Constructed from stacked rocks and carved into remote mountainsides, the desert hermitages of Egypt and Sudan are barely perceptible in the arid landscape. They represent an often overlooked practice of hermetism dating to Early Christianity, and they are disappearing. The Heritage of the Desert Fathers is a project to map, photograph, and research these hermitages and their current and historical hermits.
“In Egypt, there are countless monuments of more outwardly impressive value that need to be protected and preserved, thus it is in a way understandable that the modest archaeological remains left by the desert fathers are not always in the foreground, especially in the difficult times Egypt is going through, which are fertile ground for antiquities robbers,” Jan Ciglenecki, the project leader and a lecturer of ancient and medieval philosophy at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia, told Hyperallergic.
The Heritage of the Desert Fathers is part of the new Institute for the Study of Christian Tradition in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Despite Coptic hermits renouncing earthly possessions in their dedication to God, their modest hermitages are regularly wrecked in misguided antiquities looting. Government projects also endanger these sites. For example, the lower levels of the monastic settlement of Laura Abu Darag near the coast of the Red Sea were recently destroyed by highway construction between Suez and Hurgada, and there’s a threat from Sudan’s plan to construct new Nile dams. Other sites like the ancient monasteries in Wadi Natrun are being lost to agricultural activity without any prior excavations. “Some of these hermitages that we visited many times in 2014 can now only be seen in pictures,” Ciglenecki said.
The Heritage of the Desert Fathers recognizes that preserving all of these places is unfeasible, so through photography they hope to document them as thoroughly as possible. A main goal is to create an interactive, freely-accessible map of the sites, chronicling Egyptian hermitism and monasticism, supported by primary and secondary source text from ancient Coptic, Greek, and Latin writing, as well as archaeological publications.
“When I first came to Egypt in 2013 to study the history of Egyptian hermitism and Gnostic traditions, the main problem I faced was it was not possible to find any reliable maps with archaeological information of the sites and the literary sources in one place,” Ciglenecki said.
The photography and mapping has involved hundreds of kilometers in legwork across the harsh desert landscapes, to remote places where few archaeological researchers have journeyed, something helped by the Slovenian background of the Heritage of the Desert Fathers team. “We are a small group of young researchers, relatively new to the field of working in Egypt, but our advantage is that we are coming from the Alpine countries, and most of the deserts where the monks once lived are actually mountains, therefore climbings skill are essential for our work,” Ciglenecki explained.
Most of their time has been focused on the Eastern Desert, where there is a high concentration of hermitages in the valleys and mountains around the monasteries of hermits St. Anthony and St. Paul. Part of the team is also focused on the spiritual practices of Christian hermits, including the psychological state of being removed from society and immersed in meditation and prayer. They’re comparing the hermits to other spiritual acts of seclusion in Sufism and Buddhism.
“Our walks in the deserts are really just the tip of the iceberg and a small part of what we do,” Ciglenecki said. He added that the “real adventure” is the one happening in the libraries, archives, and universities, with the days trekking the mountains and visiting the hermitages perched on the cliffs and nestled in the stone contributing a long-missing cartographic context to the history of Christian hermits in Egypt and the Sudan.
Read more about the Heritage of the Desert Fathers research project online.