Though dedicated to tradition, Egypt's modern monks live quite radically different lives from the first Christian hermits, who disappeared into the desert to retreat from society almost two millennia ago. We explore how monastic life has changed and why.
The tradition of Coptic monasticism draws a more or less straight line from the early fathers of monasticism to the present day. Egypt has numerous monasteries and several of them are named after founding fathers, such as saints Anthony, Macarius and Pachomius. But how much does modern monasticism have in common with the ideals and ways of life existent in the fourth century? An investigation into this question, using written sources and archaeological evidence, shows that things have changed quite a bit over the past 1,700 years.
Nowadays, Christian monasteries, not only in Egypt but all over the world, belong to an ecclesiastical denomination and are part of the organization of a church; this implies that the members of a monastic community obey the rules and follow agreed-upon theological conventions. Today, a monk is someone living in a monastic community, but the etymological origin of the word is monachos, meaning ‘solitary’ in Greek; this is a clear indication that the solitary life of the first hermits was the foundation of the later organized communities. But the transition from an early monastic way of life – a lay movement – to an institutionalized existence in organized communities was perhaps not as smooth as one might think.
It is difficult to say when exactly the first hermits withdrew from society, but it must have already happened by the third century. The reasons for withdrawal were probably not the same for all hermits; some may have tried to escape from the persecutions of Decius and Diocletian, while others may have simply desired to lead a life of complete abstinence and dedication to God, regardless of events in wider society. It seems that for many it was a step that marked a radical break from their past life, a one-way ticket to a world of isolation from which the only exit was death and the expectation of an eternal life to follow; in such an extreme situation, the hermit himself set his own goals and his own ways of achieving them. Isolation from the world implied isolation from the Church and its sacraments, unless the hermit made his way back to the civilized world at certain intervals to visit a priest.
Reasons for a life of asceticism were diverse. Some may have been looking for a way to repent for a serious crime while at the same time escaping legal persecution in society. Others were simply seeking salvation for their souls and choosing a form of self-imposed martyrdom at a time when the persecution of Christians had ceased. The degree of a hermit’s isolation and asceticism was a matter of personal choice. Some simply led a life of poverty at the edge of a village, being looked upon either as a village fool, a wise man or a mixture of both. Others retreated further into the desert and gradually increased their degree of asceticism. At a certain point, all contacts with the world would be severed and the hermit would consider himself ‘dead to the world’. This had multiple meanings: the hermit gave up all his possessions and said farewell to his friends and family; physically, he was still alive, but his spirit was already halfway between heaven and earth; and his bodily functions and emotional reactions were reduced to a minimum.
In one of the anecdotes concerning Saint Macarius, a young man visited the desert father and asked him how to become a good hermit. In response, Macarius sent the young man to a nearby cemetery and told him to insult the dead. Upon the young man’s return from the cemetery, Macarius asked him about the reaction of the dead. Of course, the young man answered that they did not react at all. Next, Macarius told him to return to the cemetery and praise and ﬂatter the same dead. Again, the young man came back and told him that the dead had not replied. Macarius advised him to become like the dead in the cemetery: not to get angry about insults from people and not to become proud if people praised him.
We have no specific information regarding how many people were leading such a life of seclusion in the third and early fourth centuries, but we have good reasons to believe that their numbers grew over the course of the fourth century. Of course, there are written sources that describe the life of these anchorites (from the Greek verb anachoro, to leave), but we should not consider them historical documents in the modern sense of the word. One of these early sources is, for instance, the biography that Athanasius, patriarch of Alexandria, wrote of Saint Anthony. Although there is a solid core of historicity in the text, it also contains a number of elements that were meant to propagate Athanasius’ ideal of monasticism. In the so-called Apophthegmata Patrum, we find a collection of sayings, anecdotes and aphorisms that had been passed down by oral tradition until approximately AD 400, when the first collections of sayings were recorded. The text gives a lively insight into the personal views on asceticism of more than one hundred desert fathers. The Historia Monachorum in Aegyptu, attributed to Rufnus of Aquileia, tells the story of a group of men on a journey through Egypt in the year 395/396, visiting several hermits and desert fathers. Although the text gives the impression of a reliable eyewitness report, we find a number of exaggerations and legendary elements. The Historia Lausiaca, written in about 419/420 by Palladius of Gallatia, also provides a contemporary impression of the life of Egypt’s desert fathers, although here too we must be careful not to accept all details as reliable first-hand information.
In spite of the question marks surrounding their reliability, we should not consider these sources useless. On the contrary, even if stories are distorted by exaggeration and mythological additions, they still attempt to convey an image based on true situations. In the legend of Saint Paphnutios, it is told how the saint went into the desert to find real hermits. First, he found a dead monk in his cell. He buried him and proceeded on his way. After a journey of seventeen days he found a man covered by his own hair and a girdle of leaves. It turned out to be Saint Onouphrios. He gave him communion and soon afterwards the holy man died. A comparable story, recorded by Bishop Sophronios of Jerusalem in the seventh century, tells how Saint Zosimas found Saint Mary of Egypt in the desert, living as a naked and emaciated hermit in repentance for her sinful life. After confessing and receiving the communion from Zosimas, she died.
Regardless of whether these events actually took place, from the way they are described, we can consider them an indication that such extreme forms of asceticism truly existed in the fourth and fifth centuries. In both stories, the element of administering the last communion (apparently the first given in a long time) to the hermit before his death plays a role, showing that the hermit had lost contact with the institution of the Church. In fact, in many other stories, we read how hermits, whether living in solitude or in a community, refused to be ordained to any ecclesiastical rank on the basis that being a priest would put them in a position of authority over others, something they rejected due to their completely egalitarian attitude to society. This attitude implied that the only correct reaction to transgressions, sins, heresies or any kind of deviant behaviour was to abstain from judging and to leave the judgment to God.
Several anecdotes from the Apophthegmata provide examples of how renowned desert fathers refused to judge even serious offences, such as paedophilia and fornication. This was not because they approved of such practices, but because they believed that only God could judge. Any emotion or anger towards the sin of others was a threat to one’s own apatheia (absence of passion, peace of mind). We could call this attitude towards society and behavior a kind of theocratic anarchism.
In many ways, certain monks can be considered non-conformists. In the hagiographies mentioned above, we have seen how nakedness could be considered an ultimate form of asceticism, freeing oneself of all possessions and even of protection from the heat and cold. There was even one category of ascetics, the so-called holy fools, who pretended to be completely insane so as to avoid the ‘risk’ of being revered by the ‘world’. They would circulate in rags or half-naked, uttering nonsense or behaving in an outright indecent way. One of the best-known examples was Symeon the Fool, a Syrian saint living in the sixth century. It is not surprising, therefore, that certain ecclesiastical authorities grew concerned about what was happening far away in the desert and in places where wandering ascetics preached or behaved in questionable ways. In the first half of the fifth century, there was a growing tendency to involve and incorporate monastic communities and anchorites in the organization of the Church, either on a voluntary basis or by force of rules. Eventually, at the Council of Chalcedon a canon (regulation) was issued by which hermits and monastic communities were placed under the supervision of bishops. Gradually, anarchistic theocracy disappeared in favour of regulated communities, a move towards what Coptic monasticism would eventually become.
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Karel Innemée studied art history, archaeology and Egyptology at Leiden University (The Netherlands) and wrote his PhD thesis on the history of ecclesiastical dress in the Near East. He is a researcher at the Faculty of Archaeology of Leiden University and is the field-director of three research projects in Wadi al-Natrun: the excavation of the monastery of Deir al-Baramus, the survey of the Abu Maqar area, and the research and conservation of the mural paintings and doors of the church of Deir al-Surian.