Monks of the Desert: A Look at the Ancient Monasteries of Egypt’s Wadi El-Natrun

Located 100 km from Cairo, Wadi El-Natrun (Valley of Natrun) is an area that is widely known as one of the cradles of ancient Coptic monasteries in Egypt. These monasteries include relics of a number of saints, ancient churches, as well as murals, paintings, and stories dating back years ago. Due to several attacks on the monks and the monasteries in Wadi El-Natrun, out of 700 monasteries, only four have survived to date. Scroll down for the story behind each of them.

Monastery of Saint Bishoy

The Monastery of Saint Bishoy is one of the most popular monasteries in Egypt. Founded by its namesake, this monastery contains the relics of many saints, including Saint Bishoy himself. At the time, Berber tribes from the west repeatedly attacked monasteries, especially in that area. This is why a draw bridge was built for them to use as security whenever they were attacked.

Saint Mary Coptic Orthodox Monastery (The Syrian Monastery ‘El-Sourian’)

Located nearly 500 meters northwest of the Monastery of Saint Bishoy, this monastery was founded by a group of monks from Saint Bishoy in the sixth century. It was initially called the Monastery of Saint Mary Deipara, and later the Syrian Monastery because there was a time when the Syrian monks settled there with the Coptic monks, forming a mixed community. The monastery includes a mysterious cave that has a rope tied to its roof, which St. Bishoy used to tie his beard so he wouldn’t fall asleep while praying.

Saint Mary (Al-Baramos) Monastery

As it was founded by Saint Macarius the Great in 335 AD, several sources say that this may be the very first monastery in Wadi El-Natrun, where Saint Macarius lived and devoted himself to monastic life. Walls were built around the monastery, to protect it from possible attacks by the Berbers and bedouins.

Monastery of Abu Makar

Spreading across an area of more than 11 square kilometres, this monastery was also built by Saint Makarius, who was known as the father of the monks in Wadi El-Natrun. This monastery is famous for its discovery of the relics of Saint John the Baptist and Prophet Elisha, which took place during the restoration of the big Church of Saint Macarius.

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