Modern Architectural and Spiritual Renaissance since 1969
As soon as the visitor steps inside the monastery, and his eyes fall on the churches, the lighthouse, the flower beds, and new the buildings, he feels at once that he is facing a unique spiritual movement in this time.Contrary to what many would think about monasticism – that it consists of iron walls, inside which a girl or a boy who turned his back on people and society is confined, as if he lives in a world alien to humans – the visitor realizes that the monks of this monastery are capable of storming life and conquering it, and facing society with its problems without diving into it thanks to the divine power that supported the work, construction, renewal, and the monastic management in general. By the grace of God, the spiritual father was able to present realistic solutions to the difficult equation, which is the harmonization between the principles of monastic life such as detachment, chastity, and obedience and the requirements of a modern generation brought up in the era of technology, studied up to the university level and beyond sometimes, having a passion for knowledge and languages, yearning to present themselves every day as a sacrifice to God, and looking forward to serving the Church and delving into its scattered heritage among the world’s libraries and museums.The fruit of this inspiring management was the modern cell, the library, the new dining table, and the rest of the other modern buildings that were constructed, while making every effort to preserve and restore the ancient antiquities, given their glorious history, which tells about the solid faith that was able to defy time and factors of annihilation, stand tall, and bear witness to God’s faithfulness and the spiritual truth in the Coptic Church. Therefore, the visitor feels that he is actually moving between buildings spanning sixteen centuries, in which the new mixes with the old in an amazing harmony that is a miracle in itself.
Modern Monk Cells
The principle of solitude, which is a characteristic of Coptic monasticism, was preserved in its design. Thus, it was made possible for the monk to reside in it for many days without absolutely having to get out or in. It was provided with sufficient openings for ventilation, sun and light, and it includes a complete washroom over public sewers that drain outside the monastery, a separate place for a kitchen, a small room – hermitage – with a wooden floor, so that the monk can sleep on the floor without his body being harmed, no matter how delicate he is, and lastly, a room with a desk and wall cupboards for reading and staying up late. In terms of the required calmness, it has been taken into account that each cell is completely separate from its neighbor with a wide courtyard on the one hand, and a ladder ascending to the upper floors on the other hand, and the ceiling thickness is almost double for sound insulation. Also, most of the furniture in it is fixed and permanent to avoid movement and noise.
In addition to all this, there is a complete separation between the places of hospitality and the monks’ cells and the subordinate buildings for daily services, in a way that guarantees the independence and sanctity of the monastery. Thus, the monk is provided with the independence required for worship, prayer, and internal life according to the spirit of the Gospel. This is the essence of monastic life, which has not been overlooked, no matter how much it costs. Almost one hundred monk cells of this type have been established.
Novice Brother’s Cell
According to the monastic tradition, the needs of the novice brother differ from the monk, as the teachings of the fathers recommend that the novice should be concerned about spending as much time as possible in the service of the monastic community, exerting love and humility, in order to acquire the virtues that prepare him for solitude after, such as self-mortification, complete obedience, and keeping the commandment amidst the noise of work. In addition, he is not required to do more than the legal prayers and prostrations in his cell. Therefore, the western and southern buildings have been allocated for novices’ rooms, due to their proximity to places of public services in the monastery. Approximately forty novice cells of this type have been constructed.
The New Dining Table
The monks of Egypt knew the etiquette of the table, and laid the foundations for it at the highest level (*), while Europe was stuck in the darkness of ignorance and primitiveness. The dining table in the monastery is an extension of the agape banquet known since the age of the apostles, which was common in the early Church, until it ceased to exist a long time ago, except in Egypt, as the monasteries preserved it. In our time, in which we seek to drink from the first springs, a dining table was held for the first time in the Coptic monasteries, where the monks gather daily, in the same way as the dining table of the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday. Just as the Jewish rite necessitated that the head of the family or the group sits at the head of the dining table, and to his right sits the eldest member, followed by the next in age in an orderly fashion, until the cycle ends with the youngest member sitting to the left of the head of the group, in the same way at the monastery’s dining table, the spiritual father presides over the table and the prayer, and recites the blessing, then to his right sits the oldest monks, and so on until the session ends with the youngest novice on his left.
Through this daily meal and the teachings of the spiritual father and his explanations of the book “The Garden of the Monks”, the one spirit descends on the congregation, so that it has one thought, one principle and one life, for the old and the young alike. Through prayer and the word of God, the life of the monk is sanctified as it is written. “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).
Finally, a spacious modern kitchen was attached to the dining table to prepare food for more than 150 monks in a short period and with the least possible effort because of its modern equipment. This kitchen consists of two large halls: the first is for preparing, washing, and processing food and it has a refrigerator for preserving foods, while the second is for ovens and cooking food.
The library had a great importance in the monasteries, especially the Monastery of Saint Anba Makar, in which piety and holiness were associated with knowledge and science, till this eloquent phrase was said about it: “It is the home of perpetual prayer and lofty wisdom.” Therefore, the largest library was established in it to preserve the remaining of manuscripts that escaped from the hands of amateurs and honorable thieves. We also strive to obtain microfilms and pictures of the important manuscripts that have leaked abroad, so that they are within the reach of monks and those wishing to study and research. The presence of a modern printing press in the monastery will facilitate the publication of these Manuscripts to introduce to the world – and the Coptic people in particular – the spiritual, theological and liturgical heritage, on which the Church of Egypt is based.
It is attached to the library on the northern side, and it contains the marble pieces that were found during the renovation of the monastery, such as columns, crowns, bases, and altar paintings, which are considered among the rarest pieces in the whole world, as well as water basins, pottery and colored ceramic vessels.
Restoration of Monuments
All the ancient buildings in the monastery were in a state of deterioration and near collapse: the dome of Anba Benyamin in the church of Anba Maqar, which archaeologists consider to be the oldest existing dome in Egypt, had at least ten cracks. Its reinforcement necessitated the erection of columns of reinforcing iron in its corners, and the making of retainers under its southern wall, which was found to be built on the surface of the earth, directly above the sand, without bases. While removing the modern external painting of the western wall, we discovered beneath it a wall painting of Christ, the apostles, and the disciples; so we had to modify the design in order to preserve this greatly valuable monument. After strengthening the base of the dome and covering it from the outside with reinforced concrete, the risk of falling was eliminated.
+ The magnificent quadrilateral dome in the church of the martyr Abskhiroun was also afflicted with serious cracks in its four corners, which prompted us to build strong stone shoulders to support its walls from the outside. In the same way, we dealt with the dome of the Holy Mayroun and the old dining table.
+ As for the cracks of the fort, they were from top to bottom at its full height in many places. The effort that was exerted in restoring and consolidating it, whether in terms of thinking, or implementation, was enough to build a second monastery, without exaggeration. The pillars of the ground floor buildings were emptied and re-filled with high-strength sand and cement mortar. Then, concrete columns with girders were erected above its walls to support the arches supporting the cracked domes of the first floor. Thus, it was possible to remove the rundown wooden ceiling of the fort roof, and replace it with a strong ceiling and concrete beams that connect the internal and external walls to the second floor. Finally, what was restored was re-painted with heavy mortar in the same old clay color.
Before its restoration, entering the fort was a dangerous adventure, and being present in it was causing distress and depression; now, however, visiting it has become one of the pleasures that delight the visitor’s heart, especially after using the ground floor rooms as a museum of antique wood, such as iconostases and sanctuary doors, and an exhibition of old tools used for pressing oil and grapes.
Our commitment to the complete separation between the visitors’ places and the monks’ cells made us allocate the west-northern side to receive visitors. This side includes the buildings adjacent to the main entrance, and it consists of large halls on the ground and first floors, each of which can accommodate two hundred visitors. As for the groups that exceed this number, a large hall was built for them on the right in the courtyard of the churches, below the main staircase descending to this courtyard.
The spread of news of the spiritual renaissance in this ancient monastery led many monks from Western monasteries to come to us, to learn about the spiritual experiences that motivate Coptic youth in the modern era to consecrate themselves, so that they would return to their monasteries striving to renovate them and inspire the spirit of renaissance in them. We found it most appropriate to allocate the first group of cells for their stay to see for themselves the success of monastic management in creating the appropriate atmosphere for a young generation desiring to worship God.
The Hospital Building and its Annexes
Its location is in the southern buildings of the monastery. It consists of a large room for surgery and another for sterilization, a complete pharmacy with a laboratory for analysis, and a dental and ophthalmological clinic. It is supervised by specialized doctors and pharmacists from the monks, and it is provided with a direct telephone line to Wadi al-Natrun Hospital for emergency cases. We hope that, after furnishing and equipping it with modern medical equipment and an ambulance, it will carry out its humanitarian duty in aiding car accidents on the Cairo-Alexandria desert road
The Printing Press
With the support of those zealous in spreading the Coptic Christian culture, the monastery was able to furnish a printing press with the most modern machines, which occupies the ground floor of the western building. This includes a spacious air-conditioned room for photocopy machines equipped with electronic memory, and with the ability to collect and photocopy texts into eight languages. In addition to photocopiers, there are lighted tables for offset printing, a printing machine (Heidelberg), as well as folding, stapling and cutting machines. All these operations are supervised by monks who excelled in managing these modern machines in a way that amazed the specialists in the book industry. We have published more than 200 books, some of which have exceeded hundreds of pages, such as commentaries on the Gospels and Epistles, in addition to a monthly magazine, St. Mark, which expresses the message of Christian thought to youth and servants.