The first Christian monastery SanaaÃ¢ Farouk The oldest of the most ancient monastic establishments in the history of monasticism, not only in Egypt but all over the Christian world, is Deir al-Maymoun. It is the first spot in which St Antony lived in seclusion for several years.
St Antony is generally considered the father of the monastic family. He was born about 251 to a wealthy family in Coma (Qimn al-Arous) in the middle of Egypt. When he was eighteen years old, his parents died, leaving him guardian of his younger and only sister, Dious.
Six months later Antony entered the church to hear the Gospel, in which Jesus speaks to the rich young man, "If you want to be perfect, go sell all you have, give to the poor and come follow me." (Matt 19:21)
He took this advice as a personal invitation addressed to him by God. He sold about 300 acres of fertile land, gave most of the money to the poor keeping only a little for his sister. Then he placed his sister in the charge of a community of virgins, and was now free to devote his life to asceticism.
Moving to the desert
St Antony settled in the spot known today as Deir al-Maymoun on the river bank some 50km south of Cairo. The place saw frequent meetings between St Antony and Greek philosophers, during which he shared with them by word and example the values of the ascetic life. From there St Antony sowed the seeds of monasticism which eventually spread over the whole world, a precious heritage passed from one generation to another. And from there he moved to live in the Eastern Desert on the mountains near the Red Sea.
Tradition has it there is a story behind St Antonyâ€™s move. Since Maymoun is a rural area, and the spot St Antony lived in was close to the River Nile, a woman once came to bathe in the river. St Antony is said to have rebuked her for her audacity, but the woman, who obviously thought he had no business to do so, merely answered back. "If you are indeed a hermit,"
she retorted, "why are you living here among folks who go about their everyday life and whose activities might contradict with your way of life?
Why donâ€™t you go away to some place where there are no people?" St Antony is said to have seen the truth in her words, considered it an invitation for him to go into the wilderness, and promptly headed to the Eastern Desert where disciples followed him and his famous monastery was established.
After St Antony died in 355, Deir al-Maymoun became a thriving religious monastery in its own right.
During the third AD century the region in which Deir al-Maymoun lay was called Pispir. Later, in the 12th century, the monastery acquired the Arabic name Deir al-Gemeiza (Monastery of the Sycamore); named after the tree which St Antony took as a shelter at the bank of the River Nile close by. It was only in the 18th century that the monastery became known as Deir al-Maymoun, the name of the surrounding district.
Today, Maymoun is a small village of some 150 houses, inhabited exclusively by Coptic families who, since the 17th century when no more monks resided at Maymoum, cared for the monastery and cultivated the surrounding land that belonged to it. The monastery includes two old churches, the older is the church of Anba Antonious (St Antony), and the more recent is that of St Mercurius or Abu-Seifein (The One with the Two
Swords) as he is known in Arabic.
St Antonyâ€™s cave lies 1.95m underneath the south side of the nave of church of Anba Antonious. It is 1.75m long and 0.8m wide, and is thought to have been an ancient tomb.
Ezzat Habib, general manager of restoration at the Coptic Museum, said there is a story behind the Anba Antonious church. When the son of the local governor died, the man, in profound grief, took his dead son and placed him at the door of the cave where St Antony lived in Pispir. When the saint later rose to pray with some disciples, there was the boy standing to pray with them. In gratitude, the ruler ordered a church to be built at this place after St Antony died.
Back to old splendour
Deir al-Maymoun is now undergoing restoration. Father Girgis Adly, the resident priest talked to Watani about the work which is being conducted under the supervision of the Supreme Council for Antiquities. The restoration, he said, began last June, and the first phase should be completed and opened by next April.
The Churchâ€™s walls, which were cracked and dilapidated due to the passage of time and the high level of local humidity have been restored, using material the same as the original. The timbre roof was also cleaned, repaired and repainted in its original style, and the domes, which had fallen in, were supported and completed using bricks like the original.
The rock floor was also repaired and cleaned.
Using state-of-the-art technology the icons in the churches have been meticulously restored, using colours which would not be influenced by harsh light or weathering.
The monastery precinct, which overlooks the Nile, has been beautified with fountains, wooden pergolas, and stone corridors. Guest facilities are being provided.
The second phase will include removing the shanty buildings around the church, and building suitable guest-houses, restaurants, a library, a handcraft centre, as well as a gate and fence to secure the place.
The first monastic centre in Egypt and the whole world will then be ready to receive visitors.