Egypt: Wadi Natrun (Wadi al-Natrun, Wadi el-Natrun, Wadi el-Natroun)

Wadi Natrun

by Jimmy Dunn

Sign for the Bishoy Monastery in Wadi Natrun

Wadi Natrun (Wadi al-Natrun, Wadi el-Natrun, Wadi el-Natroun) is a northwesterly oriented desert depression about 60 kilometers long located in the Western Desert near the delta about 90 kilometers northwest of Cairo. Wadi el-Natrun lies some 23 meters below sea level, and lakes fed from the water table of the Nile dot the landscape.

Though there appears to be few ancient sites in the Wadi Natrun from the Pharaonic period of Egyptian history, it was nevertheless an important area if for no other reason than its abundance of Natrun, a naturally occurring combination of sodium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate, which was used in mummification, and soda (sodium oxide), used for glass manufacturing. Natrun was also important in ancient Egyptian medicine, rituals and crafts. The natrun occurs in solution in the lakes, forms a crust around the edges of the lakes and in deposits on their bottom. The area continues to be a source of Natrun today.

Early morning in the Wadi Naturn

Wadi Naturn is also an area known for bird watching. It contains a series of nine small lakes (total area over 200km), scattered along its general axis. Typha swamps occur at localities along the shores of the lakes where there is a plentiful freshwater supply. Juncus and Cyperus dominate the wet salt marshes on the waterlogged eastern shores. The latter species carpets most of the marsh areas in a dense cover that does not exceed a few centimeters height because of severe grazing pressure. This, however, creates one of the most characteristic and attractive habitats for water birds.

An early morning view of st. Bishoi through the gardens

El Natrun is known to hold some of the largest winter concentrations in Egypt of Tadorna tadorna (Shelduck), Gallinago gallinago (Common Snipe), Numenius arquata (Curlew), Calidris minuta (Little Stint) and Charadrius alexandrinus (Kentish Plover). Grus grus (Common Crane) is known to pass through and rest in significant numbers during spring and autumn. Some 12species of water birds are known or expected to breed in Wadi El Natrun, including the largest breeding population of Charadrius pecuarius (Kittlitz's Plover) known in Egypt.

Domes of the Monastery of Anba Bishoi

While the Wadi Natrun was mined for Natrun though much of Pharaonic history, its main importance and indeed, its fame today is as Egypt's most important Christian monastic center, a prime attraction for Christian religious tourists who come to the holy land. There is good reason for this. The monasteries at Wadi Natrun and the surrounding region constitute some of the earliest, if not the earliest, Christian monasteries in the world. The district containing these monasteries has been known by many names, often derived from different languages, including Scetis, Scythis, al-Isqit (al-Askit), Shiet, Shihat (Shihet), Scitium and Wadi Habib.

A fresh young crop of monks serving at the Monastery of Anba Bishoi

The history of the Wadi and its importance to Coptic Christians dates back to the 4th century AD. Christianity reached the area with St. Macarius the Great who retreated there in c.330, at a time when monastic life was not yet developed. During this period, holy men were hermits, living outside social structures. However, the reputation of St. Macarius soon attracted followers, who built cells nearby and thus began a loose confederation of monastic communities. Many of these early settlers had already followed the Christian hermit lifestyle in nearby places such as Nitria. Hence, Scetis was less a place of innovation than a locus of consolidation.

Monasteries at Wadi Naturn have similar architecture, with roofs often dominated by domes

Several literary sources provide details about the life of the monks in Scetis during the late fourth and the early fifth centuries. Monasticism developed a form of semi-anchoritism there. Hermits lived in cells or caves comprising two or more rooms, one of which functioned as an oratory. A new monk apprenticed himself to an experienced desert father and became his disciple. Monks earned their living by plying crafts, especially basketry and rope making. On Saturday and Sunday the monks gathered in the church to celebrate Mass and sometimes to take a Sunday meal in common.

The Moanstery of Anba Bishoi at the time of Napoleon's conquest of Egypt

By the end of the fourth century AD, the loose agglomeration of Christian settlers had coalesced into four monastic communities. These were the monasteries of (old) Baramus, Macarius, Bishoi and John Kolobos (John the Little). Initially, these monasteries were simply collections of individual cells and dwellings centered on specific churches and communal facilities, but they gradually developed into enclosures with walls and watchtowers for protection, because, like Nitria and Kellia, Scetis was at times subject to raids from desert nomads.

Senior monks perform a serice in the Monastery of Bishoi

The nomads of the Libyan desert sacked and destroyed the monasteries of Wadi al-Naturn in 407, 434 and 444. Indeed, raids at the end of the sixth century almost depopulated the area. Hence, the monks built towers to live in, and in the ninth century, apparently following another attack in about 817, they erected walls to fortify their monasteries. At first, many of the monks lived outside the walls of the enclosed monasteries, only retreating to them in times of trouble, but in the centuries to come, the monks began to leave their scattered cells to live within the fortified monasteries. By the fourteenth century, monastic life appeared to be more cenobitic as the monks gathered within the enclosure walls for protection. However, walls did not help when the plague decimated much of the monastery populations during the middle ages.

The keep, or tower at the Monastery of the Syrians

Thus, these organizations of monks grew up, forced together by common needs including that of protection. Each of the monasteries had a kind of council, one of the responsibilities of which was, apparently, communication with the "world." The council was also responsible for keeping the general discipline in the monastery.

One of the ancient churches in the Monastery of the Syrians

With organization there also came theological disputes. Notably, the one between Julian, Bishop of Halicarnassus (d. 518) and Severus, Bishop of Antioch (ca. 465-583) on the corruptibility or incorruptibility of Christ before the Resurrection divided the Coptic Church into two factions, and certainly affected the monastic settlements, or lauras, of Wadi al-Naturn towards the end of the sixth century. At that time, the followers of Severus founded another four monasteries as "counterparts" to the old ones. The present Monastery of al-Baramus, known as the Monastery of the Virgin of Baramus, is the counterpart monastery of the Old Baramus monastery. The Monastery of the Virgin of Anba Bishoi, known later as the Monastery of the Syrians, is the counterpart to the old Bishoi monastery. The counterpart of the John the Little Monastery survived until the fourteenth century, or perhaps longer, but neither it or the older monastery of John the Little survive today as active monasteries, and no monuments have been found to indicate a counterpart monastery of the old monastic settlement of St. Macarius. Around 840, the Monastery of John Kame was established, and it survived until the fifteenth century. After its demise, the monks transferred the relics of their saint to the Monastery of the Syrians.

Today, the remaining four monasteries are very much alive, and growing with new construction, such as this church at the Monastery of Anba Bishoi

During the first centuries of monasticism in Egypt, tens of thousands of minks inhabited monastic settlements throughout the Egypt, and around 550, prior to the fourth sack of the Wadi, John of Petra claims there were some 3,500 monks living in the various monasteries in the area. However, because of a poll tax which was imposed on the monks from 705 onward, monasticism began to decline. The Coptic historian Mauhub ibn Mansur ibn Mufarrig states that there were only 712 monks at Wadi Habib (Wadi al-Natrun) in 1088, divided among seven monasteries,

consisting of:

  • 400 Monks in the Monastery of St. Macarius

  • 156 Monks in the Monastery of John the Little

  • 60 Monks in the Monastery of the Syrians

  • 40 Monks in the Monastery of Anba Bishoi

  • 25 Monks in the Monastery of John Kame

  • 20 Monks in the Monstery of Al-Baramus

  • 2 Monks in the Cave of Moses

These populations continued to decline, and some of the monasteries fell into ruins until, in 1712, there were only four monks each in the Monasteries of Anba Bishoi and Anba Maqar. Twelve monks lived in the Monastery of the Syrians and another dozen in the Monastery of al-Baramus.

The dormition scene in the north half-cupola of the choir in the Church of the Virgin, the Monastery of the Syrians

The dormition scene in the north half-cupola of the choir

Today, four active Monasteries remain at Wadi al Natrun, consisting of the Monastery of the Romans (Deir Al Baramus), The Anba Beshoy (St. Boshoi's) Monastery, The Monastery of the Syrians (Deir al-Surian) and The Monastery of St. Macarius (Deir Abu Magar, Abu Maker). All of them are Coptic. However, the landscape is littered with the remains of hermitages, monasteries and caves where the early hermits lived.

Ancient Coptic Art in the Monastery of the Syrians, the Church of the Virgin, Western semidome, depicting the Annunciation

However, twenty of the earliest monastic settlements, mostly mud covered buildings with domes and vaults, have been found at Wadi el-Naturn, including the ruins of the Monastey of the Armenians (Dir al-Arman, the Monastery of the Abyssinians, the Monastery of the Nubians, the Monastery of Saint John the Little, the Monastery of Moses the Black (though this may be the old Baramus Monastery) and a church dedicated to John the Little (anba Yuhannas).

A friendly senior monk at the Monastery of the Syrians

The monasteries of Wadi el-Natrun played a crucial role in the history of the Coptic Christian Church. Ethiopian, Syrian, Franciscan and Armenian monks enriched the cultural life of the area in medieval times, endowing it with a multiethnic character. Beginning in the eighth century most of the Coptic patriarchs and many bishops were chosen from among its monks. The monasteries of Wadi el-Natrun also provide us today with indispensable data for the study of the Coptic heritage, and especially for Coptic literature, art and architecture.

Notably, today the monasteries openly welcome visitors, irregardless of faith, and the monks are in general very friendly. Usually, most of the areas within the monasteries can be visited, and there does not seem to be a problem taking photographs most anywhere, including inside the ancient churches. Wadi Naturn is a fairly quick, easy journey from Cairo.

A monastery at Wadi Natrun at night

A monastery at Wadi Natrun at night

Actuve Monasteries at Wadi Naturn