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The 1,700-year-old Christian monastery hidden deep in Egypt's desert

By Christine Theodorou, CNN
  • St. Anthony's Monastery is one of the world's oldest inhabited monasteries
  • The monastery's founders were disciples of St. Anthony the Great
  • St Anthony lived as a hermit for more than 40 years to be closer to God
  • Middle East
  • Egypt
  • Christianity

Ain Soukhna, Egypt (CNN) -- On the day when much of the world was marking Christmas, I traveled with friends to a remote location deep in the Eastern desert in Egypt. Nestled in an oasis within the Red Sea Mountains is one of the world's oldest inhabited monasteries: The Coptic Orthodox St. Anthony's Monastery.

Festivities here were still some ways off; Christmas in the Eastern Orthodox tradition falls 13 days after the western one.

The founders of this monastery were disciples of St. Anthony the Great, widely considered to be the Father of Monasticism because he initiated Christian monastic life as we have come to understand it today.

Our guide was Father Ruwais Antony who helped us understand how this 4th century monastery made Egypt the origin for a movement that spread throughout Palestine, Mesopotamia, Persia and ultimately Europe.

The story goes that St. Mark, one of Jesus Christ's 12 apostles, arrived in Alexandria to spread the word. In a city rife with various schools of thought and religious beliefs, St. Mark was confronted with philosophers who were convinced his teachings were at odds with their own beliefs.

To defend his beliefs, St. Mark founded a theological school, teaching Christianity from a philosophical point of view. He lived a life modeled after Jesus and attracted many converts who ultimately became disciples.

These were the first monks.

The disciples followed a way of life that consisted of prayer, reflection, and fasting -- all elements of an ascetic way of life, but not in total isolation.

They lived and practiced their ideals close to their communities and families, and in the next century these ideas spread throughout Egypt.

Next, Father Ruwais sent us hiking up a winding staircase that would take us to St. Anthony's hermitage.

St. Anthony the Great was born in Upper Egypt to a family with considerable wealth but was inspired to adopt an ascetic lifestyle after coming into contact with the disciples.

In an effort to be closer to God, he chose to isolate himself for more than 40 years in a primordial landscape that is now the location for St. Anthony's Monastery.

At the summit, surrounded by stunning views of the desert and the Red Sea, is the cave's entrance and inside, a very narrow, dark, 10-meter pathway leading to a small shrine to St. Anthony. Small pieces of paper with prayers written on them were pushed into every crevice.

The monastery itself has five churches, a mill, and a water spring.

It was St. Anthony's church that left the most indelible impression. At the end of the 15th century, Bedouins managed to occupy the church and painted over frescoes dating from the 6th century. They were painstakingly restored in 1996 by Italian conservators.

One of the more extraordinary paintings Father Ruwais pointed out depicted the Virgin Mary breastfeeding the baby Jesus.

Father Ruwais went on to explain that it is believed St. Anthony's remains are buried beneath the main altar, so every Sunday afternoon the monks honor him by holding a candle and singing for him.

At the end of our tour Father Ruwais said his wish was for people to come closer to God, to hold the ideal in their heart, not just in words.