Every day, between 6 and 8 P.M., the monks of Deir as-Suryani take solitary walks in the desert. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
Abuna Frahin prays near the royal doors of the iconostasis, monastery chapel, Deir Amba Bishoi. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
The library of St. Macarius Monastery is well stocked with ancient Coptic and Greek texts. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
Abuna Wadid of St. Macarius Monastery, left, discusses the printing of St. Mark magazine with staff. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
In the desert, midway between the sprawling cities of Cairo and Alexandria, lie the monasteries of Wadi el Natrun. For 1,500 years, the monks of Wadi el Natrun enjoyed the isolation of the desert. However, the construction of the Cairo-Alexandria desert highway in 1936 and the recent raising of a nearby guest house have diminished this cherished tranquility. Isolation has been supplanted by the increasing integration of the Coptic Church with the secular world. Today hundreds of pilgrims and tourists visit the monasteries daily; Wadi el Natrun may be reached in just 90 minutes by car from either Cairo or Alexandria.
The history of Wadi el Natrun, or Valley of Salt, can be traced to Pharaonic times. The region is rich in nitrate, which the ancient Egyptians extracted for their embalming process.
According to Coptic tradition, the Christian history of the valley began when an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph, the husband of Mary, urging the bewildered man to take his wife and child to Egypt: Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him (Matthew 2:13). Finding in the desert a safe haven for her child, the Virgin. it is said, blessed the valley in thanksgiving.
Beginning in the late third century, the valley offered another kind of refuge: solitude for those seeking to flee the distractions of society, to live lives of uninterrupted prayer. Following the example of St. Pachomius, the pioneer of community life. St. Macarius established, in the mid-fourth century, the first religious house in Wadi el Natrun, a place where men and women, bound by vows of poverty, lived and prayed in community.
Until the Arab invasion of Egypt (640-642), Wadi el Natrun was a beehive of activity. Thousands of Copts (a name derived from the Greek, Aigyptios, meaning Egyptian), and Armenians, Ethiopians, Greeks and Latins professors and philosophers as well as peasants gathered in these monasteries to live and pray.
Today more than 400 monks inhabit four remaining monasteries Deir Amba Maqar (Monastery of St. Macarius), the fourth-century Deir el Barambus (Monastery of the Romans), the eighth-century Deir as-Suryani (Monastery of the Syrians) and Deir Amba Bishoi (Monastery of St. Bishoi), reconstructed in the 14th century faithfully follow the rule of monastic life established by the desert fathers.
The life of the monk revolves around prayer and fasting, asserts Abuna Sedrak of Deir Amba Bishoi, which is home to more than 100 monks. The only prerequisite for a candidate to enter the monastery is love of God.
It is customary that a candidate enter after he has completed his university studies and his military service. Thus, many enter after their 25th birthday.
Once a candidate is accepted, he will wear the white robe of a postulant for the first year. For the second year, he will don the brown robe of a novice and grow a beard. On 25 August of the third year, on the feast of St. Macarius, as he lies on the cold floor of the ancient chapel, his head facing the altar, the monk will he formally accepted, receiving the black robe and a new, religious name, forever discarding his worldly past.
The ringing of a solitary bell at 3:00 A.M. begins the daily routine at Deir Amba Bishoi. As with other monasteries of Wadi el Natrun, a second bell peals an hour later, calling the monk from his meditation and inviting him to join the community in the chapel for morning prayer.
The monk attends his tasks, which are chores usually related to his previous profession and assigned by the superior, at 6:00 A.M.,continues Abuna Sedrak.
In fact, a majority of the monks at Wadi el Natrun are university graduates who have entered monastic life after years in the real world. Agronomists, doctors, engineers, lawyers and pharmacists have all discovered a religious vocation.
After the recitation of 12 psalms at noon, the community gathers in the refectory for the midday meal, the only one that is taken in common. The other meals, which are much smaller, are prepared by each monk in his individual cell.
The 110 monks of St. Macarius, not unlike the other communities in the valley, have reclaimed large areas of the desert. Just north of the monastery, large farm buildings house more than 400 cattle, chickens and sheep, which are bred and sold. Beet fodder, introduced to the country by the monks, is cultivated on land formerly arid. The monks also grow olives, dates, melons and other produce:
We have revived the desert by transporting truckloads of topsoil and then fertilizing it with the manure from our animals, explains Abuna Wadid, an engineer who has been charged with construction activities at the monastery.
Since 1960, the Egyptian government has attempted to revitalize the desert around the monasteries, providing windbreaks and irrigation systems. Crops of alfalfa, castor beans, tomatoes, watermelons and other vegetables are now cultivated.
In 1978, in recognition and in gratitude for its work, President Anwar Sadat (1970-81) donated a substantial portion of land to St. Macanus Monastery, as well as two tractors and a new well, drilled to obtain subsoil water.
Although the monastic life calls for silence and a cessation of worldly distractions, the monks communicate regularly with the secular world. St. Mark magazine, a monthly journal published at Wadi el Natrun, discusses topics of interest to the Coptic Orthodox Church and Egyptian society and culture. Published on a modern printing press, St. Mark is available in Arabic and several foreign languages.
Over the past few years, the number of monastic aspirants has increased and, in the last 25 years, the monastic population has multiplied tenfold. Critics point out that, although the monastic life is a simple one, it assures one some measure of peace the monastery provides shelter and food as well as a refuge from the economic and political chaos of modem Egypt.
If only I was born a Christian, I could have joined a monastery and lived in peace, comments Makdi, a taxi driver in Cairo.
The trials and temptations of modern society, however, confront each monk every day. Recall the medieval and Renaissance paintings depicting the temptations of St. Anthony of Egypt!
The limitations of Egypts secular government in an environment of escalating Islamic extremism are but one trial. The Copts, who encompass just 10 percent of Egypts population of 58 million, have to act with moderation and discretion:
Each time we have tried to claim our rights by using pressure, we have suffered, Abuna Wadid says seriously. We try to proceed with logic, to discuss issues cordially and gently.
Nevertheless, the 1,500-year-old vision of St. Macarius and his desert friends does not just survive, it thrives. The monasteries of Wadi el Natrun, and the holy people who dwell therein, are beginning a new millennium with great hope and faith.
Armineh Johannes is a photojournalist based in Paris, France.