40 for 40: Day 19 – The Monasteries of St Paul and St Anthony

TRANIST DAY! But with some sightseeing along the way.

Hurghada is just far enough away from Cairo to make a day’s travel feel like forever. It clocks in at over a five hour drive, and that’s not counting whatever traffic issues you’d encounter in Cairo. Plus, the landscape remains pretty barren throughout, so unless you go out of your way to see something, the scenery itself can be a bit of a drain.

So, we went out of our way to see something.

Usually done as a day trip from either Cairo or Hurghada, the Red Sea Monasteries are both the oldest Christian Monasteries in Egypt and the world. If you’re not doing a group tour, you have the options of a cheap-but-difficult DIY option, or a more expensive private option. As much as I like cheap DIY, no way we could do it and fit in the rest of the things on our trip, so private car was the option. Still worth it, though.

First stop was the Monastery of St Paul, considered to be the first Christian Hermit and a major figure in the Coptic faith. Paul was from a wealthy family in Alexandria and, upon the death of his father, forwent his inheritance to go and find God. He travelled to the desert, where a raven brought him half a loaf of bread every day, he found a natural spring of water and a cave to live in. Eventually, word of Paul reached another future saint, Anthony, who went to see how pious Paul was, only to have himself proven pious to Paul when the raven brought a full loaf of bread. Paul later died, Anthony commanded two lions to dig him a grave, and when people tried to find Paul’s body later, they couldn’t, not because he had ascended or anything, but because his dying wish was that nobody find his body.

So, thereby hangs a tale.

We were led around the Monastery by Father Ignacios (I believe), a kind monk who showed us Paul’s well, cave, and gave us the history of the Monastery from the 4th century to the present day. As well as some striking desert architecture, you also get to see some centuries-old frescoes. It’s compact, but having a monk with you gives you a feel for the place and, unlike everywhere else in Egypt, baksheesh is not expected, and you actually have to either notice the donation box, or have somebody point it out. In fact, when I tried to hand Ignacios a donation directly, even saying it was a donation, he refused to handle the money. It’s a living, breathing monastery.

On the way out, we had an extra passenger in the van. A monk, in an American accent, asked if we could give him a ride to St Anthony’s and we decided to take him along. His was an interesting story of a kid from an Egyptian family who grew up in New Jersey and California, became a doctor of internal medicine, before giving that up to move back to Egypt and be a monk full time, in what he could legit only describe as “a calling.”His name was a Father Gabriel, and it was really neat talking to him about not only his experience, but also the word and politics, as he has removed himself from enough of the day to day to hear about things like Donald Trump, knows enough to disagree with him from a religious standpoint, and yet would still sit without judgement as we described what might happen to Roe v Wade depending on the new Supreme Court Justice, or how Canada doesn’t relitigate social policies every election. Plus, I may have got “Careless Whisper” over as an earworm, as that was our driver’s ringtone, but he couldn’t remember the name.

After the one-hour ride to St Anthony’s, we said goodbye to one monk and hello to Father Marxis (which is the closest sound equivalent we could agree on later), who told us the similar story of Saint Anthony (rich from Beni Suef, gave it all up), who is considered the Father of Monasticism. The Saint Anthony Monastery is a larger one than Saint Paul’s, with higher walls and seemingly larger churches and chapels within. While you are able to see the cave of Saint Paul within his monastery, Saint Anthony’s cave requires a one hour round trip in what was some pretty blistering heat, and since the requirements for the cave entrance are described as “svelte and non-claustrophobic”, it was a hard pass today. We did end up in the bookstore, where I bought wine that was made for the monastery, which may or may not be delicious, I’ll figure that out later.

Once done, the looooong drive to Cairo began, which included our reintroduction to Cairo’s horrific traffic during a 15 minute dead-stop on the highway as people tried to figure out how to get around a stopped car. Things were pretty utilitarian after getting to the guest house – recharging a SIM card, getting a hair and beard cut (for $6), buying toothpaste. Considering we woke up at five and arrived in Cairo almost 12 hours later… yeah, functional adventures.

Tomorrow, back to Cairo’s Ancient Islamic district!

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