SAINT PAUL OF THEBES (Anba Bula, ca. 235-348?) is known as ‘the first hermit.’ For more than ninety years he lived in a cave near a natural spring and a palm tree. Daily a raven brought him a piece of bread. The palm tree provided leaves for weaving his tunic and baskets, and some extra food. At the end of his life, St. Antony visited him and the raven brought a double portion. St. Paul died shortly afterward and, with the help of two lions who dug his grave, St. Antony buried him.
The cave where, according to tradition, St. Paul lived is the core of the monastery: the subterranean Church of St. Paul. Since it evolved around natural caves, the church has an irregular plan. There were two altar rooms (dedicated to St. Paul and St. Antony), a chamber with the tomb of St. Paul and a central room in front.
The Monastery of St. Paul is smaller and more remote than the nearby Monastery of St. Antony and lived most of its existence in its shadow. Vulnerable to Bedouin attacks, it was left uninhabited for long stretches of time. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Patriarch John XVI renovated and repopulated the monastery. The subterranean church was enlarged with a third altar room, dedicated to the Twenty-Four Elders; the central room was extended and a staircase was constructed.
The French Jesuit Claude Sicard visited the monastery in 1716 and he reported that the church was recently repaired and painted from wall to dome with “sacred histories,” crudely executed. He met the painter, a monk from the monastery, who confessed that he had never learned to paint—a fact his work bears witness to, wrote Sicard.84 In later times, the round faces of the saints depicted earned the monk the nickname of “the painter of the compass.”
Although this monk was certainly no master, he faithfully preserved the subjects of earlier murals. Fragments of these thirteenth- and fourteenth-century paintings are visible in the old parts of the church. The older monks’ portraits bear a remarkable resemblance to the thirteenth-century paintings in the Old Church of the Monastery of St. Antony. At the end of the eighteenth century, Mu’allim Ibrahim al-Guhari built the Church of St. Mercurius partly on top of the old Church of St. Paul, with a connecting staircase.
The most recent restoration of the church (completed in 2005) restored the paintings to their former colorful glory?5 Modem roads broke the silence and isolation of St. Paul’s. Today, the monastery is enlarged with new buildings and guest houses outside the old walls. It is often bursting with pilgrims seeking spiritual guidance and visitors viewing the holy places.
84 Martin 1982 vol. I, 41.