Christian monasticism is a distinctive form of spiritual discipline that seems to have been originated in Egypt. St. Antony, the “father of the monks,” is usually regarded as its founder. As a youth of about 18 years old, he responded to a gospel reading (Matt. 19; 21), began his hermitic life as a village ascetic, and around 285 he set out for the mountains. By about 313 he had moved to his “inner” mountain at the Red Sea. His seclusion set the standard for an anchoritic way of life that attracted many followers who came to live near his cave. The influential Life of Antony, written by Patriarch Athanasius shortly after the saint’s death, was responsible for introducing the monastic ideal and Egyptian monasticism to the West.
Another form of monasticism began in about 320 when St. Pachomius established the first communal system at Tabennisi in Upper Egypt. This cenobitic, or communal, monastic system is based on precise rules governing almost every aspect of monks’ lives. The monks had everything in common, living together in houses, each with a steward assigned special duties. There were set times for prayer, meals, work, mass, and sleep; literacy was obligatory. Patriarch Athanasius supported the growing monastic movement and acknowledged its leaders. In 404, St. Jerome rendered the Pachomian Rule into Latin. Thus, the rules of Pachomius influenced monasticism in Europe.
Some great figures of early Christianity lived among the monks in the Egyptian deserts; these include St. Basil the Great (ca. 330-379), St. John Cassian (ca. 360-435), St. Caesarius of Arles (ca. 470-542), and St. Benedict of Nursia (ca. 480-ca. 550). After John Cassian visited Egypt, he founded the monasteries of St. Victor for men and St. Salvador for women in Marseilles. The Western monastic tradition—in particular, the order of St. Benedict of Nursia, the “patriarch of Western monasticism”—owes much to Coptic monastic traditions. Monasticism is indeed Egypt’s most considerable contribution to Christianity.
During the fourth and the fifth centuries, a form of semianchorism evolved and then spread in Lower Egypt. The desert area along the western edge of the Delta became renowned for the Desert Fathers who practiced their ascetic life in Nitria, Kellia, and Wadi al-Natrun (Scetis). Many monastic colonies were established in these sites around famous ascetics such as Amoun, Macarius, and John the Little. Monks lived alone in independent cells, enjoyed an undisturbed meditation during the week, and met on Saturdays and Sundays to participate in the Eucharistic liturgy and to take part in a common meal (agape).
During that time many ascetics had the talent of expressing spiritual truths in anecdotes or memorable sayings, which are known as the “Sayings of the Fathers,” or the Apophthegmata partum. The Sayings of the Fathers provide significant material for understanding the cultural and social milieu of the monks in Nitria, Kellia, and Wadi al-Natrun. They influenced monastic life both in the East and the West.
Many monasteries and monastic colonies were established along the desert fringes in Upper Egypt. One of the great figures of Egyptian monasticism is St. Shenute (d. 464 or 465) whose monastery, known as the Monastery of St. Shenute or White Monastery, received thousands of refugees when the Blemmye/Beja tribes attacked inhabitants of Upper Egypt. St. Shenute is regarded as the most significant Coptic writer. The imposing church of his monastery bears witness to a great monastic community that prospered during his time. By the end of the fourth century, the monks rapidly became numerous.
Palladius speaks of 5,000 monks in Nitria and 600 in Kellia. The Historia Monachorum reports 10,000 monks at Oxyrhynchus. St. Jerome reported that 50,000 Pachomian monks attended the annual meeting. Although these numbers may be exaggerated, it is nevertheless certain that the monastic population during the golden age of Egyptian monasticism before the Arab conquest of Egypt was quite numerous. Many of the monasteries began to decline and gradually deteriorated, or were even abandoned after the poll tax was imposed in 705 for the first time on the monks.
Monastic buildings represent a considerable part the Christian architectural heritage in Egypt. When anchorites lived in groups of cells without an enclosure wall, such a congregation is called laura. Several types of hermitages have been discovered in Kellia, Naqlun, Abu Mina, Esna, and elsewhere. Literary sources tell us that Pachomian monks lived together in larger buildings where each monk had his own room. Meals were served in a refectory. Monks practiced their careers before joining the monastery in workshops. The guesthouse was located outside the enclosure wall. A further type of monastic dwelling is exemplified by the remains of the eighth-century Monastery of al-Balaiza. A large number of monks inhabited several levels with large sleeping halls.
In the Monastery of St. Jeremiah at Saqqara, the monks lived in cells supplied with an oratory. An enclosure wall protected the monks’ cells, churches, one or more refectories, a kitchen, a bakery, workshops, a wine press, storerooms, and other buildings. The imposing tower of the Monastery of St. Hatre at Aswan, which dates from the 10th and 11th centuries, represents the climax of the development of the towerlike lodging complex in Egypt. It includes cells, a refectory, a kitchen, and other facilities. With the deterioration of security in the ninth century in the region of Wadi al-Natrun, the monasteries there had to be protected by appropriate enclosure walls.
Female ascetics were known in Egypt. Some of the Sayings of the Fathers are attributed to the female ascetics Theodora and Sara. Pachomius founded nine monasteries for men and two for women. Mary, Pachomius’ sister, became the “mother” of a monastery. Sources tell us that there were 2,200 monks and 1,800 nuns under Shenute. The Monastery of St. Jeremiah at Saqqara had regular contact with a nunnery.
Monasteries are the major source of Coptic art. They provide valuable material for the study of Coptic architectural sculpture. The vast majority of Coptic wall paintings are monastic. Beginning in the 1980s, wonderful monastic paintings have been discovered, especially in the Monastery of the Syrians and the Red Monastery. The monasteries possessed libraries, and some of them had scriptoria where copyists transcribed manuscripts.
Some libraries were extensive, such as those of the Monastery of St. Macarius and the Monastery of the Archangel Michael at Naqlun, or the Monastery of St. Shenute. Monastic libraries preserved Greek, Syriac, Coptic, Ethiopian, Armenian, Old Nubian, and Arabic manuscripts. They provide evidence for the multiethnic character of Coptic monasteries.
Monasticism is one of the important factors that led to the continuity of Christianity in Egypt. Monks played a crucial role in the history of the Coptic Church. The majority of its patriarchs and bishops came from the monastic milieu. Many Coptic monks participated in ecumenical councils and were often involved in theological controversies. Coptic monasteries have experienced a strong cultural renewal in the past few decades, and the number of monastic institution is still growing. This is not surprising, for the structure of the Coptic Church is based mainly on monks, and thus its future lies to a great extent in the future of the monastic movement.