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The Monasteries of Wadi el Natrun

text and photographs by Armineh Johannes

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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.

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