The first of the great persecutions started in the reign of Trajan Decius (249-251). The number of Egyptians who escaped to the deserts increased. Among them was St Paul, the Theban, a native Egyptian who spoke Greek only with the greatest difficulty (as distinct from the Hellenized Egyptians in Alexandria). He chose a remote site on the Red Sea coast, where he founded a hermitage.
By this time thousands of ‘anchorites’ (derived from the Greek root ‘retire’ or ‘withdraw’) were either living alone or in small groups, isolated from one another. Slowly individual ascetics started to draw near to one another to look for guidance from a master, and St Paul gave instruction in an atmosphere of security and spirituality. After St Paul came St Anthony, who also chose a site near the Red Sea rather than the Nile valley. His famous biography was written by his friend Athanasius, eloquent deacon of the Bishop of Alexandria (AD 325) and his life and teachings strongly influenced those of the desert fathers.