ONE @ 50: The Monasteries of Wadi Natrun

In honor of ONE magazine’s 50th-anniversary year, the CNEWA blog series, ONE @ 50: From the Vault, aims to revive and explore the wealth of articles published in ONE magazine throughout its history. Read about the Coptic Catholic monastic tradition in Egypt’s ancient desert monasteries in this article, originally published in Winter 1977.

Read an excerpt from “The Monasteries of Wadi Natrun” below, then read the full story.

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.

Read more.

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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