Friday, February 5th, 2010
The monastery, only a mile and a quarter away from the cave over the Red Sea where St. Antony lived his extraordinarily long and ascetic life, is the oldest active Christian monastery in the world, and has just been reopened to the public after an 8-year, $14.5 million restoration.
In the government-sponsored project, workers renovated the fortress-like ancient wall surrounding the monastery and the walls of its two main churches — the 14th century Church of the Apostles and the 6th century Church of St. Anthony. They also renovated monks’ quarters and a 6th century tower into which monks would retreat during attacks by marauding Bedouin tribes throughout the Middle Ages. [...]
Amid the renovations, archaeologists from the American Research Center in Egypt discovered the remains of the original monks’ cells dating back to the 4th century under the Church of the Apostles. After they were excavated, archeologists in 2008 covered them with thick glass so that visitors to the church can see them below their feet. ARCE also renovated stucco paintings in Church of St. Anthony.
The wall paintings had been obscured by years of accumulated soot, candle grease, oil and dust. The oldest of these paintings date to the 7th and 8th centuries, and are attributed to a Coptic master artist known as Theodore. The others are from the 13th century and while we don’t know who the artist was, they appear to be Byzantine in style.
The monastery complex also includes a library with 1700 handwritten documents. There used to be many more, but the Bedouin who sacked the monastery in 1454 used them as fuel for their fires.
The reopening comes at a crucial time in Egyptian sectarian politics. A shooter opened fire in a church on Orthodox Christmas Eve (December 6th) killing seven people. Zahi Hawass emphasized during the unveiling of the monastery renovation that the shooting was a criminal act that can happen “between two brothers”, that Egypt was as committed to protecting its Coptic and Jewish heritage as it is committed to its Muslim heritage.