Ever Since A.D. 270, the Need to Get Away From It All

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Frozen in time, hidden for hundreds of years beneath one church, and then another, are what Egyptian antiquity officials say are the oldest monastic cells ever discovered, dating to the fourth century. They are so well preserved it is as if someone just lifted off the roof.

The discovery was made by Father Maximous, a Coptic monk, who for 27 years has made his home inside the walls of St. Anthony's Monastery, a fortress of Christianity 100 miles southeast of Cairo that is generally considered the birthplace of Christian monastic life.

During the third century, there were Christians who sought piety through abstention and self-denial. But St. Anthony is credited with taking those practices a step further when he went to live in a cave in the mountains of the desert, not far from the monastery that bears his name, around the year 270.

The monastery is breathtaking, two tall towers rising up from the sand, each topped with the Coptic cross, dotted with churches and cells for 110 monks. But it is the green that is so striking, the green that historians say drew Anthony, the green palm trees that signal the presence of water. It is easy to feel a divine spirit where water emerges from the desert floor.

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