Through the door one can see the unending sea of the Sahara. (photo: Paul Melton)
A rope connected to the bell tower hangs near the entrance to call brother porter to open the huge door. (photo: Paul Melton)
The Church of the 49 Martyrs. Here lie the remains of 47 monks, their abbot, and a visiting pilgrim who were slain by barbarians and buried by surviving monks who had hidden themselves in the tower during the siege. (photo: Paul Melton)
These Coptic monks follow a life of both solitude and communal sharing, combining prayer and contemplation with hard physical labor — including the renovation of the monastery. (photo: Paul Melton)
I have called you into the wilderness so that I may speak to your heart.
Sparsely settled, dry and barren, the desert is a quiet and solitary place which throughout the Bible is spoken of as a place apart for prayer and penance. A large portion of the Bible lands are desert, but the Sahara is one of the most overpowering.
Nestled in the Egyptian Sahara is an ancient monastery run by Coptic monks who recently have opened their cloistered doors to Christian pilgrims from all over the world who are in search of peace and solitude.
Going north on the road from Cairo to Alexandria for about 50 miles, the pilgrim comes upon the sign for St. Makarius Monastery on the highway, which is 5 kilometers from the buildings themselves. In this part of the Sahara there are four monasteries. St. Makarius is the most accessible.
At St. Makarius there are 50 monks and ten novices. Most are coenobitic (living in community) but some are eremitic (hermits who live in nearby caves). Many, including the Abbot, Father Matta El Meskin, have given up considerable material resources in order to live a life of prayer and poverty in the desert. Of the 50 monks, 45 are University graduates. Physicians, pharmacists, architects and engineers have abandoned their careers and come to the desert for the love of God.
The monks eat meat only on major feast days, but grow their own food and raise their own chickens, sheep and cattle in order to provide substantial meals for the pilgrims who now come here on retreat.
For the past seven years the monks have been rebuilding and restoring the ancient structures, adding many new cells and other facilities for the increasing number of pilgrims and visitors.
The renewed interest in monasticism prevalent in the world today reflects also the spiritual renewal taking place throughout Egypt. Of the approximately eight million Coptic Christians in Egypt, Abbot Matta says, no less than 50% are practicing the mysteries and the sacraments of the church.
The Coptics Pope Shenouda III, Patriarch of Alexandria, himself a former hermit, still spends a part of each year in the desert in solitude. Patriarch Maximos Hakim of Antioch (Byzantine) calls Pope Shenouda the most gifted preacher of the Word in the Middle East today.
The monks of the desert monasteries are unmistakenly pleased with the spiritual renewal growing in Egypt. They are ready to open their monasteries to even larger numbers of visitors and pilgrims. However, the monks see their work as nothing new. Says Abbot Matta, What we do and what we say and what we write, they call it a new thing the only thing that I feel is correct is that our behavior is like our fathers, the desert fathers We live as they have lived. We have the same Spirit.
Paul Melton of South Lyon, Michigan, travels frequently to the Middle East arranging pilgrimages and archaeological study tours for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines.