MONASTERY OF ST. PAUL
It is located about 39 kilometers southwest of the Red Sea lighthouse station of Za’farana. St. Paul, who is known as the “first hermit,” is presumably Paul of Thebes, whose biography was composed by St. Jerome, probably in 375 or 376. The cave church is the oldest and most venerated element of the monastery where St. Paul lived, and was first mentioned in 401 by Sulpicius Severus. An anonymous pilgrim from Placentia visited the “cave of the blessed Paul” in 570. Abu al-Makarim/Abu Salih (13th century) reported that monks came from the Monastery of St. Antony to celebrate the liturgy in the Monastery of St. Paul by turns.
Beginning in the 14th century, a number of European travelers reported on the monastery, such as Ogier de St. Cheron and Signeur d’Anglure, who found 60 monks there in 1395. The monastery was abandoned and sacked by the Bedouins during the patriarchate of John XIII (1484-1524). Patriarch Gabriel VII (1525-1563) repopulated the monastery, but the Bedouins sacked it again during his lifetime. The monastery remained in ruins and uninhabited probably for more than a century.
Beginning in the patriarchate of Patriarch John XVI (1676-1718) the monastery prospered. It was he who restored and repopulated it. For most of the monastery’s history, abbots of the Monastery of St. Antony administrated it. In 1974, Pope Shenouda III consecrated Bishop Agathon to supervise the monastery.
The architecture and decoration of the cave church are unusual. Its most ancient part is mainly underground and carved into the rock. It consists of the sanctuary of St. Paul and his cenotaph, the sanctuary of St. Antony, a corridor, and a central room. The 13th-century paintings depict the enthroned Christ with the Four Living Creatures, the Annunciation, the Massacre of the Innocents, angels, evangelists, saints, and monks.
Patriarch John XVI (1676-1718) restored the existing cave church and extended it with three domed rooms on its north side. Recent research has shown that Abdel-Sayed al-Mallawani, a monk at the monastery who became Patriarch John XVI (1726-1745), was responsible for the paintings scheme and the inscriptions of the 18th-century new extension.
His painting program and the inscriptions in the dome of the martyrs, the central nave, and in the sanctuary of the Twenty-four Elders are based on the liturgical book of the Psalmody. The 18th-century paintings and inscriptions of this monastery provide evidence for the very beginning of the renaissance of the Coptic Church in many respects. See also MONASTICISM, EGYPTIAN.