Foundational developments

The search for origins of asceticism in Egypt is stimulated by hints such as Philo's description of the Therapeutae, Jewish celibates who lead a life of prayer (in On the Contemplative Life). Eusebius (d. c.340), in Ecclesiastical History, interpreted this as evidence of first-century Christian ascetic activity in Egypt, implying that some Christians lived ascetically in isolation or in the cities in service to the Church.

There is some evidence from the late third century that Antony (born c.250) began his ascetic practice as a young man under the guidance of an experienced ascetic. He eventually gathered disciples in several locations; one survives today as the Monastery of St Antony at the Red Sea. At roughly the same time, Pachomius (d. 346) began an ascetic career in a village setting in Upper Egypt under the guidance of older ascetics. He formed his own group of ascetics, in which rules and leadership structure evolved to enable more people to practice Christian asceticism. Pachomius eventually founded several communities, for men and women, in the region around Thebes. Discipline and instruction were provided by daily meetings of groups within each monastery and annual meetings of the whole entity. Communal asceticism was also growing near Panopolis at the White Monastery. Founded in the fourth century with a rule similar to the Pachomian, it evolved independently under the rule of Shenoute of Atripe (d. 465). By the early fifth century, the White Monastery complex included houses for men and women and isolated cells for hermits. All were theoretically under close supervision of the leader who maintained control by personal visits, through representatives, and through written instruction. The writings of Shenoute - monastic instructions, sermons, letters - form one of the most important collections of original Coptic literature.

The monastic settlements of Nitria, Kellia and Scetis in the desert of Lower Egypt were another area of influence in the early period. Most of the monks in these settlements lived in isolated cells, gathering for the liturgy and for informal instruction by the elders. This sort of instruction is recorded in the Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Ward 19 75), which were preserved in several collections in many ancient languages. Contradictory sayings are sometimes recorded (extreme versus moderate fasting, for example) but the overall perspective is one in which the disciple maintains humility while the elder guides him toward a life of prayer sustained by asceticism. These settlements also attracted ascetics from the entire empire, either as visitors (John Cassian, Rufinus, Palladius and Jerome) or as residents (Evagrius Ponticus), and their writings spread the values of the desert fathers throughout the Christian world.

Two factors challenged Egyptian monasticism before the Arab conquest. First, a series of barbarian raids on Scetis in the fifth century devastated the settlement. Second, the dispute over the doctrine of the Council of Chalcedon, which permanently separated the Church of Egypt from some of the Christian world, had immediate impact on the monasteries. Most of the ascetic communities remained loyal to Dioscorus and his anti-Chalcedonian successors, while imperial authorities tried to impose Chalcedonian orthodoxy. The Pachomian monasteries virtually disappear from the record in the fifth century, perhaps indicating that they were undermined by doctrinal disputes.

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