Assailed by the crowds, traffic, fumes and every-man-for-himself scramble of Cairo, it’s easy for the individual to lose sight of anything but the concern of the moment: how to cross the road (if at all!), how on earth to manage the school run or get to work on time – and so on, and on. In hard-scrabble neighbourhoods, with broken infrastructure and severe pressure on housing, the situation is even tougher.
Hardest of all, to my way of thinking, is the noise. There are few places where you can get away from it. Noise pervades every neighbourhood, it rises to a crescendo at peak work and travel hours, and it frequently carries on all through the night, for Cairo is a city where someone, somewhere is always awake, and Egyptians, as a rule, don’t do anything quietly.
But there are sanctuaries in Egypt that remind you, the moment you step through the gateway, of eternal values – those that we lose touch with at our peril. Places of space, simplicity and silence where everyday concerns are left behind and calm returns to the mind.
And in a rocky and sun-baked landscape only occasionally relieved by vegetation – particularly after winter rains – these monasteries are truly shelters where the productive garden plays a central role and plants have an immediately calming, healing effect.
The oldest monasteries in Egypt, S. Antony and S. Paul, date back to the mid-C4 and are sited near the modern Red Sea settlement of Zafaraana. Here you sense a link with Christianity’s earliest period, for they are places of withdrawal, prayer and study, where monks also actively serve the community in a number of ways from providing work to running clinics, and receive visitors in large numbers in these days before Easter.
The monastery of S.Antony is named for one of Egypt’s earliest hermits. In the late C3 the 18-year old Coptic Christian, Antony, traumatized by the death of his parents, withdrew from society to live in the deserted tombs and fortresses of the Nile valley. Much later, in his fifties, he moved to a cave above the site where the monastery was subsequently founded. Paradoxically, this was to escape from the crowds of followers who wanted to join him in the solitary life. You can still visit the cave if you care to climb several hundred stairs to reach it, passing on the way the lonely abode of a latter-day anchorite from Australia.
Some kilometres to the south, S. Paul’s commemorates the life of Paul of Alexandria, a follower of Antony.
Positioned at the foot of a steep escarpment and protected by high walls, S. Antony’s benefits from a natural spring that yields 100 cu.m. of water daily. A small basin in a courtyard allows you to try it – cool, fresh and flavoured by naturally occurring mineral salts, it’s the best thing on a hot summer’s day!
Here within the walls are gardens filled with fruit, vegetable and herb crops.
S. Antony’s has abundant date palms and olive trees, and extensive climbing vines; recently, at S. Paul’s we also found pomegranate trees, and a mulberry in fruit:
The gardens of the two monasteries, although organized along different lines, yield onions, lettuces, rocket, herbs and, to judge from recently planted seedlings, melons. We found labourers from the countryside (“fellaheen”) tending the crops at S. Paul’s, the small beds neatly divided up and edged with stones, with pottery water jars placed here and there among the greenery.
In this day and age, the communities are not self-sufficient in food, and supplies are regularly brought in by road. But there must have been many times when self-sufficiency was important, given the isolation of the sites and the – at times – insecure conditions in the surrounding desert. Our guide, Father Ruwais, noted that S. Antony’s did not have a gateway until around 80 years ago; so, for 1600 years, anyone wishing to enter or leave the monastery had to be winched up through a trapdoor high in the wall.
Fortunately, we were free to walk in and out via the gateway, without let or hindrance. And our kind host sent me away with a freshly made fried aubergine sandwich: it was absolutely delicious, though whether the bread was the product of the monastery’s own bakery, I really couldn’t tell!