People often ask me, ‘well, it’s not really as exciting as Indiana Jones, now is it?’
I reply, ‘to an archaeologist, yes, it certainly is!’

— Zahi Hawass

Restoring the Monastery of Saint Anthony

The Monastery of Saint Anthony, located 250 km east of Cairo, on the Red Sea, is the oldest active monastery in the world. It was founded in AD 356, and remains an important part of the Coptic history of Egypt. I recently visited to reopen the monastery after an eight-year restoration project.

Saint Anthony lived in the 3rd century AD in Egypt, and is considered the founder of the monastic life. He moved out to the desert and with his followers, began to build the monastery as a place to live in a religious community. When I visited this place in 2000, I saw that it was in need of conservation, so I announced to the world that we would commence the technical and architectural restoration of this site. Over the past 200 years, 200 Muslims have come to work on the restoration of this monastery. They built an area to use for prayer during Ramadan, and the monks used to share breakfast with them during Ramadan.
There are 120 monks and priests currently living in this community, both inside and outside the monastery walls. It is visited by over 1 million people each year, both Egyptians and foreigners, and it is a beautiful drive from Cairo, along the Red Sea. On Thursday, I came to view the restoration, and to hold a press conference, where I talked about our restoration works of this and other sites all over Egypt. I was glad that press from all over the world came to the monastery, because it shows how people are interested in Egypt and how we are working to preserve all aspects of our heritage. We spent 80 million Egyptian pounds on the restoration of this monastery, and I have to say that I was very impressed with the results.
The restoration of the church inside the monastery is beautiful. Inside, we restored all of the icons and paintings, as well as the architecture of the church. The most impressive thing, though, was that underneath this church, we discovered the oldest Coptic cell in the world. It dates to the 4th century AD, and the areas where the monks would stand and sit are still visible. Our restoration experts constructed a plexiglass floor over this cell, which allows visitors to view this old cell while still preserving the 6th century structure above.
Another building that was very well restored is the dining hall, which contains a long dining table made of limestone, with space for about 60 people to sit around it and eat. There is also a space for a person to sit and recite religious texts. The restoration work here kept the feel of the past, and I could imagine it was like the dining of the Middle Ages.
The Monastery of Saint Anthony also has a fortress that dates to the reign of the Roman emperor Justinian, in the 4th century AD. This area was used to protect the monastery from the attacks it suffered through its long history. The monastery also has a well that provides over 100 cubic meters of water, a water wheel, a grinding area, and a garden.
The landscape of this monastery is beautiful, and many scholars come to study the architecture of this place. During our restoration, we removed several buildings that did not fit with the original design of the monastery and restored over 110 cells. The restoration of Saint Anthony’s is part of a larger plan of restoring the Coptic monasteries in Egypt. We are restoring many other monasteries as well, including the monastery right next to Saint Anthony’s, the White Monastery in Sohag, Deir Abu Mina in Alexandria, and the Monastery of the Messengers near Giza. We are also restoring the Hanging Church in Cairo; the air conditioning is now installed, and we are working on the icons and wall paintings, and we will open the restoration in March.

In total, we have spent 442 million Egyptian pounds in the restoration of Coptic monuments and 525 million on restoring Islamic monuments. We are also working to restore 9 synagogues, and this coming March, we will open the Moses Ben Maimon synagogue in Cairo. Located in the Jewish alley in Old Cairo, this synagogue is dedicated to a famous Jewish physician, and we will reopen it to the world on March 14, the anniversary of the birth of this great man. These efforts show that Egyptians do not really distinguish between Jewish, Coptic, or Muslim people, we are dedicated to preserving all of Egypt’s heritage. 


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