The Heritage of the Desert Fathers

Amira Nagati




The Heritage of the Desert Fathers


Slovenian expedition in the deserts of Egypt and the ancient Christian kingdoms of Nubia



In October 2011, the Egyptian media blasted with breaking news, images of fire and chaos filled the screens as subtitles announced: the Copts were attacking the military. It took everyone off guard, confusion spread; it was the first time in long decades that we witness such an explicit, full-fledged accusation of the Christians. The bombings at the Saints church in Alexandria that had darted the first arrow in the heart of the decaying system, had been a shock to all Egyptians, we had received it as one. How could it be then, that they attempt such an attack? Dumb-founded Muslim Egyptians echoed the false accusations against their Christian fellows, and slowly, the hollow unity we boasted in the past years, broke apart into the ugly reality. Angry and frustrated by the confused turn the revolution had already taken months after the fall of Mubarak, the fabric of the society easily broke. Suddenly, and despite the revealing of the truth of what happened, Copts and Muslims were not one.

My first reaction on that day was to run away from the deceiving media, and go directly to the spot. For weeks on end, we joined the sit-ins at the gates of Maspero, the Egyptian television building, where the massacre against the Copts, both in physical and conceptual form, had occurred on that bloody day. In an attempt to lose all that suggests a symbol of religion, I took off my veil. On these days, I wanted to be a Christian. We took part in their lamentation, we found ourselves repeating their Coptic-worded prayers, blessings, greetings. Flags of Mina Daniel, the Coptic revolution martyr, fluttered everywhere. We organized processions in the streets, holding bibles and crosses. The long-silent Coptic identity had finally made way to the Egyptian consciousness.

Our Coptic Identity

Since these days, my interest in this silenced part of our construction as Egyptians grew more and more profound. I visited churches, took part in Friday masses, talked with priests and monks, despite their concern with my safety being seen at such turbulent times where civil tension was increasing by the day. I grew fond of a Coptic family who received me with such warmth into their home, it was yet new to me how they surrounded themselves with pictures and icons of saints and martyrs, whom were completely unknown to me. I had a long talk with the mother one day, next to a chipping porcelain statue of a European Virgin Mary. On that day, I realized that what I thought was a constituent part of our identity, was actually a prominent pillar, and it was mysterious to me how it could be denied its value.

When the tides of the Wahabi Islam, the fundamentalist religious movement originating from Saudi Arabia,invaded the country in the eighties, as the Egyptians who traveled to the Gulf for work created a pathway for this current to enter our society, things started changing for our Coptic/Egyptian identity. As I collected stories from the previous generations, I could then understand how the fundamentalist school of thought stifled the liveliness of our heritage, and the Christians receded eventually against the oppression, wrapping themselves in their homes, their purses, their cars, their pockets, with little pictures of saints, of prayer booklets, like tiny amulets.

Foreign ideas of what is morally and religiously “correct” overcame our cultural common sense that had guided us before, and it had become a frequented idea, that religion has superiority over the particularity of our Egyptian identity. This had worked its way to the youth, already suffering a breach in their identity as Egyptians from other several social factors of their times, meanwhile, an interesting phenomenon took place. The Coptic youth, in an attempt to claim the right of being on equal footage, have infected their religion-based practices with the same concepts that contaminated the Islamic practices of the country. Every cultural representation of a religious practice was heresy, every act was a potential cause of God’s wrath, and repentance takes the majority of the supplications.

But, if you delve more into the history of Egyptian religious folklore, you would barely be able to separate that which is Muslim from that which is Coptic. Although we would here recount historical accounts of the religion, it has not much to do with the daily lives of the Egyptian people from the ancient times, stemming from practices that could be dated back to the Pharaonic times. And in the villages of Upper Egypt and the Delta, the mulids (birthdays) of Coptic saints and martyrs, or of the Muslim walis, representative of the village’s personal identity, would have both Muslims and Copts participating and giving offerings for the blessings that could be bestowed on such a day. The images of Copts and Muslims supplicating at the shrines might invoke reproach from those who claim it external and heretic, but who can standin the face of hundreds of Copts daily leaving their wishes in pieces of papernext to their saints and martyrs, the same way Egyptians from as far as the New Kingdom left scraps of papyri and pieces of wood with invocations at the statues of their priests?

The traditions are countless. Take for example, the legendary stories of saints and martyrs, the annual pilgrimages to their shrines (where it is believed their relics are, having healing and miraculous powers), the awaited apparitions, which were all condemned by the “official” religion, yet supplied the people with tangible existences that they could identify with. A long history of folk stories of heroic figures and epic poetry that are traceable to the present day in villages carry the same values that Egyptians had long had affinity and need for, a need to feel divinity nearby and familiar. And in the same manner every god and goddess in the Pharaonic times served a different need, St George would cast away evil spirits, Saint Damiana would restore stolen objects, and Virgin Mary would cure barren women.

And as any Egyptian would tell you with confidence, the mother in Upper Egypt and the Delta is the heart of the family, running a house of several families with such aptitude. This core value of women runs back to the ancient times of the Pharaonic goddesses, depicted sometimes breastfeeding kings, and represented in its ultimate glory in Isis, the mother goddess who set herself on a laborious journey to collect the scattered parts of her husband’s body (such ancient significance attributed to relics!) and conceive and raise her son in solitude.Has the stories formed the Egyptian mindset or is it vice versa, in both cases there is no denying the need for the protective mother figure, and facing the banson paganism and the closing down of the temples, including the temple of Isis in Philae, Egyptians turned to the figure of Virgin Mary. This worship of the Mother remains to this day in the Coptic tradition of devotion to Virgin Mary, with thirty two feasts in her honor, and churches built in dedication to her more frequently than any other dedication. The figure of the Mother remains to be revered and marked, against all opposing tides.

But like a mirror, the richness of the everyday religion of the Copts, all the anecdotes, traditions, rituals that weave in the everyday life of the people, has a very different face, filled with silence, vastness and sparseness. Visiting monasteries at the edges of the river banks, the threshold of the boundless desert, will open the door to experiencing this other side. Setting eyes on the lush banks of the Nile from the sandy hills and mountains beyond, you are confronted with a spectacle of a journey, the line of crossing over almost visible between the lively green, and the scorching yellow. The land of delusions and insanity, who would discard the lavishness of the Nile banks or the oases, to pursue a life of austerity and devotion in the desert? The pursuit of the hermits and anchorites carry a deeper meaning when it is such a prosperous, rich land you are leaving behind.

Going on the days of feasts and weekends to the highly frequented monasteries will probably trick you, with the flocks of families, snacks, receiving monks, roaring engines of buses, and loud talks. It is not what one would expect of monastic life and its spiritual experience. But as it is more insightful to visit on un-marked days, learning more about the birth of the monastic life as we know it would give even a deeper insight, and as monasticism goes hand in hand with the Christianization of Egypt, the events weave together to arrive at our standing point

The Coptic Church

Under collective circumstances in the Roman rule of Egypt, the idea of leaving family and home behind and heading towards the edges of the villages over to the mountains, cliffs and abandoned Pharonic tombs, deeper into the desert that offered itself at the horizon, lured more and more people for diverse reasons, ranging from escape from legal persecution under the heavy taxing system, to abstinence from the world and desire for a spiritual journey, which generated ascetic desert communities.

And in the communities that had undergone these circumstances–Egypt then being known for religious tolerance and ethnic diversity especially in major cities, like the cosmopolitan Alexandria– there existed a Christian community increasing in number and power from before their subjection to persecution. Among the sparse evidence of the Christian presence before AD 200, the oldest fragments of the New Testament had been found in the then prosperous, cultured city of Oxyrhynchus (now el Bahnasa, Al Minya).

According to the tradition, the Coptic church was founded by Saint Mark the Evangelist, the author of the oldest canonical gospel, who they claimed preached the gospel in Alexandria and received the crown of martyrdom in AD 68. The claimed apostolic foundation of the Coptic church, a source of pride for the Copts, had marked the beginning of a history, not only of tragic persecutions, but also of influential leaders of early Christianity and founders of monasticism, as well as its role in the formation of the canon of the Holy Scriptures, one of the pillars of the religious and moral life of the Coptic Church, along with the writings of the church fathers prior to the Council of Chalcedon and others of non-Chalcedonian fathers. 
In order to understand more the particularity of the Coptic Church, the fourth Ecumenical council of Chalcedon in AD 451 is a major turn point. The decisions of the council had caused the division of Christianity to Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian churches (Coptic, Syrian, Armenian, Ethiopian and Eritrean churches, altogether also known as Oriental Orthodox Church). From then on, the Egyptian church divided into two patriarchates, the Greek Orthodox, and the Coptic. And though the vast majority of the Egyptians were against the Chalcedonian doctrine, this had led to mass oppression and persecution by the Byzantine Eastern Roman Empire, until the Arab conquest in AD 639.


On the tracks of Ancient Hermits

“If you would be perfect, go sell what you possess and give to the poor and you will treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mt 19:21)

It is most probable that he is the first name you will encounter upon inquiring on monasticism: Saint Anthony. He might not be the first ascetic, but his anchoretic lifestyle was remarkably harsher than his predecessors. He gave all his wealth away, and set on his way as a disciple of a local hermit. His pursuit, vividly described in the Vita Antonii written by Saint Athanasius, was an inspiration to hundreds of those who followed his footsteps and planted the seed of monastic life by organizing themselves into “groups”, especially by Saint Macarius, his disciple who understood that a severe life like that of Saint Anthony is not possible for all. Alongside such loose self-organized communities, Saint Pachomius had set his way on structuring the first organized coenobitic monastic community, for that he is now known as the father of monasticism.

So whether it is in the cliffs in the wide horizon of the Western desert, spotted with promising springs and wells, or in the majestic mountains of the Eastern desert which sight does not promise anything at all, the hermits from the ancient times had left us traces of their journey to their inner deserts.

Thinking that the monastery should be the ultimate of tranquility, still unfamiliar with the desert journey, I was proven wrong, passing the church walls saturated with the ancient past, the monks flowing in their daily routine, the visitors with beseeching eyes, the restricted area of monk cells, the curious attempt to confirm my religion asking for my family name and eyeing my wrist in search of the inked cross (the tattooed Coptic sign of faith), I was led with our team for the first time to the hermitages in the cliffs of the valley in Naqlun, Al-Fayoum oasis. Since that time and more in our following travels, it has become reflexive to think that the monastery is a gate, and social presence becomes a point of departure rather than an arrival point, the same way the inhabited oasis in the ancient past, that would be a joyful sight for the traveler in the desert, and the agricultural villages or the busy towns that were the destination of early time voyages, all were but the starting point of an inverse journey of a hermit.

It is true that the spiritual dens in the desert present themselves in poetic glory, and it is a relief to arrive at such vastness after the long travels from the capital crammed in microbuses where being tall is definitely your very bad luck, arguing over fares of every kind of transportation, bumping heads in the three-wheeled toktoks driving us on dirt paths across fields, worrying about the miscellaneous explanations we have to use to give excuses why we are going on these untrodden paths, but the poetry of the desert is many times muddled, when we are faced with the increasing apprehension and warinessin the tough days the country is going through.

“The Heritage of the Desert Fathers” research project

When I first met with Jan Ciglenečki, a scientific member of the Institute for the Study of Christian Tradition (Ljubljana, Slovenia), working at that time in the library of the French Institute for Oriental Archaeology (IFAO) in Cairo, I could not really understand what it meant when he first said thereis no map of the hermitages in the deserts around monasteries, the information being scattered hidden in the archaeological literature on dynastic pre-Christian period(since the abandoned pharaonic tombs had been often inhabited by the hermits). How could this be significant to a historian of ideas? As he explained more, I gradually arrived at a basic idea of how from geographical data the patterns of dissemination and migration of ideas could emerge, which would in turn help to reconstruct the daily lives of the early hermits, and consequently providing a theological and philosophical understanding of their teachings, and the rich variety of local influences on their practices.

More and more I could see the need for locating the hermitages to fill the gaps in the bigger picture of Coptic hermitism. After the first trip, I joined the project of “the Heritage of the Desert Fathers”, in deep conviction of the importance of the work that has to be done for our heritage. The mission I undertook is submitting the heritage of the Desert Fathers for nomination to the UNESCO’s World Heritage List, while simultaneously raising awareness of the general public.
To my fellow Egyptians, this would seem far-fetched. Eremitical tradition seems to be the country’s last concern in those hectic times. But the truth is, if the Egyptians can reconnect with their forgotten heritage, in such a formative period of the Egyptian consciousness, we will become able to weave in the values of our ancient traditions and rich heritage, that shaped what we are now, and it shall provide us with a steady footing to proceed with strength and integrity.

So we decided to form a team.

Set to the task of systematic surveying of the remote areas of Upper Egypt, the Eastern desert, the Western oases, and the ancient Christian kingdoms of Nubia (modern day Sudan), we had invited Jan’s colleague from the Institute for the Study of Christian Tradition, Sebastjan Vörös, to take over the historical and the theological aspects of Egyptian hermitism, including less orthodox forms of christian spiritual  traditions (e.g. gnosticism). This kind of study combined with the results of the field survey will aid in the attempts to reconstruct the network and patterns of the hermits’ migration flows and their mutual influences throughout Egypt, Nubia and Ethiopia.

In order to make the map, the team needed desert survival experts, who would help us in finding the exact geographical coordinates of caves and hermitages, as well as monasteries and sites of functional importance (e.g. sources of water). For this purpose, Guillaume Grac and Samuel Forey, each with exceptional experiences in desert navigation, have joined our team. Once the coordinates are established, it will be possible to create a series of layer files, containing valuable information on individual hermitages as well as on the overall pattern of their distribution.

And there we set off to the desert, although the sight of the almost all red map of the country circulated by embassies is definitely not the most encouraging. There seemed to be no turn of events that the country could not take, which had left a perpetual state of alertness in the air. Not without reason. The curfews that left the roads intimidating and heavily monitored had created the ghostly monsters of anticipated violence. Had it been just the scarey myths of terror we heard everyday, it would have been tolerable. But, not an Egyptian would say without regret the fact that all the monsters in our heads seemed to materialize month after month in all forms and ways.

The preliminary survey trips were made in the desert mountains North and South of Wadi Araba in the Eastern desert, the cradle of hermitism where the hermitage of Saint Anthony is, the region of Al Fayoum oasis, where, we scanned the areas partly excavated by the Polish archeologists from the Polish Center for Mediterranean Archaeology (PCMA) in Cairo, whose director drew our attention to the picturesque hermitages in the rocky desert around the monastery of Archangel Gabriel (deir al Malak Gabriel); the numerous pharaonic tombs in the Nile valley, hardly accessible due to the current political instability; the remnants of the Christian communities in the Bahareya and Farafra oases in the Libyan desert (Eastern Sahara); and on the edges of the Delta region in the ancient Kellia sites and the hermitages in Wadi Natrun, where monastic life has not only lived to the modern times, but also remained to be one of the most influential.

The idea of making the map, and the outcome of these preliminary surveys, raised a lot of interest in the scientific communities. Soon, positive feedback came from several researchers and institution all around the globe. Australia, Canada, US, France, Italy, Egypt. Stephen Emmels, the present secretary of the International Association for Coptic Studies (IACS), recommended Howard Middleton Jones, English archeologist and coptologist (Swansea University), who has been working on the Coptic Monastery Multi-Base projectsince 2007. He soon contributed more than 160 coordinates of monastic sites in Egypt, which would be the basis for the future work of exploring and locating hermitages. As an experienced desert photographer, he is also contributing to the organizing of the growing photo-documentation of the team’s trips.

“The Heritage of the Desert Fathers” research project aims at creating a comprehensive map of the geographical distribution of early anchorites and providing a firm basis for more detailed archaeological research of the hermitages. An in-depth documentation of artificial modifications in the caves around the monasteries might help in the efforts to reconstruct the architectural diversity and the gradual transformations of the hermitages. Once the coordinates are established, it will be possible to create a series of layer files, containing valuable information on individual hermitages as well as on the overall pattern of their distribution. The maps will be made available for the unrestricted use of the community of researchers from all disciplines.


Dedicated to our mission, we are motivated to spend months in the deserts, driven by the conviction that the end results of our investigation would not only provide the research community with indispensable data in the form of maps, scientific reports and studies, but might also help to preserve the cultural and spiritual heritage of early Coptic asceticism, which played a crucial role in the shaping of Western monasticism.

At the current time, and due to the increasing difficulties our team is facing in Egypt, we are planning to direct our efforts towards exploration and survey work in Sudan. Three Nubian kingdoms arose on the ruins of Meroitic power and are first known to history from the accounts of sixth century missionary activity given by the Syrian writer John of Ephesus. In the north, from the First to the Third Cataracts, was the kingdom of Nobatia, with its capital at Faras; south of it was Makuria, with its capital at Old Dongola; and further south again, the kingdom of Alwah (or Alodia), whose capital, Soba, is close to Khartoum. The conversion of the kingdoms of Nubia to Christianity in the 6th century has left us with several monastic sites, but the hermitages of those kingdoms are much less explored. We thus hope that, with the financial and institutional support we are seeking, we would be able to cover the desert areas on both sides of the Nile Valley from Khartoum to the Egyptian borders.

The reception of the project has been exceptional and very promising, but in order for such scale of work to proceed towards its goals on the long term, organization on steady, well-established grounds for systematic progress is indispensable.

In what we perceive to be turbulent times with no defined directions, ideas flare and die out, and the revolution days seem to be far, images that were once vivid fade away with the ideals they carried. As I still recall the images from Maspero, I realize this is none but a churning process, and only in these critical times that we feed our future. Shall we meet the outcome of our work or not, it would not matter, for as long as we believe it is due time to defend with all our might our heritage as a major constituent of who we are, we are on the right track. We, Egyptians, are dealing now with a tide that belittles our history, frustrated by our dependency on delusionary ancient pillars taking us nowhere. But the fact is that our knowledge of our heritage is too shallow that it has de-rooted us and led us towards degeneration.
If there is any mission that I am after, it is the mission of helping us to achieve a true knowledge of a significant aspect of our heritage. Such consolidated knowledge is not a fake, empty source of pride, but a strong pillar, among others needed, around which we can weave our present and future.