Home About the Monastery Life at St. Samuel Monastery

Life at St. Samuel Monastery

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The Monastery of St. Samuel the Confessor of Kalamoun Mountain is located about 230 kilometers South of Cairo along the Cairo Assiout Western Desert Road. It accessible from Cairo in about 2.5 hours in vehicles equipped to drive through this rough terrain. 

The Monastery was built in the 4th century by students of Anba Antonius. It was named for the 7th century Saint Samuel who passed away on Kalamoun Mountain. The grounds are large and include five churches, housing for the monks, a guesthouse, gardens and various buildings to service the community, such as an infirmary and structures where monks perform their work. 

Presently there are about 100 monks who live at St. Samuel, which is located in the heart of the harsh, dry desert. There are a few wells on the grounds, but the water is suitable only for washing and irrigation because of its high salinity. The monks have developed a few ways to cultivate the land surrounding the monastery in spite of the unforgiving heat and the salty water that lies below the desert surface. Through careful planning and years of trial and error, the monks are able to successfully foster olive trees and palms that bear super sweet sewa dates. Date palms thrive naturally in the desert climate, but the olive trees must be irrigated with water pumped from the wells. In addition, the monks carefully prune the olive trees in an upside down cone shape so that the trees might derive the greatest benefit from both the sun and the infrequent rain. But even with this painstaking care, a rising water table is threatening the olive trees. If the salinated water that lies below the sands touch the olive roots, the trees will die – and with them an important source of both nutrition and income for the monks of St. Samuel. 

The monks do not do all of the physical work of the monastery, which is large and needs a great deal of work to maintain, so laborers are hired from surrounding towns. In addition to paying these workers salaries, the monks teach them, feed them and tend to their spiritual needs. The monks supervise and participate in various the various types of work that need to be performed at the monastery – tending and harvesting crops, fixing pumps and other implements, maintaining the buildings, making architectural restorations, cooking, cleaning, servicing the churches, doing laundry, making and embroidering the monks clothing and the myriad other tasks that are done on-site that allow the monastery to be entirely self-sufficient. 

In addition to being devoted servants of God and the Church, the monks of St. Samuel are also exceptionally intellectual and well educated. Bishop Basilios himself has a degree in naval engineering that he earned from the University of Alexandria in 1968. Most of the monks have college degrees, and many have obtained higher degrees that trained them to be doctors, dentists, engineers, psychologists and in other professional fields. To supplement their expertise, about every two months the best doctors from Cairo visit the monastery to bring medicine and provide treatment for monks who need specialized care. 

At some time during the 17th century the monastery was abandoned and began to decay. Local Bedouin removed some of the buildings and reassembled them stone by stone in their villages. In one instance a former monastery building was rebuilt and used as a mosque! But in spite of this history, the monks of St. Samuel have excellent relationships with the Bedouin and inhabitants of neighboring Muslim villages. Bedouin often stop at the monastery for a drink when they are thirsty, for a meal or even for a place to sleep. And although the monks raise chickens, lambs and goats along with the dates and olives, there are many necessary foods that they are unable to raise in the desert sands. So the monks travel to nearby villages every day to trade their dates and olives for money and to buy the vegetables and grains that round out their diet. These visits are filled with good will and the monks have made close friends with their Muslim neighbors. 

A man does not become a monk at St. Samuel without a great deal of thought and preparation. As mentioned earlier, most of the monks have attained some degree of higher education, and it is preferable that these men have work experience in the lay world so that they might fully understand the ramifications of becoming a desert monk. If a man is interested, the Church first has to recommend him for orders. Each monk then serves a three-year novitiate period at the monastery, after which the community decides whether to accept or reject him as a full member. 

The monastery pays close attention to the talents of the individual monks – whether they excel at singing, painting, engineering, medicine or in other areas – and they are assigned work and duties best suited to them. The head of the monastery is the Abbot, Bishop Basilios, and all of the monks answer to Pope Shenouda III; but the all of the monks other than the Abbot are all considered equal members. There is no ecclesiastical ranking like in regular churches, although in their various groups monks usually show deference to those with greater age and experience than theirs. 

Life at St. Samuel is not easy. The monks rise at 3:00am each day for four hours of hymns, biblical study and mass. The rest of the day is spent in work and prayer, with communal meals at noon and 7:00pm, and vespers from 5:00-6:00pm. On Wednesdays and Fridays the monks eat nothing that was once living and they fast until 3:00pm, taking their first meal at that hour. Masses are held in all of the monastery’s churches at the same time, and visitors from nearby villages join them every day for mass and prayers. 

Life at the monastery is simple and it is hard. The only income the monks have comes from their agricultural products and the few donations they receive. None of the men receives a salary, but community money is always available if one of them needs it for the care of a sick relative or to visit with family. The monks love their austere lifestyle and the time and concentration it affords them for devotion to God. But they need money for the community to function – they need food for themselves and visitors, water pumps to irrigate their crops, fuel for the generator they run a mere few hours a day, supplies for the churches, fuel for the truck that takes them to the marketplaces so they can sell their goods. 

May God bless St. Samuel Monastery and our fathers the monks.

Dr. Atef Mackar
Coptic Assembly of America
Source here  


About the monastery

St. Samuel Coptic Orthodox Monastery in the Kalamoun Mountain, under the auspices of His Grace Bishop Bassilios