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A Day in the Life of a Coptic Monk

The sun god Ra rises high in the sky. Forgotten, pushed aside by the latest religious craze, he still comes to warm the endless desert here around Wadi Natroun, a dry valley north of Cairo. I've come to see what this "new" Christian religion is all about. Well, relatively new...considering that Ra was worshipped for at least 3000 years, until this Jesus guy came along.

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If you dream of just getting away from it all, this is the place to go! The air is clean (a welcome relief from Cairo!) and the sky a brilliant blue. The desert extends in every direction, with small trees and bits of cultivated land cared for by the monks who live out here in the four ancient Coptic monasteries. Steeples topped with crosses poke out above the fortress walls, all the same beige as the desert from which the y rise.

A Brief history of Coptic Christianity

"Copt" means "Egyptian," and the Coptic Church is one of the oldest Christian traditions in the world. It was started when St. Mark (of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John fame) came to Alexandria, Egypt around 60 AD. Mary and Joseph are said to have traveled through here with the baby Jesus when fleeing the Roman emperor Herod. However, Jesus only preached in Palestine, so Egyptians didn't get Christianity directly from the Man himself.

Since the ancient Egyptians already believed in eternal life, the things St. Mark was saying made a lot of sense to them. The big difference, which made him extremely popular, was that in this new religion, everyone was equal and entitled to everlasting life! You didn't have to build a huge pyramid, or be mummified, or have priests perform elaborate magical rituals. You just had to believe in one God, and ask him to forgive your sins. Sounds easy enough, right! Not only that, but the Egyptian symbol for eternal life was the ankh, which looks a lot like the Christian symbol for eternal life, the cross!

At first, there was a lot of fighting between the Christians and the pagans (anyone who wasn't Christian). The Coptic Church recognizes hundreds of martyrs who died from religious persecution, including St. Mark himself. It wasn't until the fourth century AD that Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. About that time, here in Egypt, the tradition of Christian monasticism started, with a few holy men retreating into caves in the desert to live like hermits.

The church we were standing in was built in the late 4th century. Soon after this, in 407 AD, came the first of many attacks on the monasteries of Wadi Natrun by the local Berber tribes. After one particularly vicious siege, when 49 monks were killed at a nearby monastery, the Berbers were said to have washed their swords in the well here in the courtyard, now called the well of the martyrs. Gross. I'm not going to drink from it!

Later, the Roman Emperor Zenon built fortifications to protect the monks from the Berber attacks. Fr. Sarabamon showed me the fortress they built inside the walls, with everything they would need to survive a long siege, including a well, a bakery, and two chapels. It can only be entered through a third story drawbridge. This probably came in handy later, when the Persians invaded. Ironically, when the Islamic Arab armies finally took control of Egypt in the 7th century, they gave the church more freedom and relieved them from the heavy taxes that the Byzantine Empire had placed on them.

Shyly, I passed through the open door in the huge fortress wall of Deir al-Anba Bishoi. "Uh, hello? Is this where the party is?" A man in a long, black, hooded robe, with embroidery around the hood and an ornate leather cross around his neck, smiled through his thick wiry beard. "Welcome!"

He directed me through a green, open courtyard into the church. There are no pews or chairs, only carpets, an altar, and the bodies of the founder of the monastery, St. Bishoi, and his friend St. Paul of Tammah. Each body is inside a wooden tube, covered in a cloth with their image on it, wrapped in clear plastic, and lying on a fancy altar. I sat down on the floor in the stillness, with old paintings of saints and martyrs looking down on me from the walls. I was trying hard not to imagine the contents of those wooden tubes!

Another monk, Father Sarabamon, came to show me around, rescuing me from the eerie silence. I admit, I wasn't expecting someone who has chosen an ascetic, hermit lifestyle to be so friendly and cheerful, but he was. I told him all about the Odyssey World Trek, and he explained to me the history of the Coptic church, the history of monasticism, and what it's like to be a monk.

How amazing! To me, the Bible has always been an old book that was more parable than truth. But here I am, in a Coptic monastery, where His Holiness Pope Shenouda III can trace his position back through an unbroken line of 117 patriarchs to Saint Mark! Mark, as you may know, was one of Jesus' twelve apostles (or, if you're Coptic, seventy apostles) and one of the four Evangelists who wrote the first four books of the New Testament of the Bible!

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Father Sarabamon
"So what's it like to be a monk?"I asked him. "What do you do every day?"

For Father Sarabamon and the 150 other monks at Saint Bishoi Monastery, he day starts at four in the morning with prayer. Maybe that's why St. Bishoi was known to tie his hair to the ceiling to stay awake while praying! After that, they attend a church service, or liturgy, before heading off to work.

T hese guys don't put on power suits and head to Cairo in the rush hour traffic. Instead they work around the monastery, taking care of the gardens and the church, cooking, or greeting visitors like me! They break for lunch, and again for evening prayers at 4 PM. Then comes the most exciting part of the day--the monks leave the monastery to go walk in the desert for contemplation. After dinner at 7pm, they all go to their cells to read and pray before bed.

After he explained all this to me, I had to ask, "Why did you decide to become a monk?" I mean, it's not just a normal profession, like being an accountant or a mechanic or a writer for the Odyssey World Trek. But he seemed like a pretty normal guy, beneath the long robes and scraggly beard.

Vocabulary Box

ankh – Egyptian cross; symbol for eternal life
ascetic – practicing strict self-denial for personal and spiritual discipline
contemplation – concentration and thought; especially on spiritual themes
Coptic – Egyptian. From Greek "Aigyptos", which in turn came from ancient Egyptian "Ha-ka-Ptah" or "the house of the Ptah"
hermit – someone who leaves society to live in solitude; especially for religious reasons
pagan – non-Christian
patriarch – the oldest male member or representative of a group

"When I was 15, my family visited the monastery of St. Anthony at the Red Sea. I liked it very much. I went home and prayed to be shown the way." He said that after he finished school, he joined the monastery as a novice. "They tested me, to see if I was stable. To see if I really believe this."

"So, what did your parents think?!" I asked. I imagined myself saying, "Well, Mom and Dad, I've decided to give up all my earthly possessions to live in the desert for the rest of my life." I don't think they'd take it very well.

"At first they were really sad," he admitted. His parents wanted him to grow up, get married, have kids and all that. "But now they are so happy. They can present their son as a man of God. They come visit me sometimes, and it has really been good for them, too."

"So, where do you sleep? Do you each have your own room?" I asked.

"We each have our own room, which we call 'cells'." He explained.

Sounds like prison, or maybe a huge biology experiment gone awry! I figured there were probably no posters of Ricky Martin or Tupac on the walls.

"Each cell has an inner room, for prayer, and an outer room for doing handicrafts, eating, and receiving guests. But not guests like you!" He was quick to add that the only guests would be other monks coming to chat. As a matter of fact, since the monastery is full right now, I wasn't even about to see one of their cells.

Within sight of the monastery, there are two other building complexes. One is a retreat center where youth groups from the Egyptian Coptic churches come and stay. The other is a monastery called Deir as-Suriani-the Monastery of the Syrians. It was founded by a Syrian monk in the 8th century around an older Coptic church and over the top of the cave where St. Bishoi prayed all night, with his hair tied to the ceiling to stay awake! After my tour, I thanked Fr. Sarabamon and walked down the road, across the windy desert to Deir as-Suriani.

Once there, a very cheerful monk sporting a graying beard greeted me. His robe was covered in dust because he was working on repairing one of the ancient walls. He wouldn't let me take his picture, but he had fun talking to me and playing with my digital camera, and he even gave me a chocolate bar...a sure way to become my friend! He told me that he is, in addition to being a monk, an engineer. "Many of the monks here in Wadi Natrun have professional degrees," he explained.

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Kissing the tomb
Another monk, Fr. Daniel, was in charge of greeting visitors that day, so I left my new friend to his work, and went on a tour of Deir as-Suriani. There's a saint in a tube in the church there, too, St. Ifram! A family from Cairo had come out for the day, and the parents were lifting each child up to kiss the outside of the tube.

Later, I met 9-year old Miriam and her family outside, near the holy tree. Fr. Daniel explained to all of us that the tree sprang from the ground where St. Ifram stuck his walking stick back in the 4th century. Miriam understood what he was saying, too, because she goes to an English Language school in Cairo. She pointed out to me that her name was Miriam, the Arabic name for the virgin Mary.
Yeah! More new friends!
Here in Egypt, there are two ways to tell if someone is a Coptic Christian. One is by their name. If they are Mohammed or Ali or Fatima, for example, they're from a Muslim family. If they are Yusuf, Daniel, or Sara, they're from a Christian family. The other is a simple tattoo of a cross that many Coptics have on their wrist. I had noticed them before a few times in Cairo and wondered about them. They're very punk looking, but on people who definitely don't look like punks, like Fr. Daniel.

The lifestyle of the monks has changed very little over the past 1,000 years or so, but there are some differences. For example, Deir as-Syriani has a website! If you're curious to learn more about the Coptic faith or the monasteries, check it out!


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


Jasmine - Coptic Cairo
Kavitha - Egyptian Dynasty Part II
Monica - Meeting of the Minds: The Afro-Asian Peoples' Solidarity Organization (AAPSO)
Monica - Alexandria, Egypt: City of Legend
Monica - The Liberation of Women

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