastery. Due to a shortage of caves, another 15 live in simple concrete huts scattered throughout the desert. Most of the monks, however, have cells in three-story blocks within the monastery compound in a section closed to visitors.

Standing isolated in the desert sands, Father Yehnes’s cell was palatial, with four vaulted rooms and high walls. Normally monks are not permitted electricity in their cells, but Father Yehnes, who is responsible for the monastery’s Web site ( and media relations, was given a special dispensation.

The monastery went online a decade ago. Its excellent Web site is by itself a testament to Al Sourian’s balancing act between the needs of the modern world and the demands of their monastic traditions.

The Web site is also an example of the monk’s self-sufficiency. They do their own cooking and washing. An extensive farm of 400 acres adjoining the monastery allows the monks to supply their own food.

“We have pigs, cows, sheep, ducks and chickens and grow alfalfa to feed them,” Father Yehnes explained. “We also make our own cheese, bread, wine and soap and grow many fruits including oranges, apples, lemons, tangerines, bananas, grapes, dates, figs and olives.”

In a battered old car he led a short tour of the farm, which, with its drip-irrigation and tractors, seemed like a serious agro-industry, producing a large surplus the monks market.

“The monks establish a balance between work, prayer and rest,” Father Yehnes said.

Many of the monks are responsible for preserving and maintaining the monastery’s historical treasures, including the Church of the Holy Virgin. The church has a vaulted roof and four wings, each ending in a semidome, making it the shape of a cross.

The extraordinary 10th-century Door of Symbols, which punctures the iconostasis, links the sanctuary with the nave and is inlaid with ivory designs representing the history of the church in Egypt. Icons depict important saints of the Church of Alexandria, including St. Mark the Evangelist, who brought the Christian faith to Egypt and was martyred in 63.

Many frescoes date from as early as the seventh century. They had been plastered over until rediscovered by French and Dutch experts in the 1990’s. A magnificent seventh-century fresco depicting the Annunciation is in good condition, painted with pigments developed by the pharaohs.

The oldest part of the church is St. Bishoi’s hermitage, a gloomy little space where he lived for 30 years. A chain still hangs from the ceiling where, according to tradition, he tied his hair to stay awake.

The keep is also one of the oldest buildings and still has a drawbridge that makes the building virtually impregnable. It has a deep well, food storage area, chapel and cells. The present Patriarch of the See of St. Mark, Pope Shenouda III, had been a monk at Al Sourian for 14 years, his cell within the keep.

During recent renovations, a vast treasure trove of ancient manuscripts – both Syriac and Coptic – as well as papyrus fragments were discovered there, many buried in rubble.

With the help of the British Library, the monastery has been preserving these ancient religious texts. Father Bigoul, who studied manuscript preservation in London, is in charge of the project.

“When I first discovered the papyrus it looked like a piece of plywood, but I saw writing on the front and back,” said Father Bigoul, a graduate in chemistry. “I realized it was not plywood but many layers of papyrus stuck together. I contacted an archaeologist at the University of Cairo and we decided to separate the sheets using an enzyme. When it was dry we put them in acetate sheets and later, with the help of the British Library, we preserved them behind glass.

“The monastery’s library dates from the fifth century. We have fragments of the Bible of St. John,” Father Bigoul said, “though most of the Coptic texts date from the 12th century.

“We have many volumes documenting the lives of saints and the rites of the Coptic Church, mostly written in our monastery’s scriptorium. Syriac and Coptic scribes worked side by side. Over half of the manuscripts are in good condition.”

The manuscripts had been hidden in the walls of the keep by the monks so that no adventuring opportunists could find them.

Their rediscovery was a boon for the monastery and Father Bigoul was eager to show off the collection, opening up many beautifully illuminated texts.

With the finds come new challenges for the monastery, as it battles to preserve its traditional monastic seclusion while sharing its ancient wonders with the modern world.

Sean Sprague, a photojournalist living in Wales, travels the globe for ONE.

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