The Best Ancient Christian Sites in Egypt
If you’re a Christian, or just need a break from the hieroglyphics, there’s plenty of biblical history etched into the land of the Pharaohs.
When we think of Egypt we most often think of the Pyramids, the Valley of the Kings, and King Tut. After all, who didn’t watch The Mummy and want to be an Egyptologist? But if you’re a Christian, or just need a break from the hieroglyphics, there’s plenty of biblical history etched into the land of the Pharaohs. After all, Egypt is one of the most named locations in the Bible: it was the location of the Israelites enslavement and liberation; the place the patriarchs looked for help during famine; the birth place of Moses; the site where the law was delivered to Moses; and where Jesus took refuge from Herod.
In the Gospel of Matthew, the Holy Family flees to Egypt to escape Herod the Great’s slaughter of the children of Bethlehem. Most historians think that the story was created in order to make Jesus appear more like Moses, but to ancient Egyptian Christians it gave them the opportunity to write themselves into the biblical story. From the fourth century onwards we begin to find evidence of churches and shrines dedicated to filling in the gaps in this period of Jesus’ life. How did they arrive in Egypt? Where did they stay? And what did they eat?
The answers to these questions can be found in the archeology, literature, and religious sites of Roman-era Egypt, To this day pilgrims can visit the Church of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus (also known as Abu Serga) in the Babylonian Fortress is Cairo. It’s one of the oldest Coptic Christian Churches in the world and was first consecrated in the fourth century. According to legend it was built on the spot where Joseph and Mary rested after their long journey to safety in Egypt. Those who want to follow in the literal footsteps of the Holy Family should descend into the crypt. Just don’t attempt this when the Nile is flooded as the 10 meter-deep crypt may be flooded. While in Cairo also visit the hanging church, for its architectural history and wide-ranging collection of icons and just wander the narrow, medieval streets of Coptic Cairo.
Egypt is the birthplace of monasticism. Beginning in the third and fourth centuries, Christians began to yearn for a more austere and holy existence where they could be closer to God. Their solution was to flee to the desert. One of the first—and certainly the most influential—of these was St. Anthony, whose biography inspired many wealthy young men to leave behind their lives of privilege. Hermetic or anchorite monks would shelter in natural caves, survive on minimal amounts of food, spend their days in prayer and spiritual battles with demons, and, for those who were semi-hermetical (‘half-hermits’), often only congregate for religious worship
Over time, more organized forms of monasticism developed, again in Egypt. Coenobitic monasticism, that is living in communities, began in Egypt under the influence of founding figure Pachomius. A former follower of Anthony’s, Pachomius went on to found his own monastery and it was here that the first rules to govern community living were developed. Both St. Benedict and Friar Tuck are the heirs of Pachomius.
Ancient Christians were intrigued and curious about the monks and would visit the hermits looking for inspiration. Dr. Christine Luckritz Marquis, a professor of Church History at Union Presbyterian Seminary, told me that “Most pilgrims, whether to important sites or to visit monks, only traveled locally or regionally” and that “the impetus for the travel often might influence how far one was willing to journey. Those who traveled further did so either out of great need (illness not cured by the local saints or monks), deep religious devotion (visits of monks to other monks), or because of access to wealth.” Those who want to (temporarily) walk in Anthony’s footsteps can visit the Monastery of St. Anthony (for its wall paintings) and hike the 2-km climb up to the tiny cave in which he lived. For the full experience, be sure to take a copy of Thomas Merton’s Sayings of the Desert Fathers, a compendium of sayings attributed to these Christian hermits that is sure to both inspire the spiritual and intrigue the budding historian. If nothing else, you will be shocked by how infrequently these late antiquity heroes mention the Bible.
If St. Anthony’s cave in the Red Sea Mountain area is too far off the beaten path, there are four still-operating monasteries in Wadi El-Natrun, a short journey from Cairo. The wall paintings in the Monastery of the Syrians have been restored and all four monasteries can be strung together into a day trip.
If you can visit only one monastery however, it should probably be St. Catherine’s, in Sinai. An active Eastern Orthodox monastery to this day that is easily accessible from the tourist resorts at Sharm El-Sheik, St. Catherine’s contains a remarkable library that was the site of discovery of some of the world’s most significant and important Biblical manuscripts.
It is located at the base of the sharp mountain that is believed to be the biblical Mt. Sinai. There’s a lot to see: in a chapel at the back of the Byzantine Church of the Transfiguration there is plaque that is alleged to mark the spot where God first appeared to Moses and you can see the site’s top attraction—the burning bush itself—just outside. The bush is now surrounded by a wall, which protects it from the horticulturally inclined pilgrims who use to break off pieces as religious souvenirs. No one will stop you from taking a selfie though.
The jewel in the crown of St. Catherine’s treasure is the library. The most famous work discovered here is Codex Sinaiticus, one of the oldest copies of the Bible. It came to the attention of a German scholar, Constantine von Tischendorf, in 1844. In the course of several visits Tischendorf secured various parts of the manuscript. The Old Testament section he took back to Leipzig, but the bulk of the text he took to St. Petersburg to Tsar Alexander II. The issue is shrouded in complexity, but many people think that Tischendorf had effectively stolen this priceless manuscript. It is now housed in the British Museum but you can also view it online. A few leaves, however, are still at St. Catherine’s and are on display in the basement of the monastery’s museum.
Unusually for a monastery, there’s even a mosque, located just opposite the Church. It was built here by the monks during the 11th century. At the time Caliph Al-Hakim was destroying sites of Christian worship. The construction of the mosque kept the monastery safe from danger.
If it is history in general that you are looking for you could do worse than to visit Alexandria. This ancient coastal city of Alexandria was famous for two things: its lighthouse and its remarkable, unparalleled library. The library declined after Julius Caesar burned at least part of the collection in 48 BCE, but the city remained a center of learning and intellectual engagement throughout antiquity. You can visit a modern reimagining of the museum, complete with manuscripts and antiquities., today.
According to tradition, Christians first arrived here in the first century, led by St. Mark, the author of the oldest Gospel (some of his relics, stolen by the Venetians in the medieval period are housed in the Coptic Cathedral of St. Mark in Alexandria and others in St. Mark’s Cairo Cathedral).
Alexandria is still the home of Coptic Christianity but, in the ancient world it also housed a famous Christian “school” or university headed up by famous intellectuals Clement and Origen. Though he was later denounced as a heretic, it was Origen who developed the principles of modern religious interpretation. He argued that scriptures had multiple layers and modes of interpretation including both literal and spiritual layers. If you have ever found yourself saying that a passage in the bible should be understood metaphorically or symbolically you probably have Origen to thank for this line of explanation. For those tiring of Christian, the remains of the Serapeon, the intellectual heir to the library and an important ancient pagan religious site, are still open for visitors.