The Saint Simeon Monastery is now an abandoned site that is located on the west bank of the Aswan. It is a remarkable collection of ancient buildings that sit in the middle of nowhere. The stone and mud-brick of the surviving walls and buildings blend in with the surrounding dramatic landscape.
The Saint Simeon Monastery is known locally as Anba Hatre and the Arabic name for the saint is Deir Anba Sim’an. The best way (and the generally accepted mode) to get there is on the back of a camel, which takes about 25 minutes. Slogging it out on foot is unadvisable because of the heat and the effort of trudging through the sand.
The monastery is named after a fourth century ascetic who, the legend goes, on the day of his wedding witnessed a passing funeral procession. Inspired by this chance encounter, he decided not to lose his virginity. He thereupon undertook a frugal and abstinent lifestyle and removed himself to Anba Hatre. He was just eighteen and I wonder what his ditched bride thought of those decisions.
Whether the monastery dates from his time is still unclear but by the sixth and seventh centuries there was an established settlement as evidenced by some remarkably well-preserved wall paintings on the rock caves from that time. More additions and building took place in the first part of the eleventh century.
It became one of the largest Coptic Monasteries in Egypt housing over a thousand inhabitants. However, by the end of the thirteenth century it was abandoned and the reasons have never been properly determined. Despite some depredations and raids by various marauders much of the structures still remain remarkably intact.
The archetypal domed Christian church and tower is the best architectural example of its type. There are a large number of tombstones and rock cells with stone beds for the monks. There are numerous living and working quarters and walled lookout towers. The lower levels are marked by covered arched walkways acting as ventilation systems making for a cool environment.
In addition there are pottery and brick making kilns providing insights into Aswan techniques. A small number of wall paintings survive from the eleventh and twelfth centuries with evidence of even older paintings that behind them.
Your tour of the Saint Simeon Monastery (Anba Hatre) usually lasts for about two hours. It is time well spent yet too short to fully appreciate the long, colourful and still barely understood history of the place. The peace, quiet and lovely views of the river do give you some inkling why the monastery was a great place to meditate, study the scriptures and look for the meaning to life…