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December 14, 2019


A modern Coptic icon, showing Saint Onnophrius (Abba Nofr) in his cave with the date-palm tree outside and the loaf and jar of water brought to him by an angel every night

In Coptic accounts of saints, one often comes across anchorites who lived in caves or huts in the inner deserts of Egypt where no man could easily visits on water produced by a spring and the produce of a single date-palm tree that supplies them with dates to nourish their bodies.  One finds such account in the accounts of the ascetics Timothy and Onnophrius (Abba Nofr) which a Paphnutius the Ascetic, from the fourth century, told us about in his The Life of Onnophrius. This book exists in Sahidic manuscript (MS Oriental 7027), which was first published, with an english translation, in 1915, by the British Coptologist E. A. Wallis Budge in his Miscellaneous Coptic Texts in the Dialect of Upper Egypt. In 1993, the American scholar Tim Vivian made another, more accurate, translation from the Coptic manuscript, together with another book by Paphnutius, Histories of the Monks of Upper Egypt, and provided a valuable introduction.[1]

Paphnutius starts his journey into the inner western desert of the Thebaid, and walked several days into it, in order as he says, “I, your brother, was thinking one day that I would go into the inner desert so I could see whether there were any brother monks in the farthest reaches of the desert.”[2] After a walk of punishing several days, he came upon a cave:

When I approached it, I knocked at the mouth of the cave at midday, but no one answered me. Now I thought to myself, ‘There’s no brother here,’ but then I saw a brother sitting silently inside. I took hold of his arm and it came off in my hands and disintegrated into dust. I felt his body all over and found that he was clearly dead and had been dead for a long time. I looked up and saw short-sleeved tunic hanging up. When I touched it, it fell apart and turned into dust. I stood up and I prayed, and I took off my robe and wrapped the body in it. I dug with my hands in the earth; I buried him, and I left that place.[3]

That part of the world was ferocious, inhospitable, and the ascetics who lived in it would suffer unimaginable thirst, hunger, extreme heat, and at the hour of their death they would find no one to bury their skeleton-like bodies. But Paphnutius presses on, and keeps walking, and his search is rewarded by meeting great monks: Abba Timothy, Appa Onnophrius, and four monks (John, Andrew, Heraklamon and Theophilus) who unlike Timothy and Onnophrius lived separately around an oasis, rich in fruit trees (date-palms, citron, pomegranate, fig, apple, grapevines, nectarines, kisma trees and other trees), where they met on the Sabbath and the Lord’s Day. The account of all these great ascetics is interesting and extremely beautiful, and they explain how Egyptian monks lived independent, extreme ascetic lives under severe conditions but did not perish, for God was with them. While the four monks had plenty to sustain their lives, “it has been sixty years and we have not known the taste of bread or any other kind of food except the fruit from these trees which we live in,”[4] Timothy and Onnophrius had little to live on.

After burying the ascetic who had died a long time ago, Paphnuties walks further west. He found another cave. He summoned up his courage and knocked at the mouth of the cave but no one answered him. He then tells us:

I went inside, but did not find anyone. I came out saying, ‘This is where a servant of God lives; he will be coming home soon.’ So I stayed there praying until late in the days and I was reciting Scripture I had learned by heart. And I looked up and I saw a herd of antelope in the far distance coming towards me – with that brother right in the middle of them.[5]

The antelope described here must have been the addax (Addax nasomaculatus), with its long spiral horns that used to live in herds of five to 20 members in the Sahara desert but now almost extinct there, and was known for its tolerance of extreme heat changes and for its ability to extract all the water it needed from the desert plants and to conserve that water by excreting dry faeces and concentrated urine.[6] It must have been a spectacle seeing the man of God returning to his cave in the middle of the antelope herd, “naked and [with] his hair cover[ing] his shame and serv[ing] as clothing over him”.[7] Paphnutius asked Timothy, “How is it that you came to this place? And how long has it been since you came here? What do you eat? And why are you naked, without any clothes on?”[8]  Timothy tells Paphnutius the interesting story of why he came to that isolated harsh place, driven by his sin, which the reader must read to appreciate it, and then answers the other questions:

[When I came to this place] I found this spring of water and this date-palm tree and this cave. This palm-tree produces twelve bunches of dates each year, one bunch a month, and this one bunch of dates is enough to last me for a month. Therefore I own nothing, neither clothing nor bread to eat. My hair continues to grow and since my clothes have completely worn out I clothe with my hair what should be respectfully covered. And, you see, it has been thirty years since I came here. The weather here offers me a uniform temperature and I eat no bread at all.[9]

Timothy, as he tells us, suffered a great deal,[10] but he lived his live a sufficient and frugal life, surviving on dates and water alone. Paphnutius then leaves Timothy and penetrates deeper into the desert until he meets another great anchorite, Onnophrius:

Now suddenly I looked and I saw a man in the distance; he was very terrifying because his hair was spread out over his body like a leopard’s. Indeed he was naked, and leaves covered his male member. When he came up close to me I was afraid and I climbed up on a ledge of the mountain, thinking that perhaps it was a wild ass.[11]

I don’t know why Paphnutius thought Onnophrius was a wild ass, since the African wild ass (Equus africanus), and indeed other types, is not hairy,[12] unless they used to be hairy in the past. Again, like Timothy, Onnophrius tells Paphnutius that he lived in this desert on account of his sins.[13] He tells him how he came to this desert, led by his guardian angel, and informs him that he had lived in it for sixty years.[14] As for how he sustained his life there:

I suffered a great deal on numerous occasions from hunger and thirst and from the firey heat outside during the day and the great frost at night. My flesh wasted away because of the dew of heaven. Now when God saw that I patiently endured in the good fight of fasting and that I devoted myself completely to ascetic practices, he had his holy angels serve me with my daily food; he gave it to me at night and strengthened my body. And the palm tree produced for me twelve bunches of dates each year, and I would eat one bunch each month. And he also made the plants that grow in the desert sweet as honey in my mouth.[15]

Onnophrius evidently had more to eat compared to Timothy who relied on dates only. He ate desert plants, and the angel of God ministered to him every night. Paphnutius attests to this: “When the sun was about to set I looked and I saw a loaf of bread and a jar of water.”[16] Both ate and drank and left part of the angel’s meal. Onnophrius must have been in his ninetieth or there about, spending two-third of his life in that desert. Before Paphnutius left, Onnophrius died: “When he had finished saying these things. He rose and prayed to God with sighs and many tears. Afterwards he lay down on the ground and completed his stewardship of God, and he gave up his spirit into the hands of God on the sixteenth of Paone.”[17] Paphnutius shrouded Onnophrius using half of his cloak and buried him in a cleft in the rock and rolled several stones over him. And after praying over the saint’s grave, “immediately the palm tree fell down”.[18]

The date-palm tree figures largely in the lives of these two anchorites who have captured the imagination of the Copts for generations, and are depicted in their art with its known symbolism. Although Onnophrius doesn’t say that his tree produced a bunch of dates every month for his sustenance, that of Timothy’s, we are told, did. Both trees produced twelve bunches annually. What is this type of date-palm tree that seem to produce fruit throughout the year? Vivian notes that date palms in Egypt do not ordinarily produce fruit year round, and he had an Egyptian Arab to confirm this to him.[19]

The date palm (Phoenix dactylifera)[20] is widespread in Egypt and the Middle East, and is known for its various uses, including eating its sweet and nutritional fruit, its dates. It begins to bear fruit in 4 to 5 years and reach full bearing at 10-15 years. It can live for up to 150 years. A single palm tree produces around 100 kg every year, and may reach in some types 400 kg, though its production dwindles as it ages. The fruit is rich in energy, carbohydrates, protein, minerals and vitamins. When dry it can be stored for a long time.

Date palm trees are either male or female. Male trees are of value only as pollinators; and a female tree can be pollinated using male flowers’ pollen either naturally by wind or manually. Pollination (إطلاع), as al-Asaad ibn Mamati tells us in his Kitab Qawanin al-Dawawin,[21] occurs in the Coptic month Paone (= May 26 – 24 June, Julian calendar; 8 June – 7 July, Gregorian calendar), and harvesting (إدراك) of mature dates (التمر) starts in Paope (= September 28 – 27 October, Julian; 11 October – 9 November). The harvesting season may extend to two months; and since dates don’t ripe all at once, it can be harvested many times throughout a season.

So, how does that fit with the two single date-palm trees of Timothy and Onnophrius that produced a bunch every month (at least in the case of Timothy’s)? Their trees must have been female palms, but they could not have produced date fruits without the presence in the same area of a male palm tree. Also, these could not have had a harvesting season that extended throughout the year. These trees must be seen as miraculous, as much as much in the lives of the saints. They were able to produce dates without need for pollination by pollens from a male tree; and also they produced dates all year round. The Copts, who were very experienced in horticulture, and who read and listened to Paphnutius’ stories of Timothy and Onnophrius must have understood that these trees were not ordinary trees but miraculous. The death of the date-palm tree, which Onnophrius mainly depended upon on his diet, soon after his death only helps to confirm this understanding.


[1] Paphnutius: Histories of the Monks of Upper Egypt and the Life of Onnophrius (Kalamazoo: Cistercian Publications, 1993).

[2] Ibid, p. 145.

[3] Ibid, pp. 145-146.

[4] Ibid, p. 165.

[5] Ibid, p. 146.

[6] See: Richard Estes, Addax, Antelope in Encyclopaedia Britannica.

[7] Paphnutius: Histories of the Monks, p. 146.

[8] Ibid, p. 147.

[9] Ibid , p. 149.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid, p. 151.

[12] See: Ass, Mammal in Encyclopaedia Britannica.

[13] Paphnutius: Histories of the Monks, p. 151.

[14] Ibid, pp. 152-154.

[15] Ibid, pp. 155-156.

[16] Ibid, p. 157.

[17] Ibid, p. 159.

[18] Ibid, p. 160.

[19] Ibid, p. 155, n. 30.

[20] See: Palm date in Encyclopaedia Britannica.

[21] al-Asaad ibn Mamati, Kitab Qawanin al-Dawawin, ed. Aziz Suryal Attiyah (Cairo, 1991), pp. 237, 252, 254 and 255.

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