St Paul's Monastery Deir Mar Bolos
St Paul's Monastery, the oldest Coptic monastery in Egypt after St Antony's, lies in a magnificent mountain setting in a Cirque at the head of the Wadi el-Deir, which in places contracts into a narrow gorge. It is similar in general plan to St Antony's Monastery, but is considerably smaller and more modest and accordingly looks older. Its grandiose situation, however, makes it in some respects more impressive than St Antony's.HistorySt Paul of Thebes, also known as St Paul the Hermit, is honored as the patron saint of hermits. His life, richly embroidered with legend, was written by St Jerome (347-419/420) in his "Vita Pauli". According to this account Paul was born about 228, the son of well-to-do parents, and received a good education. During the persecutions of Christians in the time of Decius, fearing that his father would denounce him in order to gain control of his property, he withdrew at the age of 16 into the solitude of the Lower Thebaid, and later into the Eastern Desert, in order to pursue an ascetic life. There, it is said, he at first lived on dates from the palms, and later was fed by a raven which brought him bread every day. In 340 he was visited by St Antony, who found him dying and after his death buried him with the help of two lions which dug his grave. St Paul, however, never achieved the same celebrity or attracted such a host of disciples as St Antony. He is depicted with a palm and a raven, or sometimes two lions, and frequently appears with St Antony; his feast day is on January 15.By about 460 a church had been built over the Saint's grave, and in the sixth C. this became a place of pilgrimage.The monastery buildings date mainly from the medieval period. Laid out in the form of a rectangle, they cover an area of 33 acres and have widely scattered plots of land and plantations. There are some 20 monks.The MonasteryThe walls surrounding the monastery, with a total length of 490yds/450m, were originally built in the fifth C. and were rebuilt during the Middle Ages. From the top of the walls there is a magnificent view, extending as far as Gebel Musa in Sinai.
Useful tips: ACCESS. On the Red Sea coast road to 12.5mi/20km south of Ras Zafarana; then a difficult track up the Wadi Deir (9mi/15km) to the head of the valley.
St Paul's Church stands at the end of a street lined with two story buildings containing the monks' cells, each with its separate entrance. On the west side of the wall is a domed fountain and washhouse. The oasis is supplied with water by three springs. The gardens, which occupy roughly a quarter of the monastery precinct, are separated from the living quarters and offices by a wall. Within this area are the old oil press and the grain mill.
St Paul's Church
The main entrance, on the south side (there are two other gates on the east side), leads into a small square, in which are the guesthouse (for men only) and St Paul's Church, built over the hermit's cave in the sixth and seventh C. From the narthex steps lead down to the Lower Church, which contains the Saint's marble sarcophagus and three sanctuaries. In the domes and on the walls are medieval frescos which were restored in rather amateurish fashion by a monk and are accordingly in poor condition. In the dome over the staircase the military saints George, Theodore, Victor and Michael are shown fighting the Devil and against temptation; on the walls of the lower church are archangels and saints, including Paul with the lion, Antony and the Virgin and Child; and in the dome of the left hand side chapel are Christ with the Four Evangelists and the 24 Elders of the Apocalypse.
Church of St Mercurius
In the massive watch tower (third story) is the Chapel of the Virgin.
St Michael's Church
Immediately adjoining the watch tower stands the large St Michael's Church (17th C.), with an icon said to have been painted by St Luke the Evangelist.