In Egypt, monasteries thrive as travel destinations

By the busload, visitors seek a retreat from daily pressures. They finda blend of old and new - and growing numbers of monks.

At St. Antony's Monastery, a mountain of shoes are heaped in a pile outside the church door - flip-flops, black espadrilles, and sandals worn down at the heel. Inside, the church is dimly lit and smoky with incense. The monks are chanting vespers, and the novices among them are stumbling. Some of them haven't yet mastered Coptic, the liturgical language in which all prayers are conducted.

Not all the shoes belong to monks. In fact, many of them belong to visitors. Here at St. Antony's, near Zaafarana in the mountains along the Red Sea, Egyptian Christians come visiting by the busloads: They come to worship, to honor their artistic heritage, and to strengthen their Christian identity.

Like St. Antony's, virtually all Egypt's 25 monasteries are enjoying a renaissance that started some 25 years ago and continues unabated to this day. Interestingly, the revival is taking place against the backdrop of a diminished Coptic Christian population in Egypt, owing in equal parts to a birthrate outstripped by Muslims and a growing rate of Copts emigrating to the West.

If, as the monks believe, monasticism is the root that feeds the tree of the church, the future of Christianity in Egypt, where monasticism began in the first centuries AD, looks good.

Almost all Egypt's functioning monasteries have seen a steady increase in the number of applicants and visitors, and especially youths. Social scientists such as Rafik Habib, a Coptic Protestant intellectual in Cairo, see the revival as "an extreme reaction like others we've seen," in a country that has been in crisis for decades.

Egypt's political liberties are restricted, he says; the economic-reform program is taxing the poor; as fathers travel abroad for work, even the structure of the family is under siege. In this setting, it's only natural that some Copts turn to a simpler life of devotion, says Mr. Habib, who is one of the founders of a moderate Islamist political party, the Wasat.

The monks, on the other hand, attribute the revival of monasticism to the working of the holy spirit. "Many, many want to become monks," says the Rev. Severus of St. Paul's Monastery, which is near St. Antony's. But many are refused, he says, standing next to the keep built in the 6th century against Bedouin raiders. "The heart's a triangle, the world is a circle - it doesn't fit," he says. "Most people are caught in this circle, and it's very difficult for them to find their heart, which you have to do to join a monastery."

Closer links to rest of world

Still other factors account for the renewed enthusiasm in monasteries. For one, monasteries have been stripped of much of their isolation. Roads have been paved in the last 25 years, making a trip to these enclaves a day's excursion by bus rather than a week by donkey or camel.

And the monasteries have been made more familiar to the world by the vigorous activities of the Coptic Church, under the leadership of Pope Shenouda III, a highly educated monk himself. Pope Shenouda has multiplied the number of bishoprics and breathed new life into religious education, establishing Sunday schools and theological training for laypeople throughout the country, retreat houses at the monasteries, and encouraging outreach among youths.

"All these things would help our children and students grow up knowing that Egypt has two faces - the Coptic and the Muslim," says Youssef Sidhom, editor of the Christian weekly newspaper Watani.

The teachings of the saints and the lives of the desert fathers figure prominently in Coptic religious education. Impassioned with youthful idealism, hundreds of young men spend their high school and university vacations in khilwa, or retreat, at the monasteries. They share chores, attend prayers, and seek spiritual guidance from the monks.

Being a monk does not necessarily mean giving up material comforts or the wonders of modern technology. Up in the Delta, two hours north of Cairo, lies the spotless St. Macarius Monastery, where high-tech science, marketing, and religion coexist.

Modern-day pursuits

More than 90 percent of the 110 monks here have advanced university degrees. Among them are physicians, pharmacists, veterinarians, and engineers, who cooperate with the scientists and agronomists of nearby Sadat City. Automatic milking machines and a computerized printing press from Germany are shown off with pride. Three-quarters of St. Macarius's 2,000-acre spread is given over to cultivation of land reclaimed from the desert, and the olives, figs, mangoes, bananas, and apples gathered there are sold daily in Alexandria and Cairo markets.

Unlike St. Antony's, the monks of St. Macarius discourage visitors other than relatives, although no monastery in Egypt really closes its doors to strangers. A simple meal of olives, lentils, bread, and tea is offered to everyone.

The Rev. Iranaeus outlines a typical day at St. Macarius: communal prayers from 4 to 6 a.m., breakfast, then work from 7 a.m. to noon, followed by a communal meal and rest, then back to work from 2 to 5 p.m. At 5:30, evening prayers, then a spare meal eaten alone in one's cell. The monks are asleep by 10.

Who becomes a monk? Many bishops require aspirants not only to have a university degree, but also several years of successful professional experience in the world. "The monastery is not a place to hide," says Fr. Severus of St. Paul's. Most of the monasteries are flooded with applicants. "If we took them all, we'd have 500 monks instead of 100," says Bishop Justus of St. Antony's.

At the El Azab Monastery near Fayoum, an oasis one hour south of Cairo, the world has truly come to the monastery. El Azab's courtyard looks like a playground. Children are running and shouting, tugging at Bishop Abraam's cloak and petting his Alaskan husky. Parents come to seek blessings and guidance, or merely to have a family picnic.

Some of the villages in the oasis don't have a church, so people go to El Azab to worship, as they do at nearby El Malak Monastery, which 10 years ago had only two monks. Now it has 11, along with a retreat center that houses 30 visitors - although there is no water and electricity was installed only a year and a half ago.

"The people are used to coming here," says Sister Irene. "It's an open monastery. Life in Egypt is difficult. There are so many people who need retreat."

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