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The Egyptian Contribution to Christianity      317
Monasticism in its various forms plays a leading part in the
history of the Christian Church from the third century to the
present time. The cloister was the home of culture in the darkest
periods; from it proceeded many of the most diligent mission-
aries of the Christian faith, and amongst its inmates was
developed that inner spiritual life of mysticism which has so
profoundly influenced religious experience. The whole of this
powerful movement, in all its diversified activities, traces back
to one place, the Nile valley, as its cradle, and in giving birth
to monasticism Egypt laid an indelible mark on the Christian
Church whose traces can be discerned even in those professedly
little in sympathy with monastic ideals.
The formation and development of monasticism did not take
place in Alexandria, which was Greek-speaking and participated
in Greek culture, but amongst the native Coptic-speaking
Christians of Egypt, which strictly denotes the Delta, and
Thebais or Upper Egypt, the whole area watered by the Nile
between Aswan and the Mediterranean coast.
The formation of monasticism took place in two stages: first
came the solitaries, some, but by no means all, of whom were
hermits or 'desert men'; then came the formation of coenobia
or monastic communities, at first simply groups of disciples
gathered round some well-known and revered teacher. It was
generally held that the first who went out into the desert to
live the ascetic life in solitude was Paul of Thebes, and the first
to form a coenobium by gathering a band of disciples round him
was St. Antony. But Paul was not the first to live apart in the
practice of asceticism, he simply was the first to retire to the
solitude of the desert to do so. In many Egyptian villages where
there were Christian congregations there were some devout
persons who lived apart and devoted themselves to religious