History of the Monastery
Different sources indicate that the monastery was built around the fifth century. There are many proofs which indicate this, the most important of which are:
- The old fortress to the right of the monastery’s entrance, which was built by King Xenon between the years 474-491 AD (it may also be worthy to note that this fortress has recently been restored). King Xenon built the fortress as a token for his daughter – St. Hillary who entered the monastic life in the wilderness of Shiheet, and became well known everywhere.
- There is a source in the British Library of the writings of Saint Yacoub El Serougi that is dated back to 603 AD from El Sourian Monastery.
- Putler mentioned that the partitions of the church of St. Mary-El Sourian date back to before the year 700 AD. This is illustrated in the church of St. Bishoy and the church of St. Mary-El Baramous. These churches are considered the oldest in the wilderness, even until now.
- Brumster mentioned in his book “Guidance to the Monasteries of the Natrun Valley” that the Sourian Monastery was one of the monasteries known by the Theotokos “Mother of God”. These monasteries appeared in the fifth century after the counsel of Ephesus in 431 AD that discredited the Nestorian heresy. Afterwards, monasteries were built bearing the name of the Theotokos, hence, this monastery was named St. Mary-El Sourian Monastery. It is also located beside St. Bishoy’s Monastery in the eastern wilderness.
- Evelyn White(1874-1924), English archaeologist and Coptologist mentioned that the monastery was run independently from the start of the eighth century.
Why it is Called El Sourian (The Syrian)?
Since the fourth century, people have come from all over the world in order to visit the wilderness of Shiheet. They would come to take the blessings of the ascetic monks who reached high spiritual levels of asceticism and worship. Examples of those are St. Arsanius and saints Maximos and Domadios, who were buriedsomewhere in the outskirts of St. Mary-El Baramos’ Monastery (no one knows exactly where, because our Lord did not permit for them to be revealed to anyone). There are also remnants of the old monasteries about three kilometers southeast of the monastery, including the monasteries of St. John Kame, St. Abanoub, the Ethiopians, the Armenians, and St. John the Short. Since people came from all over the world to worship, the Coptic monks welcomed some Syrian monks for a period of time, which is why the monastery became famous for the name Syrian (El Sourian) Monastery. It was also given this name so that it be differentiated from St. Mary’s El Baramous Monastery.
As mentioned above, El Sourian Monastery originated in the fifth century while the Monastery of St. John Kame originated in the ninth century and its ruins still exist.
Prince Omar Tosson built a pillar for each monastery and wrote its name on it. Also the scholar Mohaub visited this monastery in 1088 AD. Between the years 1413 and 1430 AD, when St. John Kame’s Monastery was destroyed because of an infestation of white ants, the monks who resided there migrated to El Sourian Monastery. Along with them, they carried the body of St. John Kame and their belongings, including a marble stone that has some Coptic dates engraved on it, as well as the date of the departure of St. John Kame and his disciple St. Stefanos. This marble stone is still present in the El Sourian church.
El Sourian Monastery in the Twentieth Century:
The monastery became quite famous among other monasteries, especially in the second half of the twentieth century. During that time, it was the leader and the initiator of monastic revival under the supervision of Bishop Thaofilos, who was the monastery’s Abbott in the year 1948.
A group of educated individuals entered monastic life and started workingwhole-heartedly to revive the monastery. This group included those who reconstructed the monasteries of: St. Macarius’, St. Paul, St. Mina, and St. George [El-Rozaykat], in addition to St. Bishoy’s Monastery. All of these monks were part of El Sourian Monastery and they had a great impact on the revival of the church.
The majority of the Holy Synod members who represent the leadership of the church areeducated monks. In other words, prior to their monastic lives they served in their churches, and they had a great impact on the priesthood from the spiritual, social, and intellectual standpoint. During that period, a great number of monks were ordained, compared to the previous period, in which the number usually wouldn’t exceed more than twenty or forty monks. Currently, the number of monks being ordained is double or triple that number.
In the early fifties, when Bishop Thaofilos presided over the monastery, he demolished the cells that were next to the southern wall. Instead of those cells, he built a four story high building with a beautiful façade, and each monk occupied a cell in that building. It was the first modern building in the monastery, and soon afterwards other monasteries adopted the same idea. In 1988, another three-story building was constructed, on top of which a water tower was built. Through the supervision of H.H. Pope Shenouda III in 1993, another three-story building was constructed next to the previous one. There were two old bell towers around a guesthouse, located on the eastern side of St. Mary’s church. One of them still stands to this day, however, the other was demolished. In substitute for the demolished bell tower, Bishop Theophilus built a high tower at the northern side of the monks’ cells, and this is clearly visible from afar, for everyone who visits the monastery. Another tower was built in the year 1968, and this newer tower was even higher than the previous one. The late Pope Shenouda III (who was Bishop of Education at that time) personally supervised the construction of this tower.
The Two Light houses:
There were two old lighthouses situated around the guest house, which was located towards the eastern side of the Church of the Virgin Mary El Sourian. One is still remaining, however, the other wasdestroyed.
Bishop Thaofilos rebuilt a tall lighthouse towards the northern part of the monks’ cells, close to the guesthouse.The lighthouse is so tall to the point where the monastery’s visitors can see it from afar.
In 1968 another lighthouse was built to the right of the monks’ cells, and it was even taller than the other lighthouse. Bishop Shenouda (Bishop of Education at that time) supervised the construction of this lighthouse.
These two lighthouses are considered the first high-rise concrete lighthouses that were ever built in this desert area.
The Guest House:
Towards the eastern part of the El Sourian church stands a beautiful palace, which consists of a large hall and many rooms for guests. This was built by Father Maximos in the year 1914. In 1974, a guest house was built in its place, and it stands five stories high. It also houses the monastery’s library, which was transferred to the third floor. In addition, a small rest house was built in the eighties towards the western side of El Sourian church. The rest house sits on top of an old well, and beside it stands a large traditional water pump (sakia). This is used for watering the monastery’s garden. Later on, this garden was transformed into a library. In 1987, under the supervision the late Pope Shenouda III, a two-story building for visitors was built towards the western part of the monastery.
The Monastery’s Books:
In 1951, Bishop Theofilos established a print-shop for the monastery, which was the first of its kind in the Egyptian monasteries. The monks of the monastery ran the print shop and compiled some very important books, including: The Life of the Orthodox Prayer, The Book of the Seven Prayers of Famous Church Saints, The Life of Saint John Kame, The History of El Sourian Monastery, The Series of the History of the Patriarchs (four parts), The Three Holy Macari, St. Basil the Great: His Life, Asceticism, and Laws. There were also many small booklets that were distributed free of charge, like The Life of Mar Ephraim the Syrian, Psalm 93 –The Lord Has Reigned, St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, St. George. St. Mark, St. Anna Simon, Logios the Stonecutter, and Famous Sayings of Saints about Nativity, Epiphany, and the Resurrection. Even throughout tens of years, up until our present day these sayings are still being read in the mornings of the feasts of each saint. During each feast, the monks get together and read the corresponding readings for that feast. The books that were produced by El Sourian Monastery had a great impact on the spiritual lives of many people. It is these books that inspired many to seek the life of monasticism.
In 1959, the retreat house was built outside the monastery and it may be worthy to note that the Sourian Monastery was the first to build a retreat house. It was built under the guidance of Fr. Antonious El Souriany, who was later ordained as Pope Shenouda III.This rest house welcomed large numbers of Christian youth. It was an enlightening place for the youth because it created a quiet atmosphere for them, and this would serve as a chance for them to thrive in prayers,fastings, spiritual readings, meditation, and attending midnight praises, as well as enjoying the desert. Especially during the time of sunset, when many youth pondered the beauty of God’s creation, and the monks offered their spiritual guidance, this led the youth to think seriously about their spiritual lives. Furthermore, they yearned to repeat the experience, and someof them even sought the monastic life. Hence, many of the current monks usedto spend a lot of time in this house as laymen. This continues to be a living message from the church for all generations to come.
After the retreat house flourished and became exemplary to others, as well as a great place for the youth to come for retreats, every monastery adopted the same system and began to build their own retreat houses.