A speck of green in a sea of sand, St. Anthony's Monastery in
welcomes those seeking God in silence broken only by the whisper of the wind. Egypt
Monks at what is considered by many to be the world's oldest active Christian monastery still rise before dawn to chant and pray just as their predecessors did for more than 1,500 years.
Now, they also carry mobile phones, send e-mails and maintain a website (http://www.stanthonymonastery.org), embracing modernity that has helped sustain the ancient monastery, nestled beside a spring where Egypt's eastern desert meets the craggy Red Sea mountains.
But the changes have sent some monks fleeing to a more austere existence in nearby mountain caves.
"There is nothing wrong with microwaves or mobile phones -- they save time," Egyptian monk Ruwais el-Anthony, who has lived at the monastery for more than 30 years, said through a bushy white beard. "But God will ask you what you have done with the time that was saved."
The monastery, which was founded in 356 AD, has survived Bedouin raids, the Islamic conquest of
Egypt, and wars between Egyptand that turned the area into a combat zone. Israel
Almost all the monks here are Egyptian Coptic Christians, a minority faith in the most populous Arab country, which is about 90 percent Muslim. Most Christians in
Egyptbelong to the Coptic Orthodox church, which gives allegiance to its own Pope in , Shenouda III. Egypt
Once closed off from marauding Bedouins behind towering white stone walls, the monks now open iron doors, engraved with Coptic writing, to busloads of tourists and pilgrims.
The monks raise chickens, grow fruit, and lead tour groups through the compound's 15th century church, which is built above the oldest monk cells ever discovered, dating from the fourth century, the monks say.
Monks believe a recently discovered grave under the church is that of St. Anthony himself.
"When I came here, it was very primitive and totally isolated," monk Athansious el-Anthony, 62, said.
When he first arrived in the late 1960s, the only visitors were Egyptian soldiers demanding water during
Egypt's war with . The monastery was near the front-lines of fighting in the war, which began in 1967. Israel
Now, a new road through the desert brings busloads of visitors, most from Europe and
Only the most gregarious of the 120 monks at St. Anthony's deal with visitors. The others isolate themselves in their rooms or spend their days praying in the caves.
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