Bookmark and Share

Wadi Natrun

Wadi Natrun

1. Deir Anba Bishoi

2. Deir as-Suryani

3. Deir Abu Maqar

4. Deir al-Baramus


Open LookLex Encyclopaedia

Open the online Arabic language course

Christian solitude in the depression

Wadi Natrun, Egypt

One of the church towers at Deir as-Suryani

Monasteries of Wadi Natrun
Deir Anba Bishoi Deir as-Suryani Deir Abu Maqar Deir al-Baramus Click to open articles

It is common to allege that Wadi Natrun was the actual birthplace for Christian monasticism. This theory can be challenged by the theory that the Essenes of Palestine were the first Christians, and they practiced monasticism.
The reason why the early Copts chose to install themselves out in the desert was more than piety. Under the Roman rule the Egyptian Christians were persecuted, especially around year 300, and many found refuge out of the cities. When Christianity became state religion in 330 Wadi Natrun was already firmly established as an important Christian centre, a place of piety.
The piety would be lost over the centuries, and the monks would gradually become managers of their lands, benefiting from the work of the monastic serfs. In the 19th century, visitors to Wadi Natrun reported that the monks were lazy, dirty, immoral and of little education and manners.
There were at the most 50 monasteries here, most built according to the same pattern: fortresses with one or more churches inside, storerooms, a dining hall, kitchen, bakery and monks' cells. Of these only 4 have survived into modern times. Some traveller's guide books are quite scornful at the fact that most of what you will see at Wadi Natrun is not remotely close to its alleged age. Many of the buildings are really from the 19th and 20th centuries.
Personally, I found my visit here quite delightful, and certain sections at all monasteries appear to me as very attractive and interesting. After all, as the monasteries have been in continuous use for more than 1,600 years, no wonder that the monks have rebuilt the parts that needed repair.

Wadi Natrun, Egypt

The abbot of Deir Anba Bishoi (no. 3 from left) greets out guide, Father Plagius (no. 4 from left)

Wadi Natrun, Egypt

The main church tower inside the Deir Abu Maqar

All the monasteries contain more or less the same structures, as they all serve the same purpose. And they are all well protected behind thick walls, a reminder of the dangers of a not too distant past.
Wadi Natron's importance for Egypt goes far beyond the monasteries. Natron was produced from the deposits of sodium carbonate which were left when the salt lakes dried up. This natron was central in the mummification process, used for pharaohs and wealthy Egyptians in the times of the ancient religion.

Getting out to Wadi Natrun is relatively easy, but the buses serving the distance are old and not too comfortable. Return connections end between 18.00 and 19.00, so you better start early in the day.
From Cairo, get a taxi to Turgoman station. Here, you just ask the first service man (or what one should call these guys) for the buses for Wadi Natrun. Getting the right bus, and paying the right price, is straightforward. The first buses leave at 6.30, the last at 18.30.
Get off at Bir Hooker, and the best way of getting around is by hiring a pick-up. Expect to pay between EŁ50 and EŁ70 for all 4 monasteries.
If you are a man and want to spend the night at one of the monasteries, this has to be arranged in Cairo. For Deir Anba Bishoi call 02/592  4448, for Deir as-Suryani call 02/592  9658, for Deir al-Baramus call 02/592 2775 and for Deir Abu Maqar call 02/577 0614.
There is more than just a tiny chance the monasteries will be closed when you visit, due to religious festivals or fast. Deir Abu Maqar and Deir al-Baramus are the most zealous. The most difficult periods are November 25 till January 6, August 7 till 21 and June 27 till July 10.

By Tore Kjeilen