St. Ammon, Hermit of Nitria

“[Founder of the Hermitages of Nitria.] THIS great saint was born in Egypt of a rich and noble family. At the age of twenty-two years his tutors and trustees obliged him to marry, in the year 308; but, on the day of his marriage, he read to his wife what St. Paul has written in commendation of the holy state of virginity, by which she was easily persuaded to consent to their making a mutual vow of perpetual continence. They lived together eighteen years under the same roof in perfect continency; and he was so severe in his mortifications as to have gradually inured and prepared his body to bear the austerity of long fasts. For having spent the day in hard labour in tilling a large garden in which he planted and cultivated balsamum, a shrub about two cubits high, which distils balsam and produces an apple, some time ago more famous in medicine than at present, (the tree is cultivated like a vine, and produces its fruit in the third year,) at evening he supped with his wife on herbs or fruits, and immediately retired to prayer, in which exercise he passed a great part of the night. When his uncle and other friends who opposed his retreat were dead, he retired to Mount Nitria with his wife’s consent. She assembled and governed in her house a society of religious women, who in the exercises of a penitential and ascetic life, vied with the most fervent anchorets in the deserts, as is related by Rufin and others. St. Ammon first inhabited this desert; which Cassian places five miles from the city Nitria.
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In the close of the fourth century, Cassian reckoned fifty monasteries on Mount Nitria, inhabited by five thousand hermits. St. Ammon’s first disciples lived dispersed in separate cells, till the great St. Antony advised him to found a monastery, and to assemble the greatest part of them under the inspection of an attentive superior. That great patriarch of monks made choice himself of the place for erecting this monastery by setting up a cross.
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If St. Antony sometimes visited St. Ammon, our saint often repaired to St. Antony on Mount Troicus, where he then kept his cell. St. Ammon lived in great austerity, when he first retired into the desert, taking only a refreshment of bread and water once a-day. This he afterwards extended to two, and sometimes to three or even four days. The desert of cells into which St. Ammon extended his hermitages, was ten or twelve miles distant from Mount Nitria, though one continued wilderness. St. Ammon wrought many miracles. That which follows seemed to St. Athanasius to contain so important an instruction, as to deserve to be inserted in his life of St. Antony, where he has recorded it. The authors of the histories of the Fathers of the desert, and of the life of St. Ammon also mention it. One day, as he was going to cross a river called Lycus, when the banks were overflowed, in company with Theodorus his disciple, he desired him to withdraw, that they might not be seen naked in swimming over. Ammon, though alone, stood pensive on the bank, being unwilling and ashamed, out of modesty, to strip himself, reflecting that he had never seen himself naked. God was pleased to recompense his virginal love of purity by a miracle, and whilst he stood thus, he found himself on a sudden transported to the other side of the river. Theodorus coming up, and seeing he was gone over without being wet, asked him how it came to pass, and pressed him so earnestly, that he confessed the miracle to him, making him first promise not to mention it to any one till after his death. St. Ammon, otherwise written Amun, died at the age of sixty-two years; and St. Antony, though at the distance of thirteen days’ journey from him, knew the exact time of his death, having seen his soul in a vision ascend to heaven. St. Ammon is honoured on the 4th of October in many Greek Menologies. See Palladius, Rufin, Socrates, Sozomen, &c., in Rosweide; also Cotelier, Mon. Græc. t. 1, p. 352. Cassian Collat. 6, c. 1, &c.
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nitrean desert
“Nitria itself probably lies under the modern village of el-Barnudj in the upper eastern delta. While an intense archaeological investigation might turn up bits and pieces of the establishment, our only real evidence of Nitria comes from documents. The Unknown author of the History of the Egyptian Monks (Historia Monachorum in Aegypto), perhaps Flavius Rufinus?) visited the area at the end of the fourth century. He tells us:
“Then we came to Nitria, the best-known of all monasteries of Egypt, about forty miles from Alexandria; it takes its name from a nearby town where Nitre is collected… In this place there are about fifty dwellings, or not many less, set near together and under one father. In some of them, there are many living together, in others a few and in some there are brothers who live alone. Through they are divided by their dwellings they remain bound together and inseparable in faith and love”
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Another early visitor to the monastery was Palladius, who wrote Lausiac History (Historia Lausiaca), and who tells us that:
“I…crossed over to Mount Nitria. Between this mountain and Alexandria there lies a lake called Marea seventy miles long. I was a day and a half crossing this to the mountain on its southern shore. Beyond the mountain, stretches the great desert reaching as far as Ethiopia, Mazicae, and Mauritania. On the mountain live close to five thousand men following different ways of life, each as he can or will. Thus some live alone, others in pairs, and some in groups. There are seven bakeries on this mountain serving these men as well as the anchorites of the Great Desert, six hundred in all. ..On this mountain of Nitria there is a great church….The guesthouse is close to the church. Here the arriving guests is received until such time as he leaves voluntarily. He stays here all the time even for a period of two or three years. They allow a guest to remain at leisure for one week; from then on he must help in the garden, bakery, or kitchen. Should he be a noteworthy person, they give him a book, not allowing him to converse with anyone before the sixth hour. On this mountain there are doctors living, and also pastry cooks. They use wine, too, and wine is sold. All these work with their hands at making linen, so that none of them is in want. And indeed, along about the ninth hour one can stand and hear the divine psalmody issuing forth from each cell and imagine one is high above in paradise. They occupy the church on Saturdays and Sundays only. Eight priests have charge of the church; while the senior priest lives, none of the others celebrates or gives the sermon, but they simply sit quietly by him.”
One wonders whether the figure of five thousand residents of this monastery might be somewhat exaggerated, but it is evident that the population was high, judging from the need to have seven assistant priests to assist the senior priest.
The fall of Nitria probably took place in the latter half of the seventh century. When the patriarch Benjamin I passed through the area on his way to Scetis (Wadi al-Natrun), Nitria was completely deserted. The sand and wind of the desert, and more recently, the reclamation and irrigation projects have erased the remains of this monastic settlement. However, at its peek, the overcrowding of the Nitria monastery apparently forced Amun to create a second region of settlements, which has survived to some extent, and is better known to us….
nitria cells
While the very early hermitages may have had room for at most an elder and his disciple, by the seventh century the living quarters of these small complexes consisted of separate communal and private areas. The communal part of the living quarters might usually consist of an anteroom, a vestibule where visitors might be received, but where also manual indoor work could be performed, a pantry storage area and a kitchen….
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The private area of the hermitage usually contained the the elder’s apartment, consisting of a large room for prayer which would have had walls with niches, particularly the east wall, that might be elegantly decorated, perhaps a much smaller addition to the prayer room, and a relatively small room for sleeping. There was also usually a separate area for the elder’s disciple, consisting of a single cell comprising one room where he both slept and prayed. However, here to the east wall often had a niche adorned with the traditional painted cross.
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Both the elder’s apartment and the disciple’s cell usually had a recess that was probably used for storage, such as lamps, books and tools for work. Both the communal and private rooms were covered by a vault, with small high windows to allow a little light and fresh air. In addition, there were also small, cylindrical openings between rooms, shaped like the neck of an amphora and sometimes lined with ceramics, which provided both ventilation and communication between rooms….
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Life in the hermitages seems to have taken a balanced approach between anchoritic and communal life, being more “cooperative communities” of anchorites where the mutual obligations were considerably restricted and individual freedoms were mostly unlimited (as a whole), rather than having the more codified rules of a more cenobitic settlement.
Originally, the monks spent the week in their own cells, praying and producing crafts to trade for food, only coming together on Saturday and Sundays in their churches for the synaxis (assembly). Initially, a hermitage was occupied by a single monk, but as these monks grew old, some would take one or two younger brothers into their cells who would then act as disciples and servants. In this setting, less advanced monks practiced the ascetic life under the tutelage of a more experienced master. Thus when a novice asked Abba Paisios what he should do to fear God, he was told, “Go, and join a man who fears God, and live near him; he will teach you, too, to fear God.”
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Given this style of anchoritic, everyone enjoyed the freedom to organize their own lives within their hermitage (within reason), though soon, traditions were established that would effect some standardization. Prayer was the most important occupation of the day, but monks would also rise in the middle of the night to celebrate the “little synaxis”, offering prayer while standing with arms raised and facing the east. Of course, this is why their was a niche on the east wall with a representation of a cross.
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As the sun rose, the monks would begin their daily work, usually consisting of crafts such as making baskets, ropes or mats, since this work could be performed in solitude. Furthermore, while weaving either palms or reeds into these products, the monk could recite a short prayer called a melete (meditation) in a low voice, such as “Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver me; O Lord, make haste to help me” (Ps 40:13) Regardless of the monks work, it was handed over to a steward each week who would then exchange these good for food an any other necessities that the monk might require.
Other, better educated monks were scribes who worked to copy sacred texts, which was then either sold, perhaps bartered to other brothers, or provided to the communal ekklesia.”

“Kellia (“the Cells”), referred to as “the innermost desert”, was a 4th-century Egyptian Christian monastic community spread out over many square kilometers in the Nitrian Desert. It was one of three centers of monastic activity in the region, the other two were Nitria and Scetis (Wadi El Natrun). It is called al-Muna in Arabic and was inhabited until the 9th century. Only archaeological sites remain today.
Founded in 338 C.E. by Saint Amun, under the spiritual guidance of Saint Anthony, it was designed for those who wished to enter the cenobitic life in a semi-anchoritic monastery. An account of its founding, perhaps legendary, is in the Apophthegmata Patrum. Amun, who was then a monk at Nitria, one day talked with Anthony saying that he and some brothers wanted to move away “that they may live in peace”. Nitrea had become too successful and they wished for the solitude of the early days. Anthony and Amun ate dinner then walked into the desert until sunset, prayed and planted a cross to mark the site of the new community. The distance was 12 miles, or what Anthony considered close enough to reach in an after-dinner stroll.
Kellia was for advanced monks, for those who “lived a more remote life, stripped down to bare rudiments,” as was recorded in the Greek Historia Monachorum in Aegypto by Flavius Rufinus who personally saw it. The cells were arranged far enough apart that “no one can catch sight of another nor can a voice be heard”. It was only for monks who had first mastered the art of desert living at Nitria. They came together on Saturday and Sunday to share a meal together, some journeying 3 or 4 miles from their cell to the church. “They met in Church and, glimpsing this way and that, see one another as the heaven-restored.” If a monk failed to appear they would know he was sick or died and eventually someone (individually) would bring food or help or collect the remains.
It was believed in the 390s up to 600 monks were at Kellia. By the 5th and 6th centuries it numbered in the thousands. Activity began to taper off in the 7th and 8th centuries due to doctrinal disputes in Egypt, and raids from nomads out of the Libyan desert to the west. The site was abandoned in the 9th century.
Kellia was discovered by archaeologist Antoine Guillaumont in 1964, and has been excavated for over 25 years by French and Swiss teams. The site covers over 125 square kilometers, over which many small hills, or koms, were found. Once excavated they were found to contain many churches and living quarters, or cells named koms. Over 1500 structures have been identified but it is probable there were many more.
The structures range from single-cells for one person, to multiple cells for two or three people, to larger hermitages that included rooms for older monks, chapels and towers. In addition there were clusters of buildings that formed centers for communal services (Qasr Waheida), a complex of churches (Qasr Lsa 1), and a commercial center (Qasr al-lzeila). Buildings were made with a sandy mud brick and brick vaulted roofs. Most of the recovered artifacts are pottery, some of the walls are covered in inscriptions, graffiti and paintings.”
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See also:
H. G. Evelyn White, “The Monasteries of the Wadi ‘N Natrun Part 2: The History of the Monasteries of Nitria and of Scetis” [New York 1932]: available on-line at

“Kellia” in The Claremont Coptic Encyclopedia at:


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