Monastery of St. Paul
For the time being, Egypt’s Eastern Desert offers nothing in the way of antiquities for tourists. There are a few trade routes and other remains pharaonically. Monastery of St. Paul, nevertheless, home to two of Egypt’s most well-known Christian structures, the well-known monastery of St. Anthony (Antonios) and the maybe lesser-known Monastery of St. Paul of Thebes.
The Monastery of St. Paul was erected in the fifth century in honor of one of Egypt’s best saints and anchorites, who is supposed to have lived for eighty years in the rock over which it was built. Most of what we know about his life comes from St. Jerome’s writings and his Vita Pauli (Life of Paul), which was composed between 375 and 380 AD. While it is possible that St. Anthony originated the monastic way of life through influencing others, Amathas and Macarius, who were Anthony’s pupils, assert that Paul of Thebes was the true founder of the discipline.
St. Paul was born in the year 228 to wealthy parents, but by the age of sixteen, he had lost both of his parents. This would have coincided with Decius and Valerian’s horrific period of Christian oppression between 249 and 260 AD. After his parents died, Paul surrendered his fortune and dedicated his life to God, finally seeking sanctuary in the Eastern Desert of Egypt, where he is supposed to have lived until he was one hundred and thirteen years old. Tradition has it that a raven gave him a half loaf of bread to eat while he was living in his cave and wearing a garment made of braided palm leaves.
Anthony, who was at minimum a contemporary of Paul, was told about someone dwelling in the desert who was holier than he, according to Jerome. As a result, he set out to meet Paul and, after finding him, struck up a cordial chat with him. When the Raven arrived to bring the saint’s food that evening, he brought an entire loaf so that both the holy men might eat.
Anthony and Paul reportedly remained friends for many years. When Paul realized he was about to die, he begged Anthony to bring the cloak that the patriarch Athanasius had left him. When Anthony arrived in the hole where Paul had spent so many years, he witnessed angels carrying the holy ascetic’s soul to paradise. Two lions came and dug a grave for Paul’s body, which Anthony laid covered in the cloak he had brought. Paul’s palm-leaf garment, which he wore to commemorate Easter and Pentecost, is reported to have been kept by Anthony.
Brief about The Monastery
The Monastery of St. Paul (Deir Anba Bula), also known as the Monastery of the Tigers (Deir al-Numur), has traditionally been affiliated with the Monastery of St. Anthony, usually in a subservient manner, probably due to its wilderness position. Antoninus Martyr, a native of Placentia who attended the tomb of St. Paul between 560 and 570 AD, published the first trip story of the abbey. Melchite monks may have been the first to enter the monastery, but Egyptian and Syrian monks followed soon. The Syrians may have lived at the monastery for a long time, as they appear to have occupied it until the first half of the fifteenth century, after which they left.
It’s also worth noting that the Coptic Church’s seventieth patriarch, Gabriel II (1131-45 AD), was exiled to the monastery for three years, per an Ethiopian reference.
Bedouin tribes attacked this monastery, as they did many of Egypt’s early monasteries. A particularly terrible one occurred in 1484, when many monks were slaughtered and their library was set on fire. The monastery was thereafter restored under the auspices of Patriarch Gabriel VII, who dispatched ten monks from the Syrian Monastery (Wadi al-Natrun). However, it was assaulted and ransacked twice more in the second part of the sixteenth century, compelling the monks to flee.
The Monastery of St. Paul was presumably abandoned for the next 119 years, until it was resettled in 1701 by a group of monks from the Monastery of St. Anthony, who worked under the patronage of John XVI, who advocated significant rebuilding.
Churches at Monastery of St. Paul
- The Church of St. Paul
- The Church of St. Mercurius
- The Church of St. Michael