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14 October 2014
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Egypt's Coptic Christians

A road through the Egyptian desert.  Tyre marks can be seen in the sand on the tarmac.  In the distance a collection of low, light-coloured stone buildings is dwarfed by the red-brown mountains behind

Approaching St Antony's Monastery
The Copts are the Christians of Egypt, a community of over five million people that proudly preserves its traditions, calendar and liturgy.

The Eastern Desert, to the west of the Egyptian coast of the Red Sea, was the place chosen by Saint Antony (251-356 CE) to escape the world and come close to God in solitude. The monastery was founded by Antony's disciples, immediately after his death, on the site of his grave.

Saint Antony's monastery, a collection of warm-coloured stone buildings with small, arched windows.  Two steeples topped by Christian crosses stand either side of the double arch entrance.  Palm trees grow in small walled patches of green space outside the walls

St Antony's Monastery
Inside the walls of the monastery there is a self-contained village that consists not only of churches, lodgings and the usual defensive keep but also orchards, fruit gardens, warehouses, a mill house and a library.

The spring here still provides thousands of gallons of drinking water each day.

Nicholas Buxton, Stephen Shipley and Father Ruwais smile at the camera among the buildings of St Antony's Monastery with the Egyptian mountains in the background

Nicholas Buxton, Stephen Shipley and Father Ruwais
(Left to right:) Sunday Worship presenter Nicholas Buxton and producer Stephen Shipley meet Father Ruwais at Saint Antony's Monastery.

Saint Antony's Monastery suffered attacks and plundering over many centuries, but in the 16th century, Syrian monks from Wadi al-Natrun settled there and restored it.

listen Fr Ruwais talked to Nicholas Buxton about life in the desert. (3:08 mins)

Father Ruwais, a Coptic monk wearing black robes and skull cap and a long white beard, sits drawing on Nicholas Buxton's arm. The monastery room contains wooden furniture and a round patterned glass window with a painting of a saint visible on one of the white-painted walls

Father Ruwais draws St Antony on Nicholas's arm
Father Ruwais offered to draw a picture of Saint Antony on Nicholas's arm!

Antony was born in Coma in the Fayum region of Egypt. His parents were well off, but Antony gave away his inheritance and devoted himself to the religious life.

In those days ascetics lived on the outskirts of their home communities and did not withdraw entirely. Antony's decision to live in absolute solitude was unusual.

Nicholas Buxton climbs a long, winding rocky path with the Egyptian desert and mountains stretching out below and behind him

Climbing up to St Antony's Cave
Saint Antony was the founder of Christian monasticism.

It was around 270 CE that Antony (251-356) decided to follow his vocation and live in the desert. For forty years he lived in a cave 2000 feet up a mountain. A steep staircase, over a mile long, now links the monastery to the cave.

listen Before leaving the UK, Nicholas asked Bishop Angaelos, General Bishop of the UK Coptic Orthodox Church, about the history of the Copts. (3:10 mins)

Nicholas Buxton at a small cave entrance cut in the striated yellow and beige stone.  Writing in a non-Western script is visible next to the doorway

Entrance to St Antony's Cave
Nicholas stands at the entrance to the cave where Antony spent forty years in solitude.

The main source for information about Antony's life is a biography attributed to Saint Athanasius. The story tells of his battle with demons in the shape of wild beasts and later wading unharmed across a crocodile-filled river.

Inside the cave a small table serves as altar, with a plastic bag of papers, a pile of monetary donations, a painting of Saint Antony and a simple wooden cross.  On the wall behind, seeming to be painted directly on the stone, is a larger picture of Christ.  A small white candle burns in a niche in the rock

Altar in St Antony's Cave
A simple altar in Saint Antony's Cave supports an icon of Antony, a wooden cross and a collection of offerings left by visitors.

Coptic Christians are the largest and oldest Christian community in the Middle East. The word Copt is derived from the name Aegyptioi, Egypt, transcribed in the Arabic alphabet.

Father Iranaeus, dressed head to foot in black monastic robes with a scarf covering his head, with Nicholas Buxton in a stone courtyard inside the Monastery of Saint Macarius, with two domed roofs behind and below them

Father Irenaeus and Nicholas at St Macarius Monastery
Nicholas meets Father Irenaeus at the Monastery of Saint Macarius in the valley of Scetis, also called Wadi Natrun.

Coptic Christians particularly revere St Mark the Evangelist who, according to tradition, arrived in Alexandria, Egypt, around 48 CE and who made many converts among the population.

listen Fr Irenaeus told Nicholas about daily life at the monastery. (4:09 mins)

A colourful, ancient painting of Saint Macarius, bearded with halo and religious dress, holding a Christian cross and a two-headed staff

Icon of St Macarius
Saint Macarius the Elder, or Macarius the Egyptian (circa 300-390 CE), was a disciple of Antony and founded a monastic community that settled in the Nitrian and Scetic deserts. The community had thousands of members by the time of Macarius's death.

Nicholas Buxton, a long-haired man wearing sunglasses and dust-covered walking shoes, sits on a stone in the sun in the Egyptian desert

Alone in the desert
Nicholas enjoys some contemplative time.

Christianity, like other desert religions, has a long tradition of spending time in the wilderness. In this broadcast talk Jude Kelly, artistic director of London's Southbank Centre, meditates on what the wilderness means to us nowadays. (13:49 mins)
listen read

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