Just half an hour away from the monstrosity that is Porto Sokhna, you will find the serene monastery of St. Paul, touted as the oldest monastery in Egypt, and consequentially, the world. Though the monastery shares the distinction with nearby St. Anthony’s, the title will be of no consequence to you as you drive up to the entrance. The 15-minute drive into the heart of the mountains from the coastline is breathtaking and almost worth the trip on its own.
Driving inside, a silence that can only be explained by the desert engulfs you. Cell phone service becomes nonexistent and handmade crosses can be seen on every hilltop around you, however remote or high. After a sharp left, the monastery suddenly appears out of nowhere, carved into the mountains.
The monastery complex is very sophisticated and the place has evolved vastly since its original churches were built. The original structure was founded in the 4th century CE. We were first introduced to the place where the monks receive important guests, a large hall with luxurious furnishings and towering paintings adorning every corner.
We were received by some of the high priests and their families, who offered us tea every chance they could. Next to it was the guest house equipped with kitchen, bathrooms and several seating areas.
Naturally the air around the monastery is crisp and clean, nothing like the exhaust fumes Cairenes breath everyday. The real journey began when we started to explore the complex on the other side of the guest house and the guest hall, which required a short drive.
This is where buses were bringing in scores of visitors, mostly Coptic teenagers from the surrounding area. The souvenir shop has all the information you might need on the monastery and its numerous churches, in print or digital formats, and there is a library ready to answer any theological questions you may have.
From the inside, you can spot remnants of a 6th century fortress surrounding the older parts of the monastery, to protect against potential attack. Today the surrounding area is filled with resorts everywhere you look, with El Gouna and Ain Sokhna in either direction on the coast and visitors will be in no shortage of rest stops and food places to stock up from before spending a day inside the monetary. Not that we needed to, because the friendly and hospitable monks of the monastery insisted we lunch with them.
The monks are the main reason the monastery feels friendly and inviting. The image most Egyptians have of monks is that they are deeply religious and perhaps even fanatic, choosing to live in the remote Egyptian desert, shunning all contact with people to attain the profoundest contact with God. The monks we encountered, however, were more sociable and nicer than many city dwellers we know.
There was no shortage of jokes and, particularly inside jokes between the monks, when we visited. At one point, we inserted a camera, with permission from the monk who was showing us around, through a church window to take a photo of monks singing Coptic hymns. We felt the camera being tugged and it disappeared. A moment later a monk’s smiling face appearing instead, asking us, “well what do we have here then?”
The monastery receives anyone regardless of religion, ethnicity or gender, and at no charge. This means that you can arrive at any time and if the monastery has lodgings available, they will put you up and feed you for a certain period of time, usually a few days unless otherwise agreed upon. Monastery life is self-sufficient in most ways; in addition to the lodgings, library and churches, the monastery is equipped with a doctor, an information office, a bakery and a women’s guesthouse.
The churches range from the simple and unadorned to the ornate and even garish, depending on when they were built. Many rooms in the monastery have their own stories, such as one where threads were spun in olden times on an ancient wooden loom.
Picturesque narrow alleyways beg to be explored with paths dotted with rubbish bins and shining from constant maintenance. Vegetation is kept green with water from the nearby mountain which supplies the monastery and we were shown a room that houses the wells. Following the source of the well water, the stream travelled through an alleyway that turned out to be a tunnel reaching all the way into the mountain itself. Invited to try, we drank, straight from the source. The water tasted somewhat sweet, but fresh and clean.
We recommend arranging something with the monastery before arrival, but remember: though the monastery is open to everyone, it is less of a tourist attraction than a place of worship and communal living, and perhaps this is where its charm lies.
The monastery sports many signs of modernity that often compliment but also contradict its overall essence. Do not be surprised to see electricity and computers (in the library only) where monks were cut off from the world only a few decades past. The monks praise the late Pope Shenouda III for this and credit him with many of the renovations that have made the place what it is today. You can find the odd truck here and there, parked next to a centuries old church, bringing building supplies.
The simplicity of monastery life still prevails though, despite these superficial signs of modernity. The visitors come to pray and reflect and the desert’s unchanging silence provides a grandeur that helps the monastery retain its essence. St. Paul’s makes you feel very small, almost insignificant, knowing that there were people who many centuries ago carved this breathtaking structure into a mountain.
It humbles you to know that this is where an almost completely detached society still exists in an ageless fashion and with its own everyday reality. A place where human life continues, and has continued for centuries, in a set way, independent of our visit, our observations and even our existence.