The monasteries of the Arab Desert and Wadi Natrun
The monasteries of the Arab Desert and Wadi Natrun is part of the Tentative list of Egypt in order to qualify for inclusion in the World Heritage List.
The 2 monasteries of the Arab Desert and the 4 of Wadi Natrun are early Coptic Orthodox monasteries. They are situated in remote locations. The monasteries have been continuously inhabited since their 4th-6th century foundings by ‘Desert Fathers’ (monk-hermits) such as Saint Macarius the Great.
Map of The monasteries of the Arab Desert and Wadi NatrunLoad map
The coordinates shown for all tentative sites were produced as a community effort. They are not official and may change on inscription.
Of the six monasteries under this proposal, me and my family visited three, two of them in Wadi el-Natrun - St. Bishoy Monastery (Deir Anba Bishoy) and Monastery of Romans (Deir al-Baramus) and one in the Eastern Desert (Monastery of Saint Anthony). The Syrian Monastery, right next to Bishoya, is only open on Fridays, so we were not able to visit it.
As the previous reviewers have already described the monasteries of Wadi el-Natrun, I will concentrate on the less accessible St. Anthony Monastery. To the monastery leads a great and completely empty road connecting Bani Suwayf with Sokhna.
The place was founded by St. Anthony, the first of the Desert Fathers, in the third century AD and is the first monastery in the world, existing in the same place to this day! St. Anthony went into the desert to devote himself to contemplation and meditation, but his fame attracted crowds of young men who wanted to follow in his footsteps. To frame the newly formed community, St. Anthony developed the world's first monastic rule. St. Benedict and St. Hieronimus, drawing up their own monastic rules and creating the first monasteries in Western Europe, took their ideas from St. Anthony. The establishment of monasteries had a deep meaning after Christianity was made the state religion of the Roman Empire at the beginning of the fourth century - it was no longer necessary (and there was no opportunity) to die for the faith, so monasticism filled the gap in those who wanted to devote themselves fully to the spiritual life. Therefore, the influence of St. Anthony on the fate of the world cannot be overestimated.
The visit to the monastery itself was extremely pleasant. We arrived there at 9.00 in the morning, when the mass was still going on and a monk who spoke great English recommended us to go to the grotto of St. Anthony – a place where the saint spent a lot of his life meditating. The grotto is located in the complex, but to get to it, you have to overcome over 1200 steps! It is difficult to say whether climbing pays off – for sure the view from the top is beautiful, but the grotto itself is tiny, with a small altar inside. In winter, at 20 degrees it was a pleasant walk and took us about an hour both ways. In the summer, at 30 or 40 degrees, it must be a nightmare.
We returned to the monastery, waited another hour and finally got our queue when the monk guiding the tourists finished with the previous group. The monastery is surrounded by a high wall that once protected against barbarians. The central point is of course the church, the oldest part of the complex which dates from the fourth century and under whose altar – as it is commonly believed – St. Anthony himself is buried. The old church was enlarged a few centuries later and contains magnificent icons from the thirteenth century.
In addition to the church, there is a tower without doors from the eighth century, in which monks hid during barbarian attacks. The only entrance to the tower is at the level of the second floor from another building, through which the monks passed, took a ladder and bolted the door. There are also farm rooms where there are original querns from the eighth century. There are also monks’ cells, but this building is much younger, from the nineteenth century.
It is worth adding that other monasteries in Wadi al-Natrun are organized in a similar scheme (defensive walls, old church, tower without doors, farm rooms and monks' cells). However, there were no guided tours and we walked around the monasteries on our own.
I believe that this proposal should be included withoutout any doubt. Moreover, after visiting the monastery of St. Anthony, I think that this is one of the top missing sites.
I liked Egypt so much that I came back to Egypt in February of 2022. I made a point to visit the four monasteries in Wadi El Natrun, since I saw these were on the tentative list and set for nomination.
The nomination includes six of the oldest monasteries in the world — four in Wadi El Natrun and two on the Red Sea coast.
The ones in Wadi el Natrun are relatively easy to visit on a day trip from Cairo or Alexandria, with a driver who speaks English or a guide and a driver. One could also visit them traveling between the two. The sites are free, and had more tourists than I was expecting as well as those there to partake in religious services.
Because they are working monasteries, there are also modern basilicas and dormitories. However, the heart of each monastery are churches built between the fourth and sixth centuries. Each monastery complex has several churches, and many have the original walls that were built for protection over a thousand years ago. For example, the site includes the rock hermitage of St. Bishcoi, saying to the third or fourth century, and the church that was built around it. Other of the old churches. Have beautiful paintings.
They are at least as impressive as the painted churches in Cyprus or the monasteries in the Qadisha Valley in Lebanon, both of which are listed. In some ways, they remind me of some of thr Longboard sites in Italy
I’d recommend stopping if you have an extra day in Egypt. And I do hope that this makes the list.
There are four remaining monasteries according to the documentation. The documentation is old and hard to make sense why the place is unique. I suppose because of the setting and old age, having survived over a thousand years. I went to see two of these at Wadi Natrun: St. Macarius and St. Bichoy (or Bishoi if you want to follow the odd docs). If you have a car then you should visit them on your journey west to Cairo rather than towards Alexandria like I did - the U-turn-based road system will cost you a lot of time. Also the map (Google, can't blame them really) pointed us right through a private road that stopped at a factory. Being nice and friendly, the great guy at the blockade offered to have a staff member join the tour and guide is THROUGH the factory to end up at the end other end, saving as almost 40 minutes driving!! As I took the bus back from Alexandria I had no choice but to visit them as I was going west.
Another word of advice: try not have a Muslim driver! No, well, you can't really be picky about this and shouldn't - but the monasteries are paranoid and it took really long to sort this out with the police who eventually escorted us out of the area. I suppose, again, you can't blame them entirely but overall in Egypt this paranoia is a problem.
So finally, let's talk about the monasteries: entry is free and they are really happy someone came to see them having a nice chat before I could finally go inside. Most of the stuff on display are fancy clothes and jewelry, kind of what I see in European churches too, especially Catholic ones. The architecture is unique for the area but even the modern churches I saw had this style - I suppose that DOES make it special if it was a trend-setter so long ago. Also you can visit the churches themselves but not all are open. The ones that are could be in better shape, the altars are still original and everyone touches it (for religious reasons).
Could see this make the WHS list if the documentation is updated and there are clear indications why it is unique and special. Just having some great religious icons once living here with his disciples isn't good enough in my opinion, else we would have Lincoln's wood cabin etc all on the list (although Gandhi, Mandela and a few others are being groomed for the WHS list already which I think is another problem altogether).
2021 Requested by State Party to not be examined
2003 Added to Tentative List
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