Episode Detail

Script


  • Hello and welcome to the History of the Copts. Bonus Episode 2. Monasticism in late antiquity Egypt
  • This episode is heavily indebted to The Coptic Christian Heritage book, especially the Monasticism chapter, written by Lois M. Farag, a nun herself, with a doctorate in Theology
  • I have written a review of the book on my blog, as the recommended reading for August. If you are interested in knowing more information, I recommend you check it out, and get the book.
  • The year is 250 AD. In the thick of the third century crisis. The Roman Empire is barely holding each other together. Decius is in charge and decides that Christianity is a problem and begins the first empire-wide systemic persecution
  • Back in Egypt, deep in the heartland of Thebes, a 15 year old orphaned boy is about to be handed to the authorities by his brother in-law for being a Christian and having an inheritance that the brother in-law wishes to keep
  • The boy flees to the desert where he found a cave that was shaded by a palm tree and furnished with a water spring.
  • The palm tree provides him his food and clothing; and the spring, fresh water
  • The boy lived completely alone in a life of prayer and meditation for more than 90 years  until guided by a vision, St. Antony found him just before he died and once they met, the boy who is an elderly man above a hundred by now, welcomed St. Antony, and then died shortly, with St. Antony burying him
  • The boy is known as St. Paul, the hermit, or Paul of Thebes in other sources
  • His story was written down by Jerome.. An influential monk living in Jerusalem – within 20 years or so from Paul’s death
  • The year is around 300 AD, an Egyptian aristocrat named Marcus has only 1 daughter, named Demiana
  • Demiana requested from her father to build her a house where she can live in a life of seclusion dedicated to prayers and mediations
  • Her father consents, and soon, forty other women join her
  • But, the Great persecution starts, and Marcus, given his position, offers sacrifice to the idols to avoid removal from his position and death
  • Demiana when she found out, rebuked her father for his weak faith, and encouraged him to publicly declare his faith
  • Once the word gone out, Demiana and her community of proto-nuns were targeted and all of them were martyred
  • The stories of Paul and Demiana are more or less hagiography.. I have retold their stories not to examine their lives as historical figures, but rather to explore the slow development of monasticism over time
  • They served as a way stop on the long road of the formation of Monasticism
  • After Paul and Demiana came the two giants that forever changed the Christian world, St. Antony and St. Athanasius
  • Antony is known as the father of Monasticism, and St. Athanasius was the writer of his biography that turned his life into a late-antiquity best seller
  • Their contributions lay not in the development of Monasticism per say, but rather in making it a popular life-style that is to be emulated by the serious Christian
  • As mentioned before, Monasticism took many years to take form, and continues to evolve to this day
  • In its purest form, Monasticism is a response to Christ’s call to follow him and to be perfect in a very specific way.
  • In the beginning, men and women who responded to the call, lived a holy life in their homes, or on the outskirts of their towns
  • One of those men was St. Antony
  • In a critical stage of his life after his parents death, he entered Church on Sunday with an open heart and mind
  • There, he heard the gospel of Mathew 19:21, If you want to be perfect, sell your possessions for a treasure in heaven, and follow me
  • He took the message to heart, went and sold his possessions, and entrusted his sister to a house of those proto-nuns similar to the house of Demiana
  • Slowly, he moved from his house, to the outskirts of town, then finally to the deep desert to live completely in seclusion
  • He wasn’t the only one – But, due to his charisma and spirituality, many flocked to him for all kind of advice
  • Some of his visitors, impressed by what he was doing, decided to stay with him
  • They became his disciples, and their community became the first monastery
  • Two of his disciples, Amoun and Macarius went on to found their own communities.. but unlike St. Antony where his community was deep in the eastern desert
  • They set up theirs in the more accessible western desert , the wilderness of Scetis for St, Macarius, and Nitria, for St. Amoun,
  • There is a map posted on podcast blog, and social media to go along
  • With two disciples, the next step of Monastic evolution began
  • Their monasteries were centered around a church.. Monks would live in solitude Monday through Friday, and then gather on Saturday and Sundays around the Church
  • Those monks answered to their leader – and they had specific manual jobs to support themselves, and the Monastery
  • Basket weaving in Scetis, and salt extraction for Nitria
  •  In upper Egypt, a different tradition was independently being formed
  • Similar to St. Antony, an early adopter of Monasticism named Palamon was becoming a popular figure in his community and the populace was flocking to him for advice, with some of them staying on as disciples
  • One his disciples was a former soldier named Pachomius
  • After learning how a monk should live from Palamon, Pachomius went on to an abandoned village and established a community based on what he learned from Palamon and from the Roman Army
  • It was nothing like what Amoun and Macarius were doing.. This was to be a new form of Monasticism
  • After several years experimenting, Pachomius’ community was organized as a cooperative brotherhood on the lines of a Roman army camp
  • The community was to have common work, common meals, and common prayers.
  • Strict rules were laid down and the Monasteries were in essence, small self-sufficient independent villages with collective ownership of resources. Sort of what you would expect if Karl Marx was a deeply religious monk.
  • By the time St. Pachmius died, he had established 9 monasteries for men, and 2 for women
  • When that second generation died, Monasticism as a movement was exploding and if we are to believe the ancient, sometimes exaggerated sources , Monastic community were around every village of Egypt and the St. Pachamius federation alone had more than 50,000 monks in it
  • That would translate to a total number of monks around 100,000 which would be around 2.5- 5 of the population. A huge amount, especially if you consider that they are giving up all their possessions and renouncing marital life for a life of celibacy and poverty.
  • Even if we accept that 50,000 as an exaggeration by Jerome, it is clear from other sources that the numbers were in the thousands
  • One of these sources, is the Historia Monachorum, a book from the early 5th century retells the story of 7 Palestinians monks travelling throughout Egypt to visit the various monastic centers
  • I have posted a map of their travel in the usual social media avenues to help you orient to their trip
  • That source is intriguing to say the least, written as by an anonymous monk who was on the trip personally to the his fellow monks in Palestine to show them how monasticism should be done
  • It was translated by Rufinius to Latin with his own addition based on his own travels.. It is also translated into Syriac and Aramaic.. So there is like 5 versions with different details.
  • Anyway, the book gives a firsthand account of what would be like to travel Egypt in the late fourth century/early 5th century and visit the monastic centers
  • A journey that is highly entraining and full of interesting details about how the monastic life was
  • The Palestinian monks start recording their trip from Lycopolis, Modern day Asiut, at the south edge of Egypt where they met the hermit, John of Lycopolis
  • This is the same John from Episode 20, that prophesied for Theodosius before his final battle
  • Then they move to Eshmunen, where they met, a monastic head named OR, in charge of a thousand Monks
  • His monastery was built based on reclaiming agricultural land, and when a new brother was admitted, the group built a mud brick house from him in a day, and gave him specific cloth as a uniform
  • At this point, unlike today, there wasn’t one set of monastic garb, but each group had its own rules regarding cloth
  • Next, was an intriguing group led by a certain Ammon, this group wore sheepskin cloaks and had a veil on their face when they ate – It seems that they were different from the rest of the centers the Palestinians monks visited – As they made it a point to highlight the cloak and the veil
  • Then they met Bes, an elderly monk who was an expert in solving his village hippopotamus and crocodile problems by praying
  • Next, was a major city, Oxyrhynchus.
  • Oxyrhynchus, modern day, the village of Bahnsa was an early Christian center of Egypt and one of the best documented places in Egypt due to its dry climate leaving lots of papyrus intact,
  • By the 5th century, if we were to take the writing of the Palestinians monks at face value - a big IF
  • It Hosted ten thousand monks and twenty thousand nuns. Now, this likely an exaggeration implying a large groups of monks and nuns, rather than actual specific numbers
  • The city hosted 12 churches for the secular people, different from the monasteries that lay outside the city
  • We are told that the city was entirely Christian, with not a single pagan where quote “the bishop can bless the people publicly on the street”
  • The group then takes a turn back to upper Egypt where they keep meeting holy men and women
  • There was Theon, an elderly monk who knew Greek, Coptic, and Latin – a seemingly rare skill based on the visitors surprise
  • Another was Elias, a hermit just outside Antinoe, the capital of the administrative district of Thebes
  • In addition to describing the various forms of monasticism, the Palestinians visitors offer a glimpse on what motivated those men to the life of monasticism
  • For example, they tell the story of Apollo, who went to the rescue of a man conscripted by force to military service
  • There, not only he miraculously delivered him, all the guards of the prison ended up becoming Monks
  • It doesn’t take much to see that a life of a respected monk is much better than a 5th century soldier
  • Apollo also solved disputes between villages and converted pagans
  • One notable incidence is when Pagans and Christian villagers fought over the boundaries of a village
  • Apollo intervened, with his 500 loyal monks, and solved the dispute
  • We are told, that the champion of the pagan died after he insulted Apollo, the manner of the death is not mentioned
  • But the writer stresses that he was the only casualty and none of the other pagans were harmed
  • Not only did the monasteries serve as pressure centers on the pagan community, they also served as a support system for the Christian villages
  • The same Apollo was able to intervene when the crops failed for a village and supported them during that time
  • The trip then continues all the way to Nitria in the suburbs of Alexandria giving us a clear picture on Monasticism was part of the Egyptian fabric and vital in the day to day life of the average Egyptians
  • However, one person that Historia Monchium doesn’t mention, is Shenouda the Archmendrite
  • Shenouda was a highly influential monk, he deserves his own episode, but my plan is talk about him a bit now, and a bit in the next special episode about life in byzantine Egypt – As he is a giant in the development Coptic literature
  • Shenouda was a head of a monastery that is a part of the Pachomian federation, named the White Monastery. His uncle founded the white Monastery, and he followed him enlarging it to make it the center of the federation
  • His life spanned the late fourth century and into the first half of the fifth century
  • He was even more stricter than Pachmious, and he left very detailed rules and instruction on how the monasteries should be run
  • At times, he could be a passionate man of God, at times, a tyrant when his orders are disobeyed
  • He clearly saw life in Earth as a battle against evil and he saw himself as a soldier battling on God’s behalf
  • To give a sense of how Shenouda was like, consider the following story about him from his disciple and the writer of his biography, a monk named Besa
  • A man came to confess to Shenouda that he had followed a traveler, and killed him, because he carried a purse which the thief believed to be full of gold, but, he naively adds, ' I only found a single piece”
  • Shenouda then instructed him to go where the Dux was staying and stay with the prisoners that are due to be executed
  • And if was asked if he is one of them, then he is to say yes, to quote Shenouda directly, “you will be put to death with them, and so God will receive you into eternal life.'
  • He developed a relationship with Pope Cyril, which we will get to when we talk about Pope Cyril next week – But sufficient to say, he was one of his biggest supporters
  •  His influence was clearly felt, and military official of the area consulted him and took his blessings
  • At the turn of the 5th century, Egypt borders were becoming chaotic .. The Blemmys of the third century were making raids again in upper Egypt, and the berbers, the north African tribes were raiding the Libyan-Egyptian frontier
  • The blemmys directly affected Shenouda’s white monastery
  • We are told, at one of their large raids 20,000 men, women, and children sought refuge behind the walls of the White Monastery. They were fed and clothed by the monks and all their needs were taken care of.
  • Thus, not only the Monasteries served as walled fortress that competent generals must take in their strategic calculation
  • Their wealth and organization was put to good use to replace the traditional role of the government
  • That golden age of Monasticism lasted until the end of the 5th century, Berbers raids on the Nitria and Scetis decimated the community, and turned it into in walled enclosures with limited numbers of monks
  • Additionally, The schism of the Council of Chalcedon inflicted a massive hit on the monastic communities, especially the Pachomian federation
  • The monks were the most outspoken supporters of the Miaphysite theology and as such, they became a target
  • When we get to emperor Justinian by the sixth century, the Pachomian federation would be pressured to accept the Council of Chalcedon, and many monks will abandoned their monasteries and live as hermits rather than accept the Council
  • Now, just to emphasize, the golden age would end by the end of the 5th century, but not monasticism itself
  • Monasticism is still alive and well today, and some would argue in a renaissance after almost a thousand years of decline under Islam
  • But, much more on that when we get there
  • To end this week episode, I am going to quote a long passage from the Coptic Encyclopedia that sums up the influence of Coptic Monasticism on Christianity
  • “Egyptian monasticism took on an exemplary and normative significance. Everywhere people sought to take as their model the Egyptian masters, and it was through them that they came to be initiated into the monastic life. Rufinus and Melania the Elder, on their way to found monasteries in Jerusalem, stopped and sojourned among the monks of Nitria toward 374. Some twenty years earlier Saint Basil, who laid down the laws for monasticism in the Greek world, had made a journey among the monks of Egypt before himself withdrawing into solitude at Annesoi in Pontus. It is said of numerous monks in Mesopotamia that at the beginning of their monastic life they too went to visit the monks of Egypt, as, for example, did Abraham the Great, founder of the great monastery of Mount Izlâ, in the sixth century. The prestige and authority that Egyptian monasticism enjoyed were such that fictitious tales were circulated, the aim of which was to give local monasticism Egyptian origins, in order to confer upon it a greater nobility. Such is the aim of the legend of Mâr Awgên who, an Egyptian by birth and in his youth a disciple of Pachomius, is said to have imported monasticism into the region of Nisibis in the fourth century. The Life of Hilarion, written by Saint Jerome at Bethlehem toward 390, arose even earlier from the intention of attaching Palestinian monasticism to Saint Antony and the monasticism of Egypt. Monasticism left a profound mark on Coptic Christianity in its piety, its ethics, and its institutions. With few exceptions, down to our own day the patriarch is chosen from among the clergy who come from the monastic milieu. But Egyptian monasticism, through the immense influence it exercised outside of Egypt, has set its stamp no less profoundly upon the church universal, in the West as well as in the East. This is certainly the most considerable legacy Egypt has left to Christianity.”
  • Farewell, and hopefully until next week. I have fallen behind in the research for various reasons, and I may have to skip a week or two to catch up. My apologies, the narrative of Pope Cyril is worth the wait.   

References


  • The Coptic Encyclopedia by" Aziz S. Atiya (editor)
  • Historia Monachorum in Aegypto by" Norman Russell (translator)
  • Egypt in the Byzantine World. 300 – 700 AD by" Roger S. Bagnall (editor)
  • The Coptic Christian Heritage: History, Faith, and Culture by" Lois M. Farag
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