How a Community of Hermits May Have Evolved

Defense Seen as a Factor in Egyptian Monastic Community

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CAIRO, Egypt, MAY 21, 2001 ( Evidence uncovered by a Dutch team of researchers may indicate how an early community of hermits in Egypt evolved into a monastery, reports Egypt Revealed magazine.

In the fourth century, a group of hermits, followers of St. Macarius, settled in the Egyptian desert west of the Nile Delta. At Wadi al-Natrun, they survived the rigors of desert life and the periodic raids by nomads to evolve into what was probably one of the first monastic communities of Egypt.

A team from Leiden University in the Netherlands has been excavating this site since 1995, the magazine says, and the results so far are starting to sketch a reliable portrait of how this evolution from hermits to monastery monks came about.

At first, the settlement was a rather open, informal structure, similar to that of a village. The core of the settlement consisted of a church and a defensive tower. The remains of a church, excavated in 1999, are of a rather late date, probably the early eighth century, although an earlier church might still be found underneath it.

Shortly after the year 700, the monasteries of Wadi al-Natrun were sacked by Bedouins, and this eighth-century church, apparently one of the first buildings to be rebuilt, is only a makeshift structure.

Remnants of a huge building were found immediately south of the church, in the southeast corner of the complex, Egypt Revealed reports. It was a square tower about 16 meters (52 feet) on a side, with walls 2 meters (6.5 feet) thick and a height of as much as 20 meters (65 feet).

Much evidence suggests this tower existed in the fifth century and may date to the fourth century. The fact that blocks from a pharaonic temple were found in the debris of the church suggests that this tower was built to guard a settlement of workers producing salt and natron from nearby lakes.

Bedouins invaded the region over the following centuries, destroying or damaging the settlements several times. After the sack around 700 and the makeshift rebuilding effort, the monks apparently no longer relied on the crumbling tower for defense.

In the ninth century, the tower’s outer walls were reinforced and the core of the settlement was surrounded by a defensive wall, giving it the appearance of a real monastery.

This new physical structure may have influenced the social structure of the community, the magazine says. Instead of living some distance apart in hermitages sprinkled over a wide area, many monks may have chosen to live within the safety of the enclosure wall. The result would have been a true monastery, Egypt Revealed says.

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