A survey of Egypt, Part III: Wadi el-Natrun to Tanta
At Wadi el-Natrun a few hours before sunup As I previously mentioned, Egypt is a country that is very much under control, and concerned for the safety of its tourists and other foreign guests. That is very positive for most people on
vacation in Egypt, but for a journalist with a big itinerary and a limited amount of time, it can be somewhat frustrating at times. I had wanted to begin the Survey of Egypt just after arrival in Egypt, but that was not to be, as we were still gathering permits. In all fairness, we were going to be visiting many places where tourists seldom go, but by the evening of the 25th of September, with only two of the three permits needed, and time running out, we made the decision that we would begin our journey and let the last permit catch up with us. The next morning, at 3:00 am, a little earlier than might be required, and even before our police escort could catch up with us, we departed for Wadi el-Natrun, our first scheduled photo shoot.
Wadi el-Natrun has a long and rich history, dating back to the very origins of monastic life. Not far from here are Nitria and Kellia (the Cells), where early isolated Christian hermits perhaps first began to form into small groups and eventually formed monastic communities. At Wadi el-Natrun itself, the monasteries are not only religious communities, but, while not needed today, fortresses as well. There was a time when their fortress existence was very necessary, a time when some monks were not only followers of God and Jesus Christ, but also warriors. All four of the main monasteries at Wadi el-Natrun were sacked at least six times, and during the fourteenth century, their most serious threat came in the form of the Black Death. Hence, at various times, these monasteries were almost deserted, but the Christian monks returned again and again to rebuild this ancient Christian stronghold.
At this point, I had with me Tamer Ibrahim, a tour guide, though he was unfamiliar with our present destinations and would therefore function as a translator and assistant, and a driver who spoke little English, but who was Coptic and would end up being a bit of a guide himself at times. Of course, it was a bit dark to see much as we made our way to this ancient haven of Coptic Christianity, and we arrived in plenty of time to do a little night photography, well before sunrise. Then, we had to wait until 8:00 for the monasteries to open to the public. As my small crew slept in the van, I went about taking predawn shots of the countryside, somewhat impatiently waiting for the small door at St. Bishoi to open up to the public.
When it finally did open, we timidly made our way inside, being it would seem the first visitors of the day, with no one else in sight. All told, we saw one other tourist there during our stay. Then, happening onto a small room, we made a very delightful discovery. There, we found a group of young monks, readying themselves for the day, who could not have been more friendly. In fact, they were not just friendly, they were camera hams, the likes of which one does not often find in Egypt, and they would set the tone for our visits to other Coptic monasteries as well.
Frankly, outside of visiting some of the old Churches in Cairo, I had not spent too much time at Coptic facilities. I was much more familiar with the monasteries of other sects, such as the Monastery of St. Catherine's in the Sinai, which is not very open to photography. However, I found that the Coptic Monasteries at Wadi el-Natrun, and others that we visited were very open to photography just about anywhere in the complex, including the oldest of churches. We were even allowed to photograph religious services.
Surprisingly, Wadi el-Natrun receives relatively few tourists, and this is a shame, because of the historical importance of this area, its very rich architecture and art, the friendly and open nature of the monastery monks and its relative proximity to Cairo. It only takes about an hour and a half to travel here, and it is well worth a visit.
We actually spent more time at Wadi el-Natrun than we had planned, and I wish that I could have spent more time. In fact, we had only enough time to visit three of the four major monasteries and there is much more to see in the area. Those we did manage to visit included the Monastery of St. Bishoi, The Monastery of the Syrians and The Monastery of the Romans. We will also be updating our regular pages on the monasteries with many new photos. Indeed, on a future visit to Egypt I will make it a point to go back and perhaps see how my new young monk friends are progressing in their spiritual growth, but we also had to move on for our overnight was some distance still.
On this day we would see no more ancient sites, as such, though we would learn much about the culture of the Delta. We wound our way through the southern Delta, moving through a very clean Sadat City, around Minuf and past Ashmun, as we crossed both the Rosetta and Damietta branches of the Nile, up through Benha, Mit Ghamr before arriving for the night in Tanta.
This is a wondrous part of Egypt, with modern cities and sometimes countryside's seeped in ancient traditions. Sometimes it seems as though the whole of it is a large city with simply some vacant areas where crops are planted, but this is a bit of an illusion from the road. Hardly a mile passes without a small village, and behind them and in between, all manner of crops are grown, including many types of fruits, and here and there, larger tracks of sometimes date palms and at other times cotton.
It is a fascinating mix, as we cross the Alexandria desert highway, finding a thoroughly modern rest stop, only a short time later it seems passing over one of the old major branches of the Nile as it slowly winds its way to the Mediterranean. All about are fisherman, taking advantage of a way of life that has not changed very much over thousands of years. Here, when there are no bridges, old iron boats, no longer under their own power, are hauled to and fro across the canals to ferry locals, while just up river, a group of men toil in the water to keep the channels free of debris.
Many of the Delta cities are known for various industries, while outside of these, the countryside is almost entirely devoted to either agriculture, fishing or both. In the cities, people live in modern apartment blocks, but in the country, small houses, often made from mudbrick, may be very little different than what one might have seen during pharaonic times. Sometimes it seems that school children are all about, whether in the large cities or along the country roads, but we also see other children herding goats or at work in the fields or on boats. It really does seem a carefree existence, though I know at times it must be difficult. Nevertheless, whether rich or poor, all seem to be well fed, and there are always smiles for us along the way.
I particularly enjoyed a small camel market we ran across not long before our arrival in Tanta. There amongst tents and livestock, I found a pleasant sort of folk, cooking and resting while nearby, a daughter slept with what must have been her guardian goat. We did attempt to visit Tell el-Muqdam, and in fact, I suppose we did, though it was already now late and dark, and we found no remains to be photographed. Doubtless there might have been some, but they are apparently scattered about and we did not have the time or the light to go looking. This would happen sometimes. At times we were not even able to find an archaeological site, and at others, when we did, there was little to be photographed. There are a few very nice sites in the Delta, but for many others, all that one will accomplish in visiting them is to disturb an Egyptologist in hot pursuit of a potshard that fits a missing slot in an ancient piece of pottery.
We therefore moved on, tired from a long day, to Tanta, where we took the time to photograph the Badawi Mosque prior to checking into our hotel for the night. At this point, however, I need to make a clarification. We commonly refer to those religious structures where Muslims pray as mosques, but in fact this is a rather derogatory western term. A mosque, I am told, is really a nest of mosquitoes, and these houses of worship were so named by early Europeans because of the throngs of people they saw praying. Egyptians prefer the term masjed, rather than mosque.
The masjet (mosque) at Tanta visually and spiritually dominates Tanta. It is really a huge and powerful structure that is also very appealing, with its arches and tall minarets. Indeed, it is very difficult to photograph the whole of it, because it is so large and because of a wide avenue encompassing a small park with trees just in front of the facility. We tried climbing atop buildings, and various taking photos from every angle, but alas, it was just too grand. We did our best though, and at the end of the day, I had no problems sleeping. It had been a good day, with lots of good adventures.
Notation: Tamer Ibrahim is a tour leader with Lady Egypt Tours, located in Cairo, Egypt.