The Coptic monasteries of Egypt were, and still are, strongholds of Coptic Orthodoxy and the focus of popular devotion. History records that during the papacy of Peter IV (567-69 AD), there were “…600 flourishing monasteries like beehives in their numbers.”

Following the death of the blessed desert father, St Antony the Great, a monastic community developed some time during the reign of Julian the Apostate (361-363 AD), in loving memory of their beloved spiritual father. The monastic life here initially took the form of a more eremitic style, whereby the monks would live in individual cells or caves separate from each other, but under the leadership of a spiritual elder, and would come together on Saturday and Sunday for common worship, fellowship and a meal.

In time, however, the monks began to associate themselves in closer living quarters, and hence the communal or ‘coenobitic’ style of monasticism - that was characteristic mainly in Upper Egypt (pioneered by St Pachomius) - developed also on St Antony’s mountain, and this mode of monastic life is what prevails not only in St Antony’s Monastery but in all Coptic monasteries in Egypt today.

In the 4th century, St Antony’s mountain was considered a place of solace for some monks who left Wadi Natroun and Nitria (Lower Nile Delta) because they were becoming overcrowded with monks;
St Sisoes being one of them. Then, in the 5th and 6th centuries, the Monastery of St Antony served as a place of refuge for some monks from Wadi Natroun - including St John the Dwarf -  who fled when their monasteries underwent several attacks from raiders.

However, it was during the great devastations in the 11th century that the neighbouring Red Sea monasteries of St Antony and St Paul of Thebes were badly damaged and many of the monks lost their lives.

During the patriarchate of John VI in the early 13th century, (1189-1216 AD) the Monastery underwent a revival and many restoration projects took place. Some of the Coptic monks from the Monastery were chosen as candidates for the Ethiopian episcopate. It was also during this century that the beautiful wall paintings in the ancient church of St Antony took place by the sons of Ghalib (1232-33 AD).

Then, in the latter part of the 15th century, the Monastery and its library were destroyed by the Bedouins who lived in the Monastery as servants of the monks. One night the Bedouins, desiring to take over the Monastery, killed all the monks and took possession of the Monastery.

In the history of the Syrian Monastery in Wadi Natroun, we read that Patriarch Gabriel VII (1525-70 AD) assisted in rebuilding St Antony’s Monastery. At that time 63 monks inhabited the Syrian Monastery, and the Patriarch sent 20 of these to St Antony’s Monastery, and a further 10 were sent to help in the reconstruction of the neighbouring Monastery of St Paul of Thebes. Shortly after, however, a second devastation took place again on the Monastery of St Paul of Thebes, and several monks from St Antony’s Monastery were sent to St Paul’s Monastery to help with their reconstruction and repopulation.

In the latter part of the 18th century, the Monastery underwent several changes. In 1766 AD the Church of St Mark the Ascetic was rebuilt, and in 1733 Mr Lutfallah Shakir restored the Church of the Apostles. In 1783 Mr Ibrahim Al Gawhari – a Coptic Minister of Finance and one of the most influential men in late 18th century Egypt – renovated the walls of the Monastery.

That the Monastery played an important part in the general history of the Coptic Church can be seen from the large number of Patriarchs that came from there. The leadership of St Antony’s Monastery became especially noticeable during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, during which time 12 Antonian monks ascended the patriarchal throne, and for almost 300 years they determined the history of the Coptic Church.

In the 19th century (1884), the English historian Alfred Butler wrote about the remoteness of the Red Sea Monasteries and that they had scarcely been visited by a European traveller. But shortly after, a stream of curious visitors from England, Germany, France and Russia made the journey across to the Monasteries. Then in 1930, the American historian Thomas Whittemore led an expedition on behalf of the Byzantine Institute of America to the Red Sea monasteries, and his team took the first known photographs of the Monasteries.

However, when the road between Suez and Ras Gharib was constructed in 1946, it provided a means of making the Red Sea Monasteries more accessible to visitors and pilgrims. A trip that once took 3-4 days on camel (up until the mid 20th century), now takes 3-4 hours by car.

In November 1991, His Holiness Pope Shenouda III, the 117th Coptic patriarch, ordained a monk from St Antony’s Monastery – His Grace Bishop Yostos – as bishop and abbot of St Antony’s Monastery. May the lord preserve their lives. Under his leadership and guidance, the Monastery, with a community of over 100 monks, has entered a new era of revival and expansion. The restoration, construction and expansion projects within the Monastery indicate the Monastery’s vitality. This development reflects the phenomenal growth in Egyptian monasticism over the past half century in particular, not just at St Antony’s Monastery but throughout Egypt. The increased numbers indicate a new dynamism and spiritual force. Monasticism in Egypt is growing both spiritually and physically, and thousands of pilgrims come to the Monastery each year to draw spiritual strength and nourishment from the place which St Antony the Great called home for more than 40 years of his ascetic life.