When I first moved to Cairo I heard about the road to Hurghada, but references were usually accompanied by shivers of trepidation. The road has been improved significantly but it is still narrow and winding, being wedged between the sea and the rocky hills along the coast. At one time it was a desolate route to travel but with the boom in development along the coast, now you drive past a string of hotels and holiday developments in a varying array of completion.
At Zafarana, a tiny refueling station for the trucks heading on for Hurghada, we stopped for tea and a pit stop at a small rest house, The Sahara Inn. Nathalie's daughter recalled the family's rating system of 'yuks' and 'yaks' for bathrooms during their treks in the Himalayas as we debated the wisdom of using the bathrooms there. Happily, the owners of the place had recently remodeled and the bathrooms were wonderful...definitely 3 or 4 yaks rather than the yuks that we were expecting. Bathrooms are really important when traveling in Egypt and you very quickly learn to make note of the good ones and use them whenever you are nearby, whether you need to or not.
From that point we turned into the desert along a tiny asphalt road that ran down the center of a broad wadi. We only traveled about 15 km down the road, thankfully, as the road bed had been seriously abused by heavy trucks and the asphalt had deep ruts from the tires. It was not a track that I'd like to take in the dark since if you had to swerve for anything on those ruts, you could easily lose control of your car. I could see miles in every direction and there wasn't a scrap of green to be seen in the wadi.
About 15 km along this route that heads back to the Nile through the desert, we encountered a clear sign marking the road to the monastery, a turn south towards rocky hills devoid of habitation or any other signs of life. Shortly after turning off, however, we came up behind the truck in the photo. Driving a jeep and taking a picture through the windshield simultaneously isn't really something you should try at home, kids, but we were the only cars on the road and the water tanker was crawling along at roughly 20 km per hour. Someone crazy enough to run in the desert sun could have jogged along side. The painting shows St. Anthony and the monastery, and the truck was driven by a monk with a full beard and the black embroidered hood of the Coptic orders.
St. Anthony lived in the 3rd century AD, having been born in a wealthy family in the Fayoum. After his parents died and he inherited the family wealth in his 20's, he decided to give away his wealth and become an ascetic. At that time, such people would go live in isolated ruins or caves and the local communities would support them with gifts of food and such. He was obviously a person of some intelligence and education as other ascetics would move to be near him, while he kept moving to more and more remote areas to get away from people. Eventually, he came to the area where the monastery was built and he lived in a cave in the hills where he had a difficult hour's hike (by my estimate, having tried out the nice recently constructed stairway) from his cave high in the hills to a spring that flowed from the mountain near the valley floor.
His reputation drew other religious figures once again, but this time rather than fleeing them, St. Anthony began to establish a community of like-minded individuals who began to build Christianity's first monastery. Over the years, they built churches, a fortress, a dining hall, a flour mill, and a garden to grow simple crops to keep themselves alive. For centuries, the spring which supplies 100 cubic metres of water daily was their only supply of water for crops and personal needs. Gradually, over time other monks came and went traveling throughout the Middle East and Europe taking the concept of an enclosed religious community with them.
As I recall from my studies in history, the monasteries of Europe in the Middle Ages were repositories for the learning of centuries. They were safe havens for travelers in troubled times, collecting information in the process. They were storehouses for information where books from all over the world were kept safe and copied for dissemination. The knowledge of the ancient world of the Greeks and Romans, along with translations of medical and scientific texts from the Arabs formed the basis of scholarship for the Renaissance burst of activity in Europe many centuries later. None of this would have been possible without this Egyptian ascetic who established the pattern for monastic life in the desert of Egypt.
The monastic life in Egypt has been fraught with difficulty, as has been every sort of life here actually. The early monasteries were fortresses as well as communities. St. Anthony's and St. Katherine's (which is run by Greek Orthodox monks) are two of the most ancient, and both of them for centuries were entered by a basket that was suspended by a rope from an opening in the wall. The basket would be lowered by a pulley manned by the monks to allow visitors to enter the monastery, but there was no other door to allow entry. During the early years this provided a defense from marauding Bedouin who would besiege the monasteries from time to time. During times of more peaceful coextistence, the monks would share food and water with the wandering herders. Now the door to the monastery is usually open, albeit if they had to close it one would be hard pressed to gain entry as it is made of wood at least ten centimetres thick and armored with beaten iron a centimetre thick. The modern monastery contains three sets of walls, those of the fourth century, those of the fourteenth, and a final set from the eighteenth century.
Visitors today are welcomed by the community and the monks offer to guide people around to share the wealth of history, art and architecture with those who make the journey. Our guide, Father Ilarion, was born and raised in the Cairo suburb of Shoubra and spoke excellent English. A good education is no barrier to the monastic life. The first monk that I met from St. Anthony's, Father Maximus, was the driving force for the restoration of the frescoes and he holds graduate degrees in museology and art history from such mundane institutions as Harvard. Having made friends with the Italian restoration team about a year ago, it was a special delight to me to see the work that they had done.
My life in Abu Sir is rather time consuming with the veterinary issues of keeping a ridiculous number of animals healthy and the day to day hassles of life here. I have to replace my jeep's windshield AGAIN after a chunk of gravel chipped it and a crack began crawling across it. Thankfully, windshields aren't that expensive here, but the time involved is a nuisance. To be able to get away to such an extraordinary place was a tremendous gift, and the realisation of the interweaving of the Coptic monastic history with the history that I learned as a child has filled me with a new sense of wonder.