The oldest Christian monastery in the world?

Tal Ganoub Qasr al-Agouz site in the Bahariya Oasis.(Photo: Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities)

A few years ago, before the 'Arab Spring' reached Egypt in 2011, I rode out on a camel to the ruins of the monastery of St Simeon, near Aswan. Located in a remote place, between the desert and the river Nile, it is a dramatic and atmospheric place. I still have a photograph in which, wearing my Bedouin headdress, I look a bit like an extra from a Hollywood biblical epic, or maybe the film 'Lawrence of Arabia' (which shows my age).

The monastery itself is a 10th century rebuilding of a 7th century monastery that was originally dedicated to the 4th century St Anbar Hedra, who had been the Christian bishop of Aswan.

At its height, this fortress-monastery (with its 10m high perimeter wall) was home to 300 monks (some sources say 1,000!) and had guest accommodation for up to 100 visitors. Inside, the monks' sleeping quarters still have their stone 'mastaba' sleeping benches. Even with the addition of a straw-stuffed mattress, it cannot have made for a comfortable night's sleep. But then, rising in the dark hours to follow the services of the monastic rule, they were not built for long hours of rest.

Anbar Hedra is known today as St Simeon. He was one of the early Christians who followed ascetic practices as part of their renunciation of the world. According to legend, he would fasten his beard to the ceiling, in case he fell asleep during his extended prayer sessions. It stopped his head dropping in slumber!

The ancient building was partially destroyed by the troops of the Islamic ruler, Saladin (Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub), in 1173. He was the one who contested control of the Holy Land with Richard the Lionheart during the Third Crusade. Interestingly, one of the rooms in the ruin includes graffiti from Muslim pilgrims who stayed there, while en route to Mecca. It is a visual reminder of the changing landscape of faith in the Middle East.

The discovery of the oldest Christian monastery in the world?

That journey out to the Monastery of St Simeon was very much on my mind, as I read the latest edition of 'Current Archaeology.' It carried a report on the discovery of, what is thought to be, the oldest Christian monastery in the world.

The excavation has taken place in the Egyptian Western Desert at a remote spot called Tal Ganoub Qasr al-Agouz, in the Bahariya Oasis. The excavation was carried out by a Norwegian-French team from the Institut Français d'Archéologie Orientale, in Cairo, and the MF Vitenskapelig Høyskole, in Oslo, Norway.

The report I came across last week reflected on the significance of the site, in the light of recent excavations that concluded in December 2020.

As with all such archaeological excavation, the process of uncovering remains is followed by a lengthy period of analysis of the finds and interpreting their significance. The result of this analysis is that the excavators think that this site is probably the remains of the oldest Christian monastery in the world yet discovered.

Built in stages between the fourth and eighth centuries, the peak of activity at this lonely site probably occurred in the fifth to the early sixth centuries. This was a time when Egypt was part of the Roman Empire and then, following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century, remained part of the surviving Roman Empire in the east, until being conquered by Islamic forces in 639–46.

Known as a 'lavra,' the community at Tal Ganoub Qasr al-Agouz was made up of a cluster of hermitages. Altogether, there were six units of various sizes (each unit contained between 10 and 20 rooms). Some were constructed from basalt blocks, some from mud bricks. Others were dug into the bedrock. As well as containing living and dining quarters for the monks, there were three churches on the site. We can imagine the community of monks coming together for silent meals, while a passage of scripture or from their monastic rule was read; then meeting in the churches in services that marked the passage of the day and night; and, in-between, spending time in silent meditation in their cells – or perhaps in manual labour. It was a tough life for those who had 'left the world' and embarked on an ascetic spiritual journey.

Written on the walls of several buildings, the archaeologists discovered inscriptions from the Bible and from early Christian texts. These were written in Greek, the international language of the Eastern Roman Empire.

The most striking point is the early date of the establishment of this community and its location in the Western Desert of Egypt. It is a dramatic reminder of when Egypt was a majority Christian nation.

Christian Egypt

The Gospel of Matthew tells us that Joseph and Mary took Jesus to Egypt to escape the murderous attentions of King Herod. Living there as political refugees, forced from their home by a tyrant, it was the first connection of Egypt with the Christian faith. The connection would grow from this foundation. According to early church traditions, Christianity was brought to Egypt by St Mark the Evangelist in the first century. Christianity appears to have taken hold early, in the Greek-speaking and urban centre of Alexandria and other cities, before spreading into the countryside.

Some remarkable evidence from the early years of Christianity have survived from the dry conditions of Egypt. The very earliest fragments of the New Testament have been found in Egypt and date to the second century. The surviving evidence includes an extraordinary collection of papyrus fragments from Nag Hammadi, which were discovered in 1945. These pieces of Jewish and Christian texts illustrate the complexity of the Christian communities in Egypt, with a number of heretical Gnostic sects living alongside mainstream Christian communities that were themselves very diverse.

Writing the book 'Jesus the Unauthorized Biography' (published earlier this year) gave me an opportunity to explore and evaluate some of the more controversial of these texts, such as the so-called 'Gospel of Thomas,' the 'Gospel of Philip' and the 'Acts of Peter.' But the key point is that this papyrus evidence – even the wild, fanciful, heretical stuff – came from a time when the culture of Egypt was Christian (even if, at times, including very questionable versions of the faith). Christianity in Egypt eventually included a very powerful monastic movement, of the kind evidenced at Tal Ganoub Qasr al-Agouz.

Things could certainly be complex in Egypt and, by the fifth century, large communities of Christians in both Egypt and Syria were refusing to accept definitions of Christ's nature that had become the official orthodoxy in the Eastern Roman Empire. These differences in Christology were bitterly contested at the time.

Such disunity made it harder to mount a unified response to the Islamic invasions of the seventh century. Despite this Islamic conquest, the Egyptian Christian Church survived and the modern 'Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria' (an 'Oriental Orthodox Church') is a direct descendant of the original Christian community that had existed in Egypt before the arrival of Islam. Most 21st century Egyptian Christians belong to this Church.

While historians cannot offer a definitive statement as to when Egypt ceased to be a majority Christian nation, it is clear that this did not occur until several centuries after the Muslim conquest. The Muslim geographer Al-Muqaddasi (AD945–991), described Copts as making up the majority of the Egyptian population as late as the 10th century.

Ethnocide in the cradle of Christianity

Today the Christian Coptic population makes up somewhere between 6 per cent and 18 per cent of the Egyptian population. The Coptic authorities estimate higher figures, the Egyptian government lower ones. And that latter point is significant as it, arguably, signals a deliberate official downplaying of the size of the Christian community. The usual figure given today for Coptic Christians is 10 per cent but it may well be higher.

In addition, there are smaller communities of other Oriental Orthodox churches, such as the Armenian Apostolic and the Syriac Orthodox churches. There is also the Coptic Catholic Church, as well as communities of Melkites, Maronites, Syriac Catholics, Armenian Catholics, and Chaldean Catholics. The 'Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and all Africa' represents the Eastern Orthodox Church; and there are also a number of, relatively small, Protestant communities. One thing they all have in common is being under increasing pressure in the polarised modern Middle East.

While I was mulling over the significance of the archaeological find from Tal Ganoub Qasr al-Agouz, I happened to listen to 'Start the Week' on BBC Radio 4. Speaking on it was Janine di Giovanni, author of 'The Vanishing: Faith, Loss, and the Twilight of Christianity in the Land of the Prophets.' Her study charts the plight and the possible extinction of Christian communities across Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Palestine – despite this being the cradle of Christianity.

Persecution and discrimination have led to vast numbers of Christians leaving these nations. In addition, huge numbers across the region have been killed by extreme Islamist groups, most infamously ISIS. On my study desk is a bookmark hand-stitched with the Arabic letter for 'N'. It stands for 'Nasrani' (Nazarene), an Islamic term to describe Christians. It was stitched by a Christian Syrian woman who had escaped the murderous campaign by ISIS to eliminate Christians. ISIS members had painted the Arabic letter 'N' on the doors of Syrian Christians slated for destruction.

When I was last in Cairo, I visited churches in 'Coptic Cairo' on Palm Sunday. Joyful Copts came up and – pointing to the tiny crosses tattooed on their wrists – declared: "We Christians. We Christians." The crosses are witnesses to their faith in the face of much hostility and marginalisation. It is also a security aid. No Islamist suicide bomber, seeking entry to a church to detonate their suicide-vest, will have a cross tattooed on their wrist.

I was reminded of these believers when, in the writing of another recently-published book ('The Story of the Cross'), the exploration included looking at how a group affiliated to ISIS had murdered 20 Coptic Christian Egyptian migrant workers on a Libyan beach, in February 2015. Those beheaded were described as "people of the cross." In their faith, they had truly followed Jesus and had walked the way of the cross.

Reading about that excavation at Tal Ganoub Qasr al-Agouz reminded me of the Christians who continue to witness to their faith in the, often hostile, world of today's Middle East. They must never be forgotten. Let us remember them in our prayers. And, when Western leaders pursue their Middle Eastern policies, let us remember that many of these policies have, inadvertently, assisted in the marginalisation of these believers who live in the lands that were the cradle of Christianity. All too often these believers are not high on evangelical agendas when it comes to the Middle East. We need to change that!

Martyn Whittock is an evangelical and a Lay Minister in the Church of England. As an historian and author, or co-author, of fifty-four books, his work covers a wide range of historical and theological themes. In addition, as a commentator and columnist, he has written for a number of print and online news platforms; has been interviewed on radio shows exploring the interaction of faith and politics; and appeared on Sky News discussing political events in the USA. His most recent books include: Trump and the Puritans (2020), The Secret History of Soviet Russia's Police State (2020), Daughters of Eve (2021), and The End Times, Again? (2021). The book that includes exploring the written evidence from Christian Egypt is: Jesus the Unauthorized Biography (2021); that which looks at the martyred Coptic Christians is: The Story of the Cross: A Visual History (2021).