Wadi Natrun which is in the eastern desert near the delta, is one of the prime attractions for the Christian religious tourist that comes to Egypt. Christianity reached the area with St. Macarius the Great who retreated there in c.330. Other religious men were drawn to the area and a sort of loose community was formed. The community grew in number and became more organized. Thus, a flourishing monastic system was created.
The history of the Wadi and its importance to the Copts goes back to the 4th century. Anchorites inhabited caves around the valley and built monasteries. After the Arab invasion of Egypt, the Khalifa of Moslems in Arabia gave Christian monks in Egypt the amnesty to practice their religion. For that reason, the area became the official residence of the Coptic patriarch. Even now the patriarch is elected from Wadi Natrun monks.
A Coptic monk has to wait for ten years before being considered as a hermit monk. After that time he quests for a cave around the area or digs one for himself. This tradition has been carried out for centuries among Copts. Most of the monasteries in the area have been rebuilt and restored between the 8th and 11th centuries. The early churches had similar Roman/Coptic Architecture. The monasteries were divided on the inside into three sections, including communion, reading catechism, and a basin for sinners to bath.
The population of the Wadi was decimated by the two waves of plague that swept through the Middle East and Europe in the 14 century. It has never recovered. There are four remaining monasteries today with buildings of Late Antique and unique character. The monasteries have a similar design, they were all surrounded by a high fortified wall, (to be defendable against the attacks of the Bedouins and the Berbers), that encloses several churches, living quarters and a qasr (keep) which had on its upper story the church.
The word Wadi stands for valley. The reason that this area is called a valley is because it is a flat land surrounded by 10 lakes. The water mainly comes from the rainwater of desert storms. The area is rich with salts and carbonates of sodium, which ancient Egyptians used to mummify their dead. The Romans extracted silica for glass from here. During the British occupation era, a railroad system was built to move the salt in the valley to Cairo.
The Specific Monasteries of the Area
Last Updated: August 21st, 2011