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The Monasteries of Wadi Natrun

Coptic Catholics in Egypt continue the monastic tradition in ancient desert monasteries.

It is well known that Egypt owes much of its rich heritage to the bounty of the fertile Nile Valley, but few realize the role its deserts played in the birth of Christian monasteries. From the Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai to the famous Coptic monasteries in the Western Desert, Egypt has provided refuge for those seeking a purely spiritual life, unhampered by physical comforts.

Nowhere is this monastic tradition stronger than in the monasteries of Wadi Natrun, which carry on today much as they did sixteen centuries ago. Wadi Natrun is a large depression in the Libyan desert, seventy miles to the northwest of Cairo. A series of salt lakes in the area provide rich deposits of sodium carbonate (natrun, hence the valley’s name), nitrates, soda, salt and other minerals. These deposits have been continuously worked since Pharonic times, when the ancient Egyptians used the natrun in their mummification process.

Although it was an arduous journey in the past, the trip from Cairo to Wadi Natrun now takes only two hours by car. After leaving the lush and verdant Nile Valley, a traveler cannot imagine a more bleak and isolated spot than the desert around Wadi Natrun. With the sun glaring unpityingly off the empty sands and desolate salt lakes, one wonders what could have been in the minds of the first hermits.

Whatever their reasons were for choosing the site, thousands of hermits were occupying the caves in the cliffs of Wadi Natrun by the fourth century A.D. In 333 the first settlement was founded by Saint Macarius the Great.

At first these communities were nothing more than groups of loosely-associated individual hermits living apart in Wadi Natrun. As time went on, though, they slowly evolved into compact settlements, with their membership under strict vows and rules. These early monasteries were the predecessors of the medieval European model.

At that time, monks supported themselves by growing small quantities of food, making baskets and weaving flax. Travelers, then as today, were welcomed and given food and lodging.

Later, these flourishing monasteries fell into hard times, as a result of the devastating impact of the Black Plague, a declining economy and marauding bedouins.

In fact, by the late fourteenth century, forty-six out of the over fifty monasteries had disappeared.

Of the four monasteries surviving today in Wadi Natrun, the two most famous are Deir Anba Bashoi (Monastery of Father Bashoi), and Deir al-Suriyani (Monastery of the Syrian). Located several hundred yards apart, Deir Anba Bashoi and Deir alSuriyani were originally part of the same monastery.

Upon arrival at Wadi Natrun the visitor is immediately struck by the walls surrounding the monastery. These walls were built to protect the monks from raiding bedouins, and in the past, visitors were “hauled up” them, as the single monastery door was rarely opened.

In times of trouble, this small metal-clad door would be barricaded by piling stones behind it, thus providing passive defense against invaders.

Inside the walls was the second line of defense – the deep or square tower. When the outside walls were breached, the monks would retreat to the tower and pull up the drawbridge behind them. The tower held food supplies, water and everything else necessary to resist a long siege.

Life in these monasteries, (which are supported by the Coptic Church) is simple. Along the inside of the high walls are the austere monks’ cells, which take their form from the small cave dwellings of the first hermits. The social center of the monastery is the rectory, where the one daily meal of bread and soup is served, while the spiritual center is the church, where services are held. The gardens and the mill house complete the essentials of the monastery.

In the past, many visitors made the arduous journey to Wadi Natrun in search of treasure more valuable even than precious gold. Resting in the monastery of Deir al-Suriyani, forgotten by time, lay a treasure of unique ancient books and manuscripts.

During the eighteenth century, collectors for European museums came to the valley, spurred on by visitors’ tales of great libraries containing invaluable manuscripts.

Using bribes of much-needed silver and gold to pry these treasures loose, these men took away practically the entire collection from Wadi Natrun – a collection which included valuable Syriac-Arabic-Greek dictionaries, old copies of the Gospels in Syriac and Coptic, and other rare books. Too late, the religious authorities awoke to the reprehensible dissipation of their literary heritage, and forbade any further removal of these treasures.

The monastic tradition in the Coptic Church is not dying out; instead, it seems to be in the midst of a revival. Over one-half of the monks in Deir al-Suriyani are under forty years of age, and membership is on the rise. In addition, there are numerous building projects and extensive renovations under way in each monastery.

Resisting the encroachment of civilization as successfully today as it has throughout its long history, the monastic life of Wadi Natrun is an expression of the deep and profound spirit which pervades the Christian community. Proud of their important role in the founding of the Christian monastic tradition, the monks look to the future with optimism and conviction.

Currently residing in Arizona, Duncan MacInnes lived in Cairo, Egypt from 1975-76. Now a Ph.D. candidate in Middle Eastern History, the author holds an M.A. in M.E. Studies. In the past, he has worked as a professional photographer.

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