The Wadi el Natroun, known as the Scété desert in Christian history or the Natron valley in medieval French, following the crusades led by Saint Louis and the various French expeditions that followed, is a large arid valley located in the western desert of Lower Egypt between Cairo and Alexandria.
For a very long time, this great 110 km long desert was included in the ancient desert of Nitria. In this once very prosperous region, the pharaohs and later the Greeks and Romans came to draw "natron" or soda ash. In addition, the Natron Lakes Valley itself was home to at least seven lakes that are now dry or underground.
Before becoming a holy place of Eastern and Coptic Christianity, the Wadi El Natroun desert was already a recognized and holy place for other religions.
Indeed, natron, which gave its name to the whole valley, is a natural mineral made of rocks based on sodium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate, sodium sulphate and sodium chloride, and has various cleansing, absorbing or antiseptic properties, essential to the ancient mortuary purification ceremonies known as "of Anubis" and to the making of mummies.
The very high consumption of this product required frequent visits and the place soon became a pharaonic sanctuary dedicated to Anubis and Horus. One can still see there, in the religious buildings built later, columns, lintels and stones that come from ancient temples that have now completely disappeared.
The Christian Wadi
Saint Macaronius the Great was the first to promote the creation of cenobitic monasteries following the rule of Saint Pacomo and the wise teachings of Saint Anthony the Great and Saint Paul of Thebes.
In fact, until the 4th century, only hermits or persecuted Christians had taken refuge in the desert, but with the advent of monasticism and the great oriental rules (the first monastery in the world was founded in Egypt near the Red Sea on the site of the cave of Saint Anthony the Great), true Christian monastic communities were formed on the site of the first inhabited caves and ancient polytheistic temples.
In 330, the first community led by Saint Macaronius the Great, settled in the lower valley, very quickly attracted hundreds of aspiring monks! Churches, hospices for pilgrims and then vegetable and fruit fields were established near the main monasteries. Between the 4th and 7th centuries, there were as many as forty monasteries and more than 2000 monks in this sacred desert!
But with the Islamic invasion, attacks by Bedouins and bandits and recurrent persecutions, the monasteries are gradually destroyed or abandoned and the monks massacred. Nowadays there are only 4 still active monasteries, each administered by 50 to 150 monks.
The monastery of the "Syrians" (Deir El-Suryani) was rebuilt and reoccupied by Syrian monks from the 13th century onwards who had dreamed of the monastery! It consists of a medieval draw-bridge tower, a garden, a main church housing the cave of Saint Bishoy and a large Syriac wooden gate from the 14th century, as well as paintings and icons of inestimable value: the three great prophets, holy horsemen, the Virgin Mother of God.
The monastery of the "Romans" (Deir Baramos) was occupied in the early days by Christians from Rome who were fleeing from the persecution of the Latin emperors of the time. It consists of a huge garden and two churches. It is the furthest monastery from the other three.
The monastery of St. Bishoy (Deir Amba Bichoï) is located near the monastery of the Syrians and is connected to it by a secret troglodyte tunnel. It is named after Saint Bishoy who lived in a cave, - now installed in the heart of the Syrian monastery - a Coptic saint of the 5th century, ascetic, hermit and to whom Christ appeared twice. His tomb with his body intact is still visible in the main church!
It also has a medieval bastion and houses the tomb of Pope Shenouda III (1971-2012).
The Monastery of Saint Macaire (Deir Abu Makar) is the largest monastery in Wadi El Natroun built by Saint Macaire the Great and his disciples in the 4th century. It consists of several churches, a large and famous library and several ancient cells that can be visited. In addition, it houses relics of St. Macaronius the Great, St. John the Baptist and St. John the Dwarf.
Thus, after golden centuries, the fifty monasteries of Wadi El Natroun had to endure the wrath and massacres of the Muslim warriors, then the looting of the Bedouins and finally the asphyxiating taxations of the Sultans of Cairo. In the image of the Coptic People and the Coptic Church as an Institution, their survival is a miracle! Some two millennia after their appearance, they are still standing proudly in the desert, standing proudly in the midst of persecutions, massacres and assaults in the desert.
Hundreds of monks, hermits and non-hermits, who lived and died in the desert of Natrun have passed on to posterity, either by becoming martyrs in the face of murder and persecution, or by becoming what the Church calls "Fathers of the Desert", saints with collected words who are still taught in seminaries and monasteries throughout the world.
We can mention St. Macaronius the Great, St. Bishoy, St. Amoun, St. Arsene, St. John the Dwarf, St. Macaronius the Egyptian, St. Macaronius the Alexandrian, St. Moses the Black or the Strong, Sts. Maximos and Domatios, Saint Poimen the Great, Saint Evrague the Pontiff or Saint Samuel the Confessor.
Each one taught the words of Christ and explained the principles of the eremitical life. Each of them relieved, advised, healed and taught the Christians of their time and contemporary Christians.
Let us remember these few holy words, inspired by Christ and taught by our Fathers of the Desert:
"Abba Macaire was asked: How should we pray? The elder replied: There is no need to lose oneself in words; it is enough to stretch out one's hands and say, "Lord, as it pleases You and as You know, have mercy". If you are in a hurry, say, "Lord, help! ». He knows what is good for you and He will have mercy on you, for the Kingdom of God is within you.
"When asked why he worked himself to death every day, Abba Moses the Black was a thief, a plunderer and a killer in this life, he replied: "Lord, may my heart be like yours, that I may refuse honors and accept offenses."
"Abba Samuel was sought everywhere, he was a miracle-worker and solved problems like no one else, but when someone found him in the desert and gave him credit, he invariably replied: "I am not the one you are looking for, I am just a poor fool, a fisherman and full of old age waiting to join his Redeemer.”
Abba Bishoy had already washed Christ's feet in his cave, but he always kept silent about this story. Another evening, as the peasants were running from everywhere to climb the Scete hill, Abba Bishoy, already very old, was told that Christ, Our Savior, had appeared on top of this hill. He went out to join the crowd, but he was quickly outdistanced by his great age. Then he saw an old man in rags crawling up the hill, listening to the commandments of Our Lord. He took the old man on his back, but soon the weight of the crippled man became too heavy for his frail shoulders, and he had to take a break to leave him on the ground, when a great white light came on and the old man had left his place to Jesus Christ himself! He said to Abba Bishoy, "What you did to the least of my children, I will repay you when you are with me. »
The body of Saint Bishoy is still intact today and he has the same smile as the one he had on the day of his death.
These are the grandiose monasteries of the Egyptian desert. One life would not be enough to understand and know everything about these early church buildings and the writings of the Desert Fathers. As a Christian and World Heritage Site, never miss an opportunity to visit a Coptic monastery in the desert during your next stay in Egypt, you will find there the peace of men and the heart of Christ.