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This historic monastery traces its origins to the 4th century AD when monks began to settle at the foot of Gebel Al Galala Al Qibliya, where their spiritual leader lived. Today the monastery is a large complex surrounded by high walls with several churches, a bakery and a lush garden. The 120 monks who live here have dedicated their lives to seeking God in the stillness and isolation of the desert, in a life built completely around prayer.
From its beginnings as a loosely organised grouping of hermits, the monastery evolved over a few centuries to a somewhat more communal existence in which the monks continued to live anchoritic lives, but in cells grouped together inside a walled compound. Despite the changes, the monks still follow traditions and examples set by St Anthony, St Paul and their first followers 16 centuries ago.
The Church of St Anthony is the oldest part of the monastery and the main highlight of a visit here. It's built over the saint’s tomb and contains one of Egypt’s most significant collections of Coptic wall paintings. Painted in secco (whereby paint is applied to dry plaster), most date back to the early 13th century, with a few possibly much older. Stripped of centuries-old dirt and grime, the paintings are clear and bright, and demonstrate how medieval Coptic art was connected to the arts of the wider Byzantine and Islamic eastern Mediterranean.
Most of the monks who guide tours will take you up onto a section of the monastery's fortified walls for a short walk to see the large basket and wooden winch that were the only means of getting into the complex in times of attack. In the 8th and 9th centuries the monastery suffered Bedouin raids, followed in the 11th century by attacks from irate Muslims and, in the 15th century, a revolt by bloodthirsty servants that resulted in the massacre of the monks. From the top of the walls you get a great view of the small mud-brick citadel into which the monks retreated during these attacks. Visitors are not usually allowed to enter.
You also get an excellent panorama over the monks' impressive cultivated gardens. These are fed by a spring sourced deep beneath the desert mountains that produces 100 cu metres of water daily, allowing for the bountiful oasis of shady trees within the monastery grounds.
The monastery is open daily throughout the year except during Advent and Lent, at which time it can only be visited on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. During Holy Week it's closed completely to visitors. For enquiries or to confirm visiting times, contact the monastery headquarters, located off Clot Bey, south of Midan Ramses in Cairo.