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HOW THE COPTIC MONKS AT THE MONASTERY OF SAINT ANTONY PROTECTED AND DEFENDED THEMSELVES FROM THE MARAUDING ARABS

September 29, 2017

A23

A view of the Monastery of St. Antony with the keep and the drawbridge appearing in it

The German, Catholic theologian, Johann Michael Vansleb [or Wansleben] (1635 – 1679) visited Egypt in 1672-3; with a special intention to study the Copts and their Church, culture and history. He visited Coptic communities from Alexandria up to Sohag in Upper Egypt. In his visit to the Monastery of St. Antony at the Red Sea, he commented on the walls surrounding the monastery, and said they were ruined and could not ward off an attack by the Arabs who infested the area. However, the last resort of defense for the Coptic monks was still standing and able to provide them with protection whenever the Arabs attacked: this is what is called ‘the keep’, and which one finds in most Coptic monasteries.

He wrote about the keep of the monastery the following:

“In the middle of the monastery there is a square tower, which stone walls, very strong; from the bottom of the tower to the gate, which is about three perches high, it is very firm: on the top is a draw bridge that leads to this gate; but to come to it, one must climb up to the top of the house, over against it. In this tower the monks keep their provisions, and their best movables; and they fly to it when the roguish Arabians threaten them: they then draw the bridge, and beat them off with stones from the platform.”[1]

The ‘square tower’ which Vansleb talks about here is the monastery’s keep.[2]  Many Coptic monasteries are designed like a castle, with high surrounding walls, to protect the monks from marauding Arabs and Berbers, whether in Egypt’s eastern or western desert, and with a keep in the middle. The keep is basically a fortified tower that is used as a refuge of last resort by the monks should the assailants breach the walls and the rest of the monastery falls to them.

Monasteries did not originally have walls or keeps. The ascetics who lived either in isolation or in loose communities had no physical defenses against raiders. However, gradually, as attacks increased against the monks, high walls and keeps were built. Probably the Monasteries of St. Catherine in Sinai, St. Antony and that of St. Paul at the Red Sea were the first in Egypt to have protective walls and keeps built by the Byzantine emperor, Justinian I (527 – 565), who was keen to protect them from attacks by the Arabs.

Keeps are usually stone buildings that are square or rectangular in design. A keep is a tall structure (that of the Monastery of St. Antony is 15 meters high); and built of four stories. It is entered from the roof of an adjacent building that connects to the second level of the keep via a drawbridge. Monks, when attacked by raiders, would enter the keep through that bridge, and then once all are in, draw the bridge, from the third floor, by a rope attached to the distal end of the bridge,[3] and lock the keep’s gate. In this way, the marauding Arabs will not be able to access the keep or hurt the monks.

In the keep the monks store sufficient provisions to maintain them for a considerable length of time; and a well is dug in the centre of the keep which draws water via underground tunnel from the springs on which the monastery depends. Valuable possessions of the monastery, such as its silver crosses or lamps, icons, manuscripts, etc., are kept in it to be out of the reach of the looters. It is interesting that the monasteries’ libraries are located in their keep.  The top level of the keep contains a chapel dedicated to the Archangel, St. Michael, the protector of monastic communities.

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The walls of the monastery and its keep were introduced as a result of attacks by marauding Arabs and Berbers, who frequently attacked the peaceful monks in Egypt and massacred them. They were supposed to be passive defenses against these evil-doers. In a sense, the open monastic communities were transformed into communities that live within a castle with its protective wall and fortified keep.

But, here, in Vansleb’s report about the keep of the Monastery of St. Antony, we see more than passive defenses being employed: the monks are actively involved in fighting the invaders to ward them off; and after drawing the bridge, the monks “beat them [the roguish Arabians that threaten them] off with stones from the platform.”

Here, we have not only passive self-defense by protection behind walls and inside keeps, but active self-defense by actual fighting back, using stones to push back the invaders.

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Now, I am not saying that this is the right thing for a monk to do. I tend to believe that a Christian monk should be absolutely pacifist. Some Coptic saints even refused to run away from murderous Berbers, as the story of St. Moses the Black attests to.[4]

Though I do not think it is right for monks and clergy to fight, I do believe that lay Copts, who have chosen the lesser perfect way, and live in the world though trying to be not of it, are entitled to both passive and active self-defense.

Let us not criticise the notion. If the monks of the Monastery of St. Antony, who had sought a life of perfection, did not stay pacifist all the time, why should we deny the ordinary Copt to defend himself, his family and fellow-Copts, when it is wise to do so?

This also tells us that Jeremiah 17: 5, “This is what the Lord says: ‘Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who draws strength from mere flesh and whose heart turns away from the Lord’” (وَهَذَا مَا يَقُولُهُ الرَّبُّ: «لِيَكُنْ مَلْعُوناً كُلُّ مَنْ يَتَوَكَّلُ عَلَى بَشَرٍ، وَيَتَّخِذُ مِنَ النَّاسِ ذِرَاعَ قُوَّةٍ لَهُ، وَيُحَوِّلُ قَلْبَهُ عَنِ الرَّبِّ.),[5] [6]which is often cited in the face of the Copts who call for the Copts to defend themselves, when it is wise to do that, in order to persuade the Copts not to defend themselves, is often employed wrongly or partially. Clearly the verse talks about those who resort to defence depending on themselves, or the help of others, and let their “heart turns away from the Lord”. Those who defend themselves while their heart is with God, in my opinion, are not subject of Jeremiah 17:5.

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[1] F. Vansleb, The Present State of Egypt; or, A New Relation of a Late Voyage into that Kingdom, Performed in the Years 1672 and 1673 (London, 1678); p. 184.

[2] The Arabic word used for it is ‘al-hisn (الحِصْن)’, noun from the verb ‘حَصُنَ’, meaning to fortify, to strengthen.

[3] The end that rests on the adjacent building.

[4] See Coptic Synaxarium, 24 Pa’oni.

[5] New International Version (NIV).

[6] Ketab El Hayat (NAV).

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