The Monastery of St. Paul In Egypt's Eastern Desert

The Monastery of St. Paul In Egypt's Eastern Desert

by Jimmy Dunn

Egypt's Eastern Desert, at least for now, provides us little in the way of antiquities for travelers. Pharaonically, there are a few trade routes and other ruins. However, it is the home to two of Egypt's best known Christian monuments which include the well known monastery of St. Anthony (Antonios) and perhaps the less well known Monastery of St. Paul of Thebes.

The Monastery of St. Paul

The Monastery of St. Paul probably dates to the fifth century and was founded in memory of one of Egypt's greatest saints and anchorites, who is said to have lived in a cave over which it was built for a period of some eighty years. We mostly know of his life from the writings of St. Jerome and his work, Vita Pauli (Life of Paul), which was written between 375 and 380 AD. St. Jerome tell us that, while it may have been St. Anthony who founded the monastic way of life by inspiring others, Amathas and Macarius, who were disciples of Anthony, affirm that Paul of Thebes was actually the originator of the practice.

St. Paul was apparently born to rich parents in the year 228, However, by the age of sixteen, he had lost his parents. This would have corresponded with the terrible period of Christian persecution perpetuated by Decius and Valerian between 249 and 260 AD. After the death of his parents, Paul renounced his inheritance and consecrated his life to God, eventually seeking refuge in the wilderness of Egypt's Eastern Desert, where he is said to have lived until the age of one hundred and thirteen. Living in his cave, and clothed in a tunic made of plaited palm leaves, tradition holds that a raven brought a half of a loaf of bread which day for him to eat.

Jerome tells us that Anthony, who was apparently at least a contemporary of Paul, was told of someone living in the desert that was holier then he. Hence, he set out to find Paul and, having succeeded, had a friendly conversation with him. That evening when the Raven came to bring the saint's nourishment, he came with a whole loaf so that both the holy men might have substance.

Apparently, Anthony and Paul continued to be friends for many years. When Paul thought that he was approaching death, he asked Anthony to fetch the cloak which the patriarch Athanasius had given him. However, when Anthony arrived at the cave where Paul had lived those many years, he saw angels carrying the soul of the holy ascetic to heaven. Paul's body remained in the cave, but two lions approached and dug a grave into which Anthony placed Paul's body wrapped in the cloak he had fetched. Anthony is said to have kept Paul's tunic of palm leaves, which he wore to celebrate the occasions of Easter and Pentecost.

Drawing of the Monastery by Fr. Jullien in 1880

The Monastery of St. Paul (Deir Anba Bula), which has also been called the Monastery of the Tigers (Deir al-Numur), perhaps because of its wilderness location, has always been associated with the Monastery of St. Anthony, usually in a subordinate manner. The first travel narrative we have of the monastery was provided by Antoninus Martyr, a native of Placentia who visited the tomb of St. Paul between the years 560 and 570 AD. The first monks to occupy the monastery may have been Melchite, but they were followed by Egyptian and Syrian monks. The Syrians may have had a sustained existence at the monastery, for it appears that they also occupied the monastery during the first half of the fifteenth century, after which their presence disappears. It should also be noted that, according to an isolated Ethiopian reference, the seventieth patriarch of the Coptic Church, Gabriel II (1131-45 AD) was banished to the monastery for three years.

Like many of Egypt's earliest monasteries, this one suffered at the hands of Bedouin tribes. One during the year 1484 was particularly destructive, when many of the monks were killed and their library was put to the torch. Afterwards, the monastery was rebuilt under the patronage of Patriarch Gabriel VII, who sent ten monks from the Monastery of the Syrians (Wadi al-Natrun). Yet, during the second half of the sixteenth century, it was again attacked and ransacked twice, forcing the monks to finally leave.

The monastery apparently set deserted for the next 119 years, only to be repopulated by a group of monks from the Monastery of St. Anthony under the patronage of John XVI, who promoted an extensive reconstruction in 1701.

General Plan of the Monastery

General Plan of the Monastery

The Walls

Most ancient, remote Egyptian monasteries are in fact fortifications for good reason. Likewise, St. Paul's Monastery has high defensive walls surrounding the monastic buildings. The history of this enclosure is complex and corresponds to various periods. We know that the walls were considerably enlarged during the eighteenth century under John XVI, but the final walls we see today were completed during the nineteenth century. Also like many other monasteries, the fortress appears to have had no original door and therefore we find on the inside of the east wall the ancient hoist used to haul food, goods and even visitors up the wall and into the monastery.

The Tower

St. Paul Monastery Tower

The tower (keep, or qasr) is perhaps one of the most obvious structures within the complex. As usual, it was entered via a drawbridge and represented the last defensive bastion against the desert raiders. Situated next to the church of St. Paul, in the past, its ground floor served as a cemetery for the monks, while the second floor was a storeroom for the food reserves which would sustain the monks through a period of long siege. Traditionally in Coptic monasteries, the highest story is dedicated to the archangel Michael, but since he is already the titular saint of the large church in the center of the monastery, here the third floor has a chapel dedicated to the Holy Virgin, which is roofed with a wooden cupola. There are also cells for the monks on this level of the tower.


Altogether, the Monastery of St. Paul has four churches, three of which are situated in the ancient part of the complex.

The Church of St. Paul

Plan of the Church of St. Paul in the Monastery

Attesting to its antiquity, the Church of St. Paul , also sometimes referred to as the Cave Church, located next to the tower sits three meters below the current level of the monastery grounds. This is the spiritual center of the monastery. Its southern end is the oldest part, hollowed out of the cave in which St. Paul is believed to have lived. This section of the church, at least, probably dates to the fifth century. The north part of the church dates to medieval times.

One enters this church via a staircase attached to the the chapel walls. Within, the church proper consists of one nave in the center and three sanctuaries dedicated to the twenty four elders of Revelation (north, St. Anthony (center), and St. Paul (south). The central and south sanctuaries and the part of the nave facing them were excavated from the rock itself, while the remainder of the building to the north is made of masonry.

The Ancient Wooden Cupola in the Church of St. Paul

The wooden cupola which roofs the chapel is decorated with the equestrian figures of Saints Apater and his sister Irene, Isidore, Apa Iskhirun, James and Julius, all warrior saints. These were produced by the monastery monks in 1713, but probably overlay earlier iconography that is lost to us. The paintings on the walls of the cave date to the same restoration work, portraying biblical subjects such as the archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, as well as the angel and Aniel's three companions, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, respectively called Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego by the officer of King Nebuchadnezzar (Dan 3:10-26). However, in the middle sanctuary dedicated to St. Anthony, though in poor condition, are wall paintings that date to the first half of the fourteenth century. Here, we can just make out depictions of Christ enthroned, the annunciation, St. John the Baptist, angles and archangels.

The body of St. Paul is kept in a marble shrine on the south side of the nave. One traditional story holds that the saint's relics were taken to Constantinople in 1240, and from there they were sent to Venice in 1381. Indeed, an urn in the church of St. Julian in Venice is believed to contain some of his remains. Recent analysis has shown that the remains in Venice are that of only a leg of a very old man (over eighty) who lived between the first century and the first half of the forth centuries, AD. Hence, they certainly may be a fraction of the body of the saint that mostly rests in the Egyptian monastery that bears his name.

The Church of St. Mercurius

Located above Paul's cave, and almost atop the Church of St. Paul, the church of St. Mercurius (Abu al-Seifein) dates from the end of the eighteenth century. Hence, it contains few interesting elements, with the exception of a precious iconostasis inlaid with ivory and mother-of-pearl. This church is connected to the cave by a much older staircase. Many churches in Egypt are dedicated to this saint, the most well known of which is probably in Old Cairo. This church is only used once a year during the week prior to Lent.

The Church of St. Michael

The Church of St. Michael

The Church of St. Michael (al-Malak) was built in 1777, with a roof consisting of twelve cupolas. It has two sanctuaries including one dedicated to St. Michael to the north, and to St. John the Baptist in the south. While the true spiritual center of the monastery is the subterranean church of St. Paul, it is two small for the daily liturgy, so this service is held in the the Church of St. Michael, which is the largest church in the complex.

The Refectory and the Mill

The Refectory of the ancient monastery of St. Paul

Within the monastery is an ancient refectory that is no longer in use, but which dates back to medieval times. It is situated in the east wing of the complex. The main axis of the refectory is covered by a barrel vaulted roof. Within, a heavy masonry table with a lectern fashioned on its west end, from which the sacred texts and the lives of the saints and martyres were read during the community meal, dominates the room. The refectory is entered by way of a narrow passage, and on the west side of the passage are two rooms that were once used as mills. Within are big stone millstones which were operated by huge wooden gears turned by draft animals.

The Spring of St. Paul

An ancient spring named for St. Paul resides in the north wing of the complex. It continues to supply water at the rate of about four cubic meters per day. The water comes from a mountain crevice and flows into a cemented reservoir tank that is used for drinking and cooking. A small drain allows the surplus water into a second reservoir, which is used by the monks for washing, and a final drain carries off the remaining water into a large basin where it is distributed for irrigation. However, a second spring, known as the Pool of Miriam is located about one hundred meters to the south of the monastery. It was named after the sister of Moses and Aaron, who according to tradition washed there during the Exodus.

Return to Christian Monasteries of Egypt






Reference Number

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