Anchorites are those ascetic hermits who embraced the highest degree of monastic life by retreating into the Egyptian desert and living in complete seclusion and self-mortification.
The annals of the Coptic church abound in names of anchorites who lived between the third and seventh centuries. An anchorite could spend many decades in caves or cells cut off from all human contact until some saintly men’s footsteps were directed to the spot where he dwelt, this encounter usually taking place when the anchorite’s death was imminent. Thereupon, he would acquaint his visitors with his life story. When death came, the anchorite would be buried in the sand.
The SYNAXARION lists the dates for the commemoration of saints, many of whom were anchorites, notably Anba Bula (Paul; 2 Amshir), Apa Nofar (Onophrius; 16 Ba‘unah), Anba Pidjimi (11 Kiyahk), Anba Hadra (12 Kiyahk), Anba Misa’il (13 Kiyahk), Anba Timotheus (23 Kiyahk), Anba Karas (Cyrus; 8 Abib), and the penitent MARY THE EGYPTIAN (6 Baramudah). But however numerous the names of anchorites included in the Synaxarion, the Paradise of the Fathers (Budge, 1907), and the various manuscripts kept at Coptic monasteries, there must have been many more anchorites who lived and died unknown to history.
The man credited with instituting the anchoritic life is Anba Bula, the anchorite or hermit par excellence who spent eighty years as a recluse in the Eastern Desert before he was visited by Saint ANTONY, who later buried him and wrote his life story. Antony is also credited with instituting anchoritic life, although he had supplies brought to him every six months, and after twenty years, received many visitors who were directed by him to the ascetic way of life. Similarly, Anba Karas was discovered by a holy man named Anba Pambo after fifty-seven years of solitary life. Anba Samuel the Confessor recorded the history of Anba Moses; Saint Babnudah wrote the life stories of Apa Nofar and Anba Timotheus; Anba Isaac, abbot of al-Qalamun monastery, wrote those of Anba Misa’il and Anba Ghalyun; and Anba Buqt?ur, the abbot of DAYR AL-ZUJAJ, wrote the life stories of many more anchorites. Coptic monasteries include the names of other anchorites, such as Anba Harmina, Anba Iliyya, Anba Silas, Anba Hiziqyal, Anba Murqus al-Tarmaqi, and Anba Ulagh.
For the most part, anchorites were initially cenobites who belonged to certain monasteries. Anba Pidjimi spent twenty-four years in the company of elderly monks, and when they had all died, he went out in search of solitude. Apa Nofar, we are told, was so moved by the stories he heard about anchorites that he decided to become one; and Anba Ghalyun lived to an advanced age at DAYR ANBA SAMU’IL OF QALAMUN before he finally became an anchorite.
On the other hand, some anchorites never belonged to a monastery. As in the case of Anba Bula, this was because monasticism had not yet been established. Mary the Egyptian embarked on a life of solitude in the desert without having previously belonged to a convent, and was later met by Anba Zosima (Zosimus), who wrote her story.
The extent of physical subjugation and self-mortification that many anchorites endured can be inferred from the fact that Anba Bula lived on a daily ration of half a loaf of bread, said to have been brought to him by a raven. This is reminiscent of the story of the prophet Elijah, who was similarly supported by God near the brook Cherith (1 Kgs. 17:2-6).
Apa Nofar dwelt close to a palm tree and a spring of water. Anba Pidjimi and Anba Musa each fed on herbage and drank dewdrops off leaves of trees. It should not, however, be assumed that anchorites were ethereal figures or phantasmal beings, as some believed. Some anchorites, we are told, suffered mortal diseases in their seclusion: Anba Timotheus was afflicted by a liver disease, and Apa Nofar died of fever.
Certain of them were also subject to the weaknesses of the flesh, as in the case of Anba Musa, who eventually repented with the help of Anba Samuel the Confessor and partook of Holy Communion before he departed this life.
As to clothing, we are told that Anba Bula wove palm leaves and fibers into a garment. A few anchorites, however, went naked as a token of mortification of the flesh: Apa Nofar grew his hair long to cover his body. Anba Pidjimi preferred, after a period of nakedness, to cover his body, since God gave raiment to Adam and Eve, and since the cherubim cover their bodies with their wings. We also note that Mary the Egyptian hid behind a tree on seeing Anba Zosima, and asked him to give her his cloak to cover herself.
Anchorites spent their lives in constant communion with God. We read of certain anchorites who were directed to alter the course of their lives for the benefit of others. Anba Pidjimi left the desert for a mountain cave in the vicinity of his native town, where through his influence and teachings people were led to better lives and to embrace Christianity. Anba Hadra became a cenobite who exercised the gift of healing and was eventually consecrated bishop of Aswan.
Anchorites, on the whole, led angelic lives while completely unknown to the outside world and immersed themselves in prayer and meditation.
- Budge, E. A. Wallis. The Paradise or Garden of the Fathers, 2 vols. London, 1907.
POPE SHENOUDA III
The word sa’ih (pl., suwwah), meaning “wanderer,” is the Arabic term for an anchorite. To be among the suwwah is to have reached the highest spiritual rank for a monk. The popular belief is that a sa’ih feels no bodily pain, hunger, thirst, or lust. He is also believed to be invisible except to those to whom he reveals himself. But some humans may hear him or see the incense he or a group of suwwah have burned during a mass. There is much controversy as to their number, which is believed in some instances to be four hundred, and in others twelve only, while some hold that it is unlimited. Those who believe their number is limited emphasize the fact that it never varies. It is also held that if one of the suwwah dies, the other suwwah choose someone to replace the deceased among the monks and summon him to join them. At the suwwah level, there is no distinction made between men and women, and suwwah are held to be nearer in their bodily and spiritual qualities to heavenly beings than are other human beings.