Engines of Our Ingenuity


by Roger Kaza

Today, monks and hermits. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

You get to Kykkos Monastery, on the island of Cyprus, after a serpentine drive through the pine-scented Troödos mountains. Though the Byzantine-style structure was established in the 12th century, the buildings have changed over time, often succumbing to fires stoked by the dry desert winds. Kykkos is a working Greek Orthodox monastery, and tourists aren't allowed everywhere, so during my visit I could only imagine the sweeping view from the topmost bell towers, looking north across the Mediterranean to Turkey, and to the south, Egypt.

Kykkos Monastery photograph
Kykkos Monastery, Cyprus

And that direction holds a few secrets to this place. Monasteries are time-honored in both eastern and western religions, and, when we think of monks, whether Jesuits or Buddhist monks in Tibet, probably two things come to mind: an austere, perhaps even ascetic lifestyle, and a cloistered community of fellow believers. Yet, in the West at least, go back to biblical times and this description is only half-true. Monks were indeed ascetic in those days, but they were anything but communal. The very word, monk, monastic, mono — as in monopoly, monolithic, or, to date myself, monophonic records — well, it suggests single, solo, alone. The monk was described for exactly what he was, a solitary seeker: a hermit.

So what does Egypt have to do with all this? In church tradition, the third-century St. Anthony of Egypt is known as the father of monasticism. Yet he started solo like all the others. Following the example of Moses, John the Baptist, Jesus, Anthony left his home and family for a harsh period alone in the desert. The desert in ancient times seems to have been regarded as a sort of physical metaphor for a drought in the soul ... you went there hoping to find spiritual water. And you went at your own peril. Lore says that Anthony was repeatedly tempted by legions of demons and fallen angels, a subject so tantalizingly graphic it was painted over the centuries by Hieronymus Bosch, Paul Cezanne, Salvador Dali, and most notably Matthias Grünewald. His rendition was then later set to music by Paul Hindemith in the opera and symphony, Mathis der Maler.

The Temptation of St. Anthony painting
The Temptation of St. Anthony, by Matthias Grünewald

Anthony didn't intend to start a movement. After years in the desert he traveled to Alexandria to preach, hoping to become a martyr for his faith. That didn't work; the powers that be just left him alone. So he fled back into the wilderness, this time tailed by a horde of disciples. At the oasis where he finally rested, his followers built Christendom's first monastery, Abba Antonious.

Historians credit monks and monasticism for keeping the flames of ancient knowledge alive during the so-called dark ages. Monks preserved and studied Greek and Latin manuscripts, eventually leading to their wider rediscovery during the Renaissance. We owe monasteries like Kykkos more than we can possibly know. And that hermit St. Anthony, would he be ever astounded at our world, and all that his desert wandering helped bring into it.

I'm Roger Kaza at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work. (Theme music)

History isn't categorical, and there are other possible nominees for the "father of monasticism." A rival claimant for the honor is Pachomius the Great. Some historians divide the honor; they claim Anthony as the father of ermitic or solo monasticism, Pachomius as the founder of cenobitic or communal monasticism. Our main source of information about Anthony comes from Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, Egypt.

Remarkably, there were Buddhist monks in Alexandria hundreds of years before the birth of Christ. It is unclear whether their presence influenced Western monasticism or not.

Another linguistic trace of monk's original meaning can be noted in the term "hermitage," a type of monastery.

More on Monasticism and the Dark Ages.

Wikipedia entry on Anthony the Great (aka Anthony of Egypt, St. Anthony and many other nicknames.)

Temptation of St. Anthony in Visual Arts.

Engines 258 about Bosch's version.

Kykkos Monastery description: The monastery encompasses a large group of buildings, including a remarkably ornate chapel and an extensive museum with relics, icons, vestaments, and pre-Christian art. Kykkos' origin, like that of Abba Antonious, includes a hermitic monk.

Youtube video of Third movement, "The Temptation of St. Anthony" from the symphony based on Paul Hindemith's opera, Mathis der Maler. (If you can help me identify the painting used in this video, thanks!)


Kykkos Monastery photo by R. Kaza. Grünewald painting, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Special thanks to Barbara and Socrates Hadjisavvas, my kind Cyprus hosts who showed me so much of their beautiful island, including Kykkos Monastery.

This episode was first aired on October 1, 2012

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2011 by John H. Lienhard.