In the Christian traditions, the founders of Christian monasticism are often referred to as the Desert Fathers.
I was fortunate to be able to visit the desert of Wadi Natrun in the North of Egypt. I stayed for two weeks at the Paromeos Monastery with the Coptic Christian Monks, who preserve the traditional home of Christianity’s first monastic communities.
Toward the end of my stay, and quite by chance, I crossed paths with Pope Shenouda III, the Pope of the Coptic Church at that time. He warmly welcomed me and we stood by his car, just outside one of the monasteries, and talked of monasticism in the modern age, before he entered his car and his driver took him back to Cairo. He seemed genuinely happy to welcome a young Roman Catholic monk to his monasteries. I was struck by his kindness and lack of pretense, as well as the ease at which he spoke with me, a member of another sect, and a foreigner to his country. The separation of the Coptic Church represents the earliest major schism in Christianity.
While in the desert of Egypt, I also traveled to the Coptic Christian monastery of Saint Macarius the Elder that boasts the resting place of the relics of John the Baptist. There, on the ground just before the iconostasis that separates the altar from the nave, was a small round hole in the stone floor. The Coptic monk who was my guide pointed to the floor and told me that underneath was found a crypt containing the remains of John the Baptist.
There are shrines throughout the world claiming to contain some piece of Saint John the Baptist and, throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East, there have been numerous religions based entirely upon his life and teachings. One such religion is Mandaeism found today in southern Iraq, a community who believe that the history of their faith dates back to the days of John the Baptist.