For 16 centuries, the monks of St. Makarios Monastery have prayed and labored in world behind the walls of their retreat here in Egypt's western desert.

But recently they were filmed by television cameras, interviewed by scores of journalists and besieged by thousands of tourists and pilgrims. The visitors came because a newspaper in Cairo reported that among the bones unearthed during renovation of an ancient chapel were those of John the Baptist.

The monks believe it. They say this monastery has been commemorating the transfer of John's remains to the basement crypt here since it occurred in the 11th century, and that ancient manuscripts in their library said the prophet's remains would be found exactly where the bones eventually turned up.

"This discovery is known to us as a definite thing," said Father Youhanna, the monk appointed to guide journalists around the monastery.

The Coptic Christian hierarchy in Cairo has responded cautiously to reports of the discovery. The patriarch, Pope Shenouda II, appointed a committee of scholars and archeologists to examine the remains and the manuscripts before giving official church saction to the monk's claim. Their task is difficult because all the bones and skulls that were found, the remains of perhaps a dozen bodies in all, have been jumbled together in a wooden crate.

Their age can be determined through carbon dating, experts say, but positive identification is unlikely. According to the gospels, John was a prophet who came out of the Judean desert to preach and baptize in preparation for the coming of the messiah. St. Matthew describes him as " he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, the voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight." His message, according to Matthew, was "repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."

When John reproached King Herod for taking up with his sister-in-law, he was arrested. At Herod's birthday feast, his niece, Salome, danced for him and so pleased the king that he promised her whatever favor she wished. Salome, whose mother Herodias had been angered by John's rebuke, asked for his head, and it was delivered to her, according to the biblical account.

A historical marker puts John's grave near Nablus, on the West Bank of the Jordan River. But there are no human remains there.

Tradition holds that John's head was transported to Homs, in Syria, and the rest of his remains spirited out of Palestine to Alexandria during the persecution under the Roman emperor, Julian the Apostate. From Alexandria, it is said to have been moved after the Islamic conquest to Egypt to one of the Coptic monasteries in the desert, about the 11th century.

Christianity was brought to Egypt by St. Mark in 61 A.D. The Coptic church split from Rome when the Council of Chalcedon denounced as heresy the doctrine of Monophysitism, which taught that Christ while on rather than a dual nature, divine and earth had but one nature, the divine, human.

Islam overwhelmed Christianity in Egypt in the 18th century, but there are today from 3 million to 6 million Coptic Christians among the country's 40 million people.

The monastery of St. Makarios was founded in 360, one of a group in the desert about 60 miles northwest of Cairo that have kept the monastic tradition alive.

The monks, most of whom are well educated before coming to the monastery, work, play, study and farm in an atmosphere that is normally tranquil.

The 80 monks of St. Makarios are said to raise the finest Frisian cattle and the biggest turnips in Egypt. It was a reporter writing about the turnips who first learned of the discovery of the relics, which the monks had kept secret for two years out of fear of just the kind of disruption that is now occuring.

A renovation of the monastery began in 1969-bringing in automatic thermostats, wall-to-wall carpets in the chapels and a telephone.

Church officials say one of the tasks was to excavate, down to the foundations, three ancient, adjoining chapels that dated back to an earlier renovation in the 7th century. Father Youhanna said manuscripts in the monastery had given a precise account of the site of John the Baptist's tomb, and "our findings coincide with what was in the manuscripts, in site and depth and in the description of the columns over it."

The first account of the discovery, in the newspaper Al Ahram Nov. 12, featured a photograph of an intact, preserved body in a coffin, next to headlines reporting the discovery of John's remains. The body has not been identified, but the monks make no claim that it is John-its head is intact.

The bones of John the Baptist, Father Youhanna said, are among those of "at least 10" people jumbled together in the crate the monks have installed in the crate the monks have installed atop the new carpeting in one of the renovated chapels.

It has been known as the Chapel of John the Baptist since the 11th century, he said, an indication that the prophet's bones were reburied there at that time.

The monks are preparing a pamphlet, in French and English, explaining what they found and what they think it is. They hope it will enable them to satisfy the curiosity of visitors without taking so much time away from the monastic routine. They have also appealed to outsiders to leave the work of authentication to the church committee and to "leave the monks to work and pray."