Monasticism's Beginnings

Editor-in-chief of the Arab West Report, Kees Hulsman, took a group of us on a trip to the pilgrimage sites of the fathers of monasticism on November 21. Our group comprised of 30 people from 11 nations who were Muslims and Christians, students, working men and women both young and old.

Although we visited many stunning and fascinating places, including Coptic churches dating back to the third and fourth centuries, and met many amazing people, the most important locations we visited were the caves of St Antonius (Antony) the Great and St Paul the Simple.

We began our journey bright and early, turning up to St John´s Church in Maadi at 7am to pray with church rector Rev. Dr Michael Dobson. Shortly before leaving, Dr Imam El-Refai said a Muslim travel prayer for all aboard the bus. Then we left for Deir al-Maymoun.

Deir al Maymoun (Monastery of Maymoun)
This small mainly Christian village is located around 80 kilometers south of Cairo on the east bank of the Nile. The villagers make a living through agriculture and producing bricks. Deir al Maymoun is one of the most important places in the history of monasticism; situated on the riverbank are the churches of St Antony and St Mercurius. The latter church dates back to the fourth century and has a unique feature that makes it outstanding among the Egyptian churches: worked into the wall above the altar are hexagrams which today are associated with the star of David but in the past had different meanings.

The church of St Antony was built atop the cave of Saint Antony the Great. During the fourth century he spent many years in this cave as a hermit. Many pilgrims visit the cave each year. Once inside, they call upon the Patron Saint of the farmers and their livestock, leaving their prayers on small pieces of paper on the cave walls.

Afterwards, we made our way back onto the street to meet some of the locals. They were as curious about us as we were about them and were eager to show us what life on the shores of the Nile was like. Walking down the street, we took in the breathtaking view of the Nile following the riverbank until we arrived at an idyllic location where local women still make use of the river water to do their laundry and dishwashing. A rowboat awaited us nearby to take us on a short trip on the Nile. Before we said our goodbyes to this quaint village we had an opportunity to take a ride on a donkey.

Back on the bus, we waved goodbye to the local children and set off to Deir Bayad to have lunch with the tasoni(s) (coptic meaning for sister). Tasoni(s) are consecrated Coptic nuns who focus on social welfare and poverty relief.

En route, we visited the St Mina Cathedral in New Beni Suef. So often in recent times there have been reports on the authorities prohibiting the building of churches or else violent mobs attacking Christians. But this cathedral is a monument to the Egypt where it is said that the government as well as the Muslim community have demonstrated positive attitudes towards their fellow Egyptian Christians. The land on which the cathedral was built was donated by the state, and the church paid for the building’s construction. St Mina Cathedral is an impressive building. Upon entering, the light was streaming through the colourful windows onto beautiful chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, in turn, the whole interior was illuminated in an ethereal glow.

We continued on our way to Deir Bayad. By then, famished, we were all looking forward to having lunch with the sisters. The convent of the Coptic church in Bayad is home to eight tasonis. The facility is equipped with a restaurant, a guestroom, a playground for children and a beautiful garden – the perfect place for a lunch break. The group rested in this quiet place and got to know one another for a little while before continuing on to Deir al-Rusul in Atfih.

Deir al Rusul (Monastery of the Apostle) in Atfih
It was here that St Paul the Simple lived – like St Antony, as a hermit in a cave. This cave was not underground like the other but was instead built into the wall of the church. One can enter the cave by climbing through a small passageway in the wall. The priests invited us to enter the cave so as to experience the loneliness and darkness of this place where St Paul the Simple spent many of his years.

Before heading back to Cairo, we were invited to participate in a liturgical ceremony in the local Coptic Orthodox church.

This trip was a rare opportunity to visit some fascinating, though remote, places away from Egypt’s normal tourist attractions. It was a fantastic experience to visit places of such beauty and uniqueness with such a diverse group.


Tamara-Nadine Walter is a German student of Arabic living in Egypt.

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