3. Visit to the Monastery of Saint Macarius

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Sitting under the jasmine trellis as the passing of the last languid golden rays is mourned by the bell’s knell heralding the evening prayer to the black and brown-clad monks, the mind is tempted to imagine their every footstep toward the church a timeless recreation along a path first trod Saint Macarius the Great over sixteen hundred years ago. Words like timeless were difficult to dispel from my mind during my stay as a guest at the Monastery of Saint Macarius, nestled where quiet orchards of date palms give way to the vast and bleak ivory expanse of the Nitrian Desert. However, dismissing the monastery as a quaint, jasmine-infused relic that time forgot ignores the colorful dynamism of the monastery’s past, as well as the serendipitous kismet of its vibrant present.

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I had first approached Father Bāsilius, one of the senior monks of Saint Macarius, in late July over the possibility of visiting the monastery under the advice of Drs. Cornelis Hulsman. A student of religious studies interested in Middle Eastern Christianity, I had wanted the chance to view the contemporary monastic community of Egypt for some time. The opportunity to stay in Saint Macarius was not to be passed over. One of the oldest and most illustrious monasteries of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Saint Macarius is also keep off of tourist itineraries, requiring a permission by the monks to visit. Thus with Father Bāsilius’ consent, I boarded a bus from Cairo headed out to the Western Desert.

Stating that the Monastery of Saint Macarius is off of the regular Egyptian globetrotter circuit is a bit of an understatement. Indeed, my first directions on how to get there involved instructing the bus driver to let me off at the 136 kilometer marker on the Cairo-Alexandria highway, then walking through the desert to the monastery. Taking pity on my foreign body’s intolerance for Egyptian summer heat, Father Bāsilius offered to send the monastery’s delivery van to pick me up instead. His generosity was once again greatly appreciated.

Off the highway, the monastery is approached by a lone road, straight as the Roman archetype, flanked on either side by silvery eucalyptus that give way to orchards of date palms and olives. The monastery provides for its own food from these well-tended farms, selling the excess to the metropolises of Cairo and Alexandria to support itself. These trees slowly give way to the ivory bleakness of the Nitrian Desert, beautiful in its desolateness. There, where verdant fertility brushes against this sandy void, the immense tawny walls of the monastery rise up.

Upon entering, my invitation was verified before being handed the key to room ten, one of the cells set aside for visiting pilgrims and guests above the gate that overlooks the desert. Depositing my lone bag inside, I walked out to the stately jasmine arbor to meet with Father Bāsilius. Hearing my interest in the monastery, its history, and it present, Father Bāsilius made a quick call, asking his monastic brother, Father Birtī, to field my queries. Father Birtī, a formidable mind belied by his slight frame, humbly introduced himself as an amateur historian collecting anecdotes and facts about the monastery during his time there. In truth, he was a veritable encyclopedia of knowledge, to which this article owes much of its information.

Today, sitting under the jasmine trellis as the passing of the last languid golden rays are mourned by the bell’s knell heralding the evening prayer to the black and brown-clad monks, the mind is tempted to imagine their every footstep toward the church a timeless recreation along a path first trod Saint Macarius the Great over sixteen hundred years ago. The crowds of Coptic Orthodox families leisurely seated in the courtyard who visit the monastery routinely, though in greater numbers on Fridays and Sundays, for both religious devotion as well as social gatherings lend to the illusion of eternal stability and endurance. However, as Father Birtī explained while we strolled under the late afternoon rays of sunlight, the monastery’s condition fifty short years ago hardly included these leisurely family visits. Indeed, it had almost disappeared.


The walls of the Monastery of Saint Macarius


Inside the monastery


A jasmine trellis over the courtyard

Former monastic cells in the courtyard

In 1969, there were only five monks in residence, the youngest among them fifty-five. This aging community was also under attack by the elements, as its dwindling numbers had prevented the upkeep of the compound. The monastery is built into a geologic depression, and the blowing sands of the Nitrian Desert had pushed huge sand dunes throughout Saint Macarius. The graceful arch that today frames the lower courtyard where the various churches are found was completely submerged in this sea of sand.

However, before this historic treasure was lost under the metaphorical and literal sands of time, it was rescued by an act of both fortuitous kismet and solid leadership. In 1969, as part of Pope Kyrillos VI’s call for the anchorite monastic communities to return to established coenobitic communities, Father Mattá al-Miskīn left the desert of Wādī al-Rayān near the Fayyūm Oasis where he had stayed and came to the Monastery of Saint Macarius, bringing thirteen fellow monks with him. Under the spiritual guidance of Mattá al-Miskīn, the monastery began to flourish. The monks cleared away the sands, restoring the lands of the monastery, stabilizing the archway that had deteriorated and eroded during the years of decay. Although the famous thaumaturge passed away in 2006, Mattá al-Miskīn’s legacy can still be felt throughout the compound, which still publishes copies of his writings in multiple languages as part of their printing press, headed by Father Bāsilius. Today, there are 130 monks in residence at the monastery, working in agriculture, baking, the monastery’s kitchen, printing press, bookstore, and impressive library. Indeed, the Monastery of Saint Macarius has earned a prestigious modern academic reputation, with around eighty percent of the monks having earned an advanced degree from either a university or technical school before taking their vows.

The revitalization of the monastery also highlights its subtle architectural splendor and its prized relics and icons. The original church of Saint Macarius has undergone many changes over its history. The first structure, built in the 4th Century during the time of the saint himself, was razed during the Persian invasion of Egypt, and only rebuilt following the Arab Conquest in the 7th Century. This rebuilding, circa 680 AD, reflected the church at in its largest incarnation, and included the installation of the central Haykal (a chapel considered to be sacred ground at the front of a Coptic church, in which the high altars are found) screen of Binyāmīn, the patriarch at the time. This screen was altered over time as an amalgamation of ages; the wooden panels at its center today can be dated to the 10th Century based off of their Coptic inscriptions. The relics of Saint John the Baptist and the Prophet Elijah were long rumored to be found within the church by the monks, but it was not until the modern revival that two vaults were discovered in the corner of the church near its second Haykal. The first sepulcher contained one body; the second had twelve. The monks identified two of these remains as the saints due to their positioning: the feet faced east (Coptic burial tradition arranges the deceased so that their feet face the direction from which the Messiah will appear on the Day of Resurrection, allowing them to greet him). A journalist of al-Ahrām who was at the monastery pursuing an unrelated story heard of the discovery and wrote it up for the Monday (November 13, 1978) edition. From that Monday to the Friday of the same week, the monastery had over half a million visitors. The Church of Saint Macarius also holds the relics of three separate Saint Macārī: Saint Macarius the Great (300-390 AD), Saint Macarius the Alexandrian (died 400 AD), and the martyr Saint Macarius the Bishop (died 451 AD). In addition, nine patriarchs who came from the monastery are now buried here.

Across the courtyard, shaded by the graceful ficus trees and a lone Tamarind planted by Prince ‘Umar Tusun in 1933, the Church of the Forty-Nine Martyrs stands. Dedicated to the forty-nine monks who were slain by armed Berbers in 444 AD during an invasion, the church has a sparse interior of brick and adobe, only decorated by a list of the martyrs’ names (along with the two Byzantine officials present at the scene, Martinus and his son Zeus, who witnessed crowns of light placed upon the heads of the martyred monks by angelic hosts, and were killed as well for testifying to the monks’ holiness) and ostrich eggs hanging from the ceiling, a distinctly Coptic symbol. After two months of renovation, an expanded prayer hall was first used in 2006 to accommodate the larger number of monks.

The original brick arch, with new support

Father Birtī shows the sepulcher

Father Birtī at the Church of the Forty-Nine Martyrs

Ostrich eggs

Church of the Forty-Nine Martyrs

The Church of Abaskhayrūn possesses the architectural anomaly of having a most irregular dome, the bricks laid-out in a continuous spiral in lieu of the more common concentric square layers. The church’s far wall also once held an entrance to the Church of Saint Macarius when it was at its largest. The church today possesses several distinctive and beautiful icons, including a Black Virgin by an Ethiopian iconographer, Saint Macarius, a Byzantine Theotokos, a Glykophilousa, the Angels Gabriel and Michael, Saint Paul, and two of the Evangelists. The church also houses the relics of Saint John the Short who came from the monastery. The monk was famously told by his spiritual father to water a piece of wood in the desert as part of his devotional training. He did so for three years, at which point the wood sprouted, grew into a tree, and bore fruit. When St. John the Short returned with this fruit, his spiritual father took the fruit to the other monks of Saint Macarius and exclaimed, “Come and eat of the fruit of obedience.”

The most dominating structure of the monastery is the hisn, or fortress, whose deep orange walls contain four additional chapels decorated with sanguine frescos. The fortress in the past could only be accessed via a wooden drawbridge, but today is undergoing a slow transformation into a museum space.

Following the evening prayers at sunset, the monks are free to study, pray alone, or walk through the monastery’s lands, the later of which two of the novices invited me to join them in. Underneath the bright desert moon, we glimpsed a pale desert fox sneaking among the palms.

I spent the rest of the evening in conversation with Father Wa’il, one of the novices, who, after graduating with a degree in English literature, had taken his monastic vows two years earlier at the age of twenty-two, drawn to the academic spiritualism that characterizes the Monastery of Saint Macarius. Though I was eager to talk more, he bade me goodnight, warning me that if I failed to go to sleep soon, the dawn matins would be a difficult experience.

Entirely sung in the dulcet tones of the Coptic language, the morning prayers began in the still dark hours before Homer’s rosy-fingers of dawn have touched the horizon at five in the morning, carrying on until past seven. Standing alone with the monks for these prayers was a blessed experience I will not soon forget.

The modern revival of the Monastery of Saint Macarius as a vibrant and thriving monastic community with a booming spiritual academic press and engaged role in the greater Egyptian Coptic Orthodox community from the nearly buried monastery that almost disappeared just forty years ago is made all the more impressive by the illusion of stability and timelessness that is exuded by the gently glowing adobe walls of the monastery. I feel enormously privileged to have been allowed this glimpse into this brief moment of the monastery’s dynamic history. I would like to extend my thanks to the monks of the Monastery of Saint Macarius, and wish them and their monastery continued successes and providence as they forge ahead into the uncertain future.

The library and tower at dawn

The tower and Church of Saint Macarius at dawn

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