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3i8 The Egyptian Contribution to Christianity
exercises, usually in a hut or cave near by, and members of the
local congregation went out from time to time and supplied
them with food. Quite how this ascetic life began is obscure.
Some trace it to the katoikoi who lived in sanctuary in the
precincts of certain Egyptian temples, but these seem to have
been mostly fugitives from justice who went to the temple for
sanctuary. Eusebius takes a description of the Therapeutae from
Philo and seems to suppose that these were devout ascetes who
formed a link between the Old Testament 'Schools of the
Prophets' and Christian monasteries. But Philo seems to be
describing an imaginary Utopia which cannot seriously be
connected with Christian monasticism. One thing certainly
favoured this living apart: wherever there were ancient tombs,
in Egypt very numerous, there were lodgings provided for the
priests who offered sacrifice and recited liturgies for the souls
of the deceased, and many of these standing vacant offered a
convenient refuge for those who wished to dwell apart and
devote themselves to prayer.
In the days of Decius's persecution (A.D. 250) many fled to the
desert for safety, as is described by Dionysius, who was at the
time Bishop of Alexandria,1 and when persecution was over
most of these returned home again, but some remained in the
'inner' or remoter desert, and of these was Paul.
St. Jerome wrote a life of Paul of Thebes, but it is legendary.
His life of St. Antony is altogether different and gives a biography
which must be taken seriously. Antony was an historical char-
acter who died in 356 and was known personally to St. Athanasius
and Serapion of Thmui. He recognized his call to the solitary
life when he heard Matt. xix. 21 read in church in Coptic,
for he knew no Greek, and in 270 left his home and became a
hermit, at first near his native village, then in the inner desert.
About 285 he crossed the Nile and settled in a deserted fort at
Pispir, where he stayed some twenty years. But his solitude was
1 Cited Eusebius, H.E. vi. 42,