Pope Tawadros consecrates churches at monastery in Kellia, Beheira
Anyone travelling the Cairo Alexandria desert road knows that a few kilometres before reaching the midpoint between Cairo and Alexandria you could turn left and find yourself in Wadi al-Natroun (Natroun Valley or plain). The famous plain has throughout Christian history been a prominent centre of monasticism, an area where monastic communities spread far and wide. Today, the site houses four of Egypt’s most famous 4th and 5th century monasteries which still buzz with monastic activity; these are the monasteries of Abu-Maqar (St Macarius), Anba Bishoi, al-Surian, and al-Baramous.
Very few people, however, know that if you turn right instead of left, you venture on a path to another site which was also a thriving monastic centre: Gabal al-Qalaali, al-Qalaali Mountain. The name derives from the Greek ‘Kellia’ (the Cells), or Latin ‘Cellia’, a 4th-century Egyptian Christian monastic community that extended over many square kilometres in the Nitrian Desert. It was one of three centres of monastic activity in the region, along with Nitria and Scetis (Wadi al-Natroun, and was inhabited until the 9th century. Apart from the new monastery of St Macarius the Alexandrite, which was recognised by the Church as an active monastery in June 2014, only archaeological sites remain there today.
Founded in 338 by Saint Amun, under the spiritual guidance of Saint Anthony, Kellia monasticism was designed for those who wished to enter the cenobitic life in a semi-anchoritic monastery.
According to historical and Church references, it is believed that in the 390s up to 600 monks lived at Kellia. By the 5th and 6th centuries, they numbered in the thousands. Activity began to taper off in the 7th and 8th centuries owing to doctrinal disputes, and raids from desert nomads. The site was abandoned in the 9th century.
Killia was discovered by archaeologist Antoine Guillaumont in 1964, and has been excavated for over 25 years by French and Swiss teams. The site covers over 125 square kilometres, over which many a small hill, koum, was found. Once excavated, they were found to contain churches and living quarters, including cells. Over 1500 structures were identified but archaeologists believe that many more exist. The structures range from single-cells for one person, to multiple cells for two or three people, to larger hermitages that included rooms for older monks, chapels and towers. In addition there were clusters of buildings that formed centres for communal services.
Today, in third millennium Egypt, Kellia is Gabal al-Qalaali and lies in Beheira governorate, west of the Nile Delta. It is affiliated to the diocese of Beheira, Matrouh and Pentapolis; the widespread parish that extends from the west Delta region in Egypt to the eastern territory of Libya. The bishop, Anba Pachomius, has taken it upon himself to revive monastic life in Gabal al-Qalaali by establishing there the first modern-day monastery: the Monastery of St Macarius the Alexandrite. The name is that of the saint who was the first abbot and spiritual leader of the historical monastery; the Coptic Church commemorates him on 6 Bashans, 13 May.
Joyful Pope and Bishop
On 19 February, Pope Tawadros headed to the Monastery of St Macarius the Alexandrite to consecrate its two churches. The Coptic congregation awaited the visit with much excitement since it carried the added dimension of gathering the Pope and Anba Pachomius. When the previous patriarch, Pope Shenouda III, passed away in March 2012, Anba Pachomius became Locum Tenens, Acting Patriarch, a responsibility he shouldered with spiritual wisdom and integrity that forever endeared him to Egyptians. In November 2012, an altar draw brought Anba Tawadros, who was the time-honoured disciple of Anba Pachomius, to the papacy. The older bishop made no secret of his joy at Heaven’s choice, and declared his absolute submission to the new Pope; and Pope Tawadros expressed profound love and respect towards his mentor. Copts relish events that bring the two together.
The Pope’s visit to St Macarius the Alexandrite’s was his first to the monastery since its official recognition by the Church, and the first by a patriarch to Gabal al-Qalaali. He arrived at the new monastery accompanied by a number of bishops: Anba Demetrius, Bishop of Mallawi, Ansena, and Ashmonin; Anba Mina, Bishop and Abbot of the monastery of Mar-Girgis in Khataba; Anba Epiphanius, Bishop and Abbot of the Monastery of St Macarius in Wadi al-Natroun; Anba Salib, Bishop of Mit-Ghamr; and Anba Isaak, General Bishop and spiritual supervisor of the new monastery.
The Pope was warmly received by Anba Pachomius who later chanted the refrain: “Joyful … Joyful … Today we are all joyful” to express joy at the Pope’s visit.
He said it was a great blessing to commemorate the saints who lived centuries ago in this spot. The names of the ‘Three Macariuses’, he said, are always mentioned during Mass, but few know they include St Macarius the Alexandrite.
The Pope consecrated two churches at the monastery. The old, restored church was consecrated in the name of St Macarius the Alexandrite, and includes two smaller altars consecrated to the Holy Virgin and St Macarius the Great. The other church is named after the Three Macariuses.
During Holy Mass, the Pope delivered a sermon on the three keys to living a life of triumph over sin and evil; the three keys being faith; prayer; and control of soul, heart, and body. The sermon was based on the Bible reading from Luke 18, which relates the parable of the widow and the unjust judge.
Anba Pachomius presented the Pope with a gift of the famous ostrich eggs that traditionally hang in front of the sanctuary in Coptic Orthodox churches, and denote the Church as being perpetually under the eye and protection of the Lord, just as the egg is watchfully guarded by the ostrich from a distance. He said the gift was hand-made by the monks of St Macarius the Alexandrite.
21 February 2018