Earlier this month, a large celebration was held by the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) to mark the completion of the second phase of restoration at St Antony’s Monastery.
St Antony (Anba Antonious), whose long life spanned the years 251 to 356, is credited with being the father of monasticism in a region long renowned for its tradition of holy men who chose to withdraw from society and live singly in the rocky desert hills. It was St Antony who drew these hermits together to share their lives and prayers. Founded in the fourth century, this is the oldest active Christian monastery in the world, lying in the Eastern Desert 155kms southeast Cairo and not far from the Red Sea coast.
The first phase of restoration took three years from 2001 to 2004 and included restoring the monastery buildings and cells at a cost of some EGP25 million. This phase included fixing cracks in the domes, wooden roofs, windows and doors, as well as piling and damp proofing.
The second phase began in June 2008 and was finished last September, with expenses totalling to EGP80 million. Sayed Bakr, manager of Islamic and Coptic monuments at the SCA says the second phase included total change of the electrical and lighting systems and communications, with telephones installed to serve visitors and monks. He added that modern buildings—mostly industrial units—close to the monastery had been removed to outside monastery borders, and large tanks had been built outside the monastery to collect drainage water.
The old irrigation network was removed to make way for a new one to water the monastery’s trees and plants by dripping, and generators were installed for use in case of interruptions in electricity supply.
During the restoration work, workmen and conservators came upon the ruins of an ancient building lying underneath the Church of the Apostles, which is the main church of the five in the monastery. The Church of the Apostles—topped with 12 domes and a bell tower—houses the relics of St Yusuf, who died in 1826, preserved in a glass sarcophagus.
Traces of a cell belonging to one of the monastery’s earliest monks were found at a depth of 2.5m underneath this church. The cell consists of two overlapping rooms, with a small oven in the first room. On one a wall in the second room is one of the oldest inscriptions in the Coptic language. There was also a drain made of fired clay. The cell is thought to be the oldest one belonging to Christian monks ever found. According to initial studies on the building of cells, it seems they were covered with domed roofs that have been destroyed by time.
The monastery contains murals and icons dating back to the sixth, ninth, 13th and 19th centuries. Other buildings have since been added.
Anba Antonious lived in the monastery until 285. In 305 he was known to be living in Fayoum where he founded another monastery. Anba Antonious later moved to Alexandria. He died in 356 at the age of 105.
The SCA recently announced that technical, archaeological, and financial committees were being set up to conduct studies for the third phase of restoration, which will include excavations to unearth the archaeological extension of the monastery as it was in the sixth century.