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His life at the monastery connects him and visitors to a life first begun by St. Anthony in the third century. One of Anthony’s disciples, St. Macarius, established a regular community in Wadi Natrun during the fourth century.

During the early period, monks lived in caves as hermits, but by the sixth century it became necessary to build defensive structures, such as walls and keeps, for the safety of the monks during attacks from marauding tribes.

Dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Al Sourian – literally, the Syrian – takes its name from a community of Syrian monks who lived there alongside the Copts from the eighth to the 16th century. Before the arrival of Islam in the seventh century, there were 600 monasteries and 30,000 monks in Egypt. Today, 22 monasteries house 1,500 monks and eight convents some 600 women religious.

Monks at Al Sourian start their day chanting morning prayers at 4, immediately followed by the Divine Liturgy from 5:30 to 8. They then go to work at their assigned jobs within the monastery, as carpenters, mechanics, gardeners or farm hands. Monks usually eat twice a day – at 3 p.m. and again six hours later – and have their individual rhythms for private prayer.

A few monks live as true hermits in caves an hour’s walk from the monastery. Due to a shortage of caves, another 15 live in simple concrete huts scattered throughout the desert. Most of the monks, however, have cells in three-story blocks within the monastery compound in a section closed to visitors.

Standing isolated in the desert sands, Father Yehnes’s cell was palatial, with four vaulted rooms and high walls. Normally monks are not permitted electricity in their cells, but Father Yehnes, who is responsible for the monastery’s Web site (www.st-mary-mons.org) and media relations, was given a special dispensation.

The monastery went online a decade ago. Its excellent Web site is by itself a testament to Al Sourian’s balancing act between the needs of the modern world and the demands of their monastic traditions.

The Web site is also an example of the monk’s self-sufficiency. They do their own cooking and washing. An extensive farm of 400 acres adjoining the monastery allows the monks to supply their own food.

“We have pigs, cows, sheep, ducks and chickens and grow alfalfa to feed them,” Father Yehnes explained. “We also make our own cheese, bread, wine and soap and grow many fruits including oranges, apples, lemons, tangerines, bananas, grapes, dates, figs and olives.”

In a battered old car he led a short tour of the farm, which, with its drip-irrigation and tractors, seemed like a serious agro-industry, producing a large surplus the monks market.

“The monks establish a balance between work, prayer and rest,” Father Yehnes said.

Many of the monks are responsible for preserving and maintaining the monastery’s historical treasures, including the Church of the Holy Virgin. The church has a vaulted roof and four wings, each ending in a semidome, making it the shape of a cross.

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Tags: Egypt Pilgrimage/pilgrims Monastery Coptic Orthodox Church Media