In the barren expanse of the Eastern Desert, under the clarity of a seamless blue sky, lies a historic and often overlooked monastery.
Although the monastery ranks amongst travel book highlights, its distance from better-recognized monuments has protected it. A gentle pulse in a desolate landscape, St. Anthony’s is the picture of serenity. Secluded, majestic – although it’s a mere two-hour drive from Cairo’s city center – this subtle gem is a day trip away for culture lovers.
St. Anthony moved to the Red Sea Mountains in the 3rd century from the age of 18 until his death at 105. His legacy of rejecting the material and solitary reflection, has is the foundation of the oldest operational monastery to date.
The monastery is the only structure in sight for kilometers. Under gleaming rays of unobstructed desert sun, its thick, whitewashed walls radiate light. Seen from the one-way highway leading to it, it almost shines in the distance. The compound is cradled by the base of Mount Qalah’s sandstone crests and surrounded by the harshest of desert plains. Its environment is beautiful, yet bleak, and its vastness is at once liberating and threatening.
But the monastery life is as peaceful and steady as the trickle of mountain spring water, which is the soul of its existence. The sheltered community has survived for over sixteen centuries in this environment through an awe-inspiring combination of faith, discipline, and natural fortune.
The stunning, yet simple enclave emits life and warmth into the aridness of its surroundings. St. Anthony’s members live in quiet, constant motion, attending to their day’s work and prayers as they have done for ages.
The buildings are as indicative of this continuity as the monks themselves. The bright, creamy surfaces of the compound walls spill into one another, heightening the sense of unity in space and practice. The dining quarters, where the monks congregate after their day of reflection, cement the idea of community among these hermits. The walls, floor, tables, seats, and pulpit are sculpted from the same material, their forms never breaking lines with the room.
The monastery’s continued commitment to the community’s tradition is apparent from its careful conservation. The grounds are immaculate, with meticulously cultivated gardens of herbs and vegetables. Recently a conservation project restored St. Anthony’s chapel frescos to reveal their original designs and vibrancy.
Yet, the chapels still smell of sweet incense and years of sweat. St. Anthony’s is beautiful, but not presentational. Still entirely reliant on their spring water supply, the community is not a relic of a time past, but an inhabited living space. Their self-sufficiency is active, although quiet; the monastery’s sand-swept tradition still lives and breathes.
Unlike many of Egypt’s historic sites and geographical jewels, St. Anthony’s is not overrun with tourist buses and frenzied travelers. Frequented mostly by Coptic religious groups, the monastery tours are simple, accessible, and not over-commercialized. Guided by the soft-spoken monks themselves, visitors are invited to wander and to move freely at their own pace. There is one small bookstore and no push to purchase. In fact, there is only one establishment to buy food and water, which is sparse in selection and located outside the monastery walls.
The beauty of the monastery is the simultaneous emptiness of its setting and richness of its tradition. The tranquil coexistence of these two opposites speaks to one’s spirit regardless of religious background.
Encountering a space, which stands still, while retaining such strength and vitality, is a comforting break from our fast paced daily lives. A world away from the bustle and congestion of the city, a visit to St. Anthony’s calms and rejuvenates our tired senses and provides a reflective escape.