The Desert in Coptic Monasticism

egyptian desert 4
Maki Wasaki “The Significance and the Role of the Desert in the Coptic Monasticism: Monastery of St. Samuel as a Case Study”
“Journal of Arid Land Studies” 22-1, 139-142 (2012)
On-line at

As Brown (Brown P. 1993 “The Making of Late Antiquity” Harvard University Press, Cambridge) suggested, for the ordinary people, to live in the desert was out of the question in the late antiquity because they needed the water from the River Nile to live. However, as seen in the monastic lives of St. Anthony, St. Pachomius and their followers, monasticism is deeply related with the desert and that is why they are called “Desert Fathers” and their sayings and ways of livings are still influential to the Coptic Christians.
Today most of the monasteries in Egypt are surrounded by the desert.…Among the major inhabited monasteries in Egypt, Monastery of St. Samuel is located in the midst of the Western Desert.
samuel monastery
It is the furthest monastery from the human habitation in Egypt. To reach the monastery the visitor has to get off the high way and take non-paved road in the desert for about forty kilometers. On this road there is no shop, restaurant or even a house until reaching the monastery.
Geographically it belongs to al-Minyā governorate in Upper Egypt and in terms of the order
of Coptic Orthodox Church, it belongs to the Fayyūm monastery group.
One of the characteristics of this monastery is that it excludes the touristy side while some
other monasteries somehow allow themselves to be like touristic sites.
For example, it only allows the family of the monks to spend a night inside of the monastery but not regular visitors as the other “touristic” monasteries have a large number of accommodations on the site.
In this sense, the Monastery of St. Samuel tries to keep the original ways of monastic life and that is one of the reasons it was chosen to be the field for the research.

George Bebawi “With the Desert Fathers of Egypt: Coptic Christianity Today” “Road to Emmaus” Vol. X, No. 3 (#38)
On-line at
Now I will tell you about fr. Philemon, who was a hermit in St. Macarios Monastery, where I also lived for some time after my years with fr. Menas.
macarius monastery
Father Philemon refused to become a priest, by the way. He said, “I can’t stand in the sanctuary doing all these things. It needs very special concentration, and I am weak. I need to just stand and pray. To have to do this and do that – it’s too much for me. It takes someone like an angel.” He was finally ordained a deacon, but he created such havoc in the service – really, he disturbed everything – so the abbot stopped him from serving. He did that deliberately, and in the five years before he died, he pretended to be mad. He became a real fool-for-Christ.
You would ask him a question and he’d say, “you’re asking me? Who told you that I’m God Incarnate? Go talk to Christ!” And then he would burp or break wind.
Philemon used to sit outside his cell. There was a tree outside the Church of the Forty-Nine Martyrs of Scetis. One day I saw him sitting in the shade of the tree, moving as the shade moved with the sun. He used to recite the text from Psalm 118, “I am like a shadow that is fading away.” He said to me, “All my life, I wanted to become like a shadow, to pass over the sand of the desert and not to disturb anything. Even when I walk in the desert, I say to the sand, ‘I’m sorry, I am very heavy for you.’ ”
Now, Philemon was not just vegetarian, he was a very strict vegan. On one occasion, he asked me to bring him some dates, and so I brought him two kilos of the most expensive dates to be found in Cairo. As I was sitting in the library, the abbot came and said to me, “Come and see what your friend Philemon is doing with the dates.” So, I went out with the abbot and found Philemon feeding the dates to the donkey. He was patting its head, and talking to it. When he saw me he said, “Well, if you give someone a present, it becomes his personal property, doesn’t it?” I said, “yes.” He said, “Are you sad that I’m feeding my brother donkey the dates?” I said, “No, I’m not.” He said, “He needs to be fed with some good food from time-to-time. Look at his eyes. You can see the meekness of Christ in the eyes of this donkey. For me he is a mini-icon of Jesus Himself.” And actually, as I looked into the eyes of the donkey, who was beaten and cursed by the monastery workers, yet didn’t
complain, I also saw this.
…A bishop once came to preach at the community of St. Macarios. Philemon had a habit of sitting with his knees pulled up to his chest, and he would sit like that for the whole service, while everyone else was standing and kneeling. After the service, when the bishop came over to greet us, he asked who I was and I introduced myself. Then he said to Philemon, “Who are you?” He said, “They call me Philemon and I am Philemon.” He said, “How long have you been here?” He said, “I don’t know.” He actually didn’t know. He said, “I came here as a young boy and now I am an old man and how many years have passed, I really don’t know.” The bishop didn’t like that. “Were you in church?” “Yes, I was in church.” The bishop asked, “What did you think of my sermon?” I thought, “oh my, I wish he had not asked that question,” but Philemon looked at him and asked, “Was there a sermon in the church today?” The bishop said, “Yes, were you asleep?” “No.” The bishop continued, “I spoke about this and that.” “Oh yes, you call that a sermon? you were talking about yourself and giving us a demonstration of your knowledge.” The bishop said, “How dare you say this!” “Ah, so the old Adam is still alive in you!” “What do you mean?” Philemon replied, “If people judge you and you are offended it means that you are not doing things for Christ.” I sat there praying, “Mother of God, save this bishop from the hands of Philemon.” The bishop said, “oh, so you think I’m projecting my own image?” “yes, that’s what I felt, and that’s why I said there was no sermon. But, bishop, if you teach and speak to us of what the Lord said, not what you think, that will be a sermon.” Then I said, “you know, your Grace,
fr. Philemon is one of our hermits and he is an unusual man.” The bishop kept looking at him and finally said, “Well, if he is unusual, it doesn’t matter what he says.” I kept whispering to Philemon, “for Christ’s sake, man, move….” Then Philemon stood up and said, “yes, what I said doesn’t matter at all, because the old nature in us doesn’t have a desire for truth. And you know, your Grace, truth is not an idea, truth is Christ Incarnate. Peace and joy in Christ.” And he walked away

See also

The Desert People
This article is reproduced, with permission, from African Saints: Saints, Martyrs, and Holy People from the Continent of Africa, copyright © 2002 by Frederick Quinn, Crossroads Publishing Company, New York, New York in the “Dictionary of African Christian Biography” at

The desert has a special place in Christian spirituality. There was desert land not far from the holy city of Jerusalem and only a short distance from the Galilean countryside as well. A place to which Jesus and his followers frequently withdrew, it was also the site where John the Baptist, last in the line of great prophets, appeared to herald the Messiah’s presence, citing another desert prophet, Isaiah, who had proclaimed: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'”

Jesus may have spent years of preparation for his ministry in a desert monastery, and just before his tumultuous final three years of public ministry, he was tempted by Satan in the wilderness, where the Devil offered him tangible power and influence if he would abandon his messianic role. Jesus, alone in the desert, rejected the offer. “Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him” (Matt. 5:6).

Angels were other occupants of desert spaces, clouds of them, flights of angels winging through the cloudless air, combating devils, singing God’s praises, and ministering to a growing number of Christians who came to the desert as solitary hermits, in communities, or as temporary pilgrims.

The time of the desert fathers (called here the “desert people,” for the numbers included many women) was c. 250 to 500 A.D., a time when several thousand monks lived individually as hermits or in communities (coenobites), primarily in three regions of Egypt; Thebaid, the Nitrian Desert, and Middle Egypt between the Nile and the Red Sea, where St. Anthony of Egypt also lived.
thebaid hermits
“Thebaid Hermits” – Fresco, 16th c., anonymous,
The barren wilderness was alive with prayerful communities, and toward the end of this period, their numbers grew into the thousands, many of them humble Coptic peasants attracted by the forceful message of the saints who were dwelling in huts and caves or simple monasteries.
nitrean desert
Barbarian raids on the small, isolated monastic communities were common. The monk Ammon described one such raid near Alexandria, where thirty-eight monks were killed in 380 A.D.:
“For who, even if his heart were of stone, would not weep for the holy martyrs who had grown old in the garb of Christians, flung upon the ground in merciless suffering; each one of them struck down, one with his head cut off and another [cleft in twain and another] with his head split in two. What can I say about the number of merciless blows which struck the saints who were killed limb by limb and were flung upon the ground?”

African Christianity has a unique affinity with desert spirituality; for one thing, there are deserts everywhere, especially in Egypt and the Nile region, but also in North Africa, the Sahara, and further south the Kalahari, with innumerable wildernesses in between. Andrew Walls, a Scottish missionary who spent many years in Africa, once said, “You do not have to interpret Old Testament Christianity to Africans; they live in an Old Testament world,” a world full of desert spaces, a place where the spirituality of the desert finds responsiveness.

In the early centuries, thousands of Christians in Egypt, facing Roman persecution, fled to the desert, living in caves or large holes hewn in rocks, a common form of lodging, or in small buildings made of stone with roofing of dried reeds. An early account spoke of a land “so swamped with monks that their chants and hymns by day and by night made the whole country one church of God.”

Usually these dwellings were near sources of water; the monks needed water to drink and to irrigate their crops of barley, onions, and other vegetables. Hermits led a life of ascetical simplicity, often depriving themselves of food and even mutilating their bodies in self-denial. They called themselves “athletes of Christ,” by which they meant those who trained constantly for the competition and engaged their enemy the Devil in races, wrestling matches, and mortal combat. St. Jerome, a leading figure of the desert ascetics, wrote:
“St. Jerome in the Desert” (c.1480) Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516)

“O Desert, bright with the flowers of Christ. 0 Solitude, whence come the stones of which the Apocalypse, the city of the Great King, is built! 0 Wilderness, gladdened with God’s especial presence! What keeps you in the world, my brother, you who are above the world? How long shall gloomy roofs oppress you? Oh, that I could behold the desert, lovelier to me than any city.”

For Coptic Monasticism in Egypt, see further the “Coptic Monastery Multi-Media Database Project” at and “Coptic monasticism” at
desert christians
See also William Harmless “Desert Christians : An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism” [Oxford University Press, 2004]
“In this book, William Harmless provides an accessible introduction to early Christian monastic literature from Egypt and beyond. He introduces the reader to the major figures and literary texts, as well as offering an up-to-date survey of current questions and scholarship in the field. The text is enhanced by the inclusion of chronologies, maps, outlines, illustrations, and bibliographies.”


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