CAIRO, Feb. 10, 2010 -- Near Egypt's Red Sea coast, nestled at the foot of Al Qalzam Mountain and dotted by palm trees, stands the world's oldest Christian monastery.
Made of sand-colored stone, the Coptic Orthodox monastery of St. Anthony -- or Anthony the Great -- is believed to be 1,600 years old and to have been founded on St. Anthony's burial site. It was recently restored to its former splendor by the Egyptian government as part of a restoration project.
The secretary-general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, Zahi Hawass, last week unveiled the fortress-like monastery, whose repair cost $14 million and took more than eight years to complete,
The project in the Eastern Desert was carried out in two parts, with the first beginning in 2001 and ending in 2004. The work included the restoration of the gardens and sewage system, and installment of water, electricity and phone lines.
Shortly after, work resumed with the second stage that involved renovating the monks' quarters and intricate wall paintings, including some of the Virgin Mary and Holy Knights. Some of the paintings date back to the 13th century.
A library containing at least 1,438 handwritten manuscripts was also found on the site. Legend has it that the Bedouin servants used many manuscripts for cooking fuel so the library must have contained even more ancient writings at some point.
Abdullah Attar, head consultant of the Sector of Islamic and Coptic Monuments in the Supreme Council of Antiquities, who worked on this project, said that "the renovation work that has been done over the past eight years is important because it is the oldest monastery in the world and needs to be preserved.''
At the opening, Hawass pointed out that the restoration work was done by Muslims, which many observers interpreted as an attempt to show that there are no issues between Muslims and Christians in the country and that the two religions have co-existing for centuries in Egypt.
Monastery Restoration Comes as Religious Tensions Grow
But the unveiling of the monastery came after six Coptic Christians were killed in December, in what was described as the worst incident of sectarian violence in a decade. Protests followed and there were fears that the violence would escalate.
In an attempt to pacify the public, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was quoted in the local newspaper Al Ahram as saying, "We are one people. We are not fanatics because we are all children of this land, and there is no difference between Egyptian Muslims, Christians and Jews."
It is a view echoed by Attar, who said that "we treat all the ancient sites, whether they are Christian, Muslim or Jewish as Egyptian treasures, we don't differentiate between the religions.''
Such a sentiment was on displayed late last year with the painstaking restoration of one of Egypt's oldest synagogues. Hawass of the Supreme Council of Antiquities said then that the synagogue is ''the most important Jewish temple" because "he [medieval Rabbi Moses ben Maimon] was a great physician and philosopher. He was the special physician to the great Arab leader, Salahuddin."
While work on the temple is ongoing, the rabbi's birthday in March is the expected completion date, with a grand opening planned.
Attar said that "visiting the monastery makes me happy, once you enter the site you feel like you're living in the 4th century.''
It's easy to see why, with its lush gardens, a mill, a bakery and five churches, one of which is St. Anthony monastery.
Because of its renovation, millions of pilgrims are expected to flock to the site.