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Wadi Natrun

Explore the Historic Monasteries of Coptic Christianity in Wadi Natrun

Wadi Natrun is a unique destination that attracts thousands of tourists every year, especially those interested in history and religion, particularly in Coptic Christianity. On this page, we provide you with everything you need to know about the monasteries in Wadi Natrun, which played a critical role in the early days of this religion and remain an unforgettable visit today. Egipto Exclusivo can even take you on a tailor-made organized excursion, complete with transportation, guide, food, and other services.

Table of contents

Where is Wadi Natrun and What is it Like?

In Christian literature of centuries past, this place was known as the Desert of Scetis or Skete, referring to the ascetics who took refuge here and the arid environment that surrounds it. But in reality, Wadi Natrun is a valley situated between the Western Desert and the Nile Delta, where several lakes dry up during the summer months.

Wadi Natrun is a district of the Beheira Governorate, and its monasteries are located approximately halfway between Cairo and Alexandria, with the former being about 100 km away and the latter about 120 km away. The area is sparsely populated, with around 80,000 inhabitants dedicated to farming and cultivating the land. The nearest town is Bir Hooker.

History of Wadi Natrun

Practically everything you will see on your visit to Wadi Natrun is related to Coptic Christianity. But things were happening here before the emergence of this religion… or even long before. Fossils of prehistoric animals have been discovered here, both in recent times and in ancient times, as referenced in Greco-Roman documents.

It wouldn’t be far-fetched to relate these remains to those of other not-so-distant sites, such as those in the Valley of the Whales near the Fayum oasis, so we would be talking about a dating of tens of millions of years ago, when this area was very different: first, the bottom of the Tethys Sea and then a wet, vegetation-filled area.

Monasterio Wadi Natrun

Wadi Natrun in Ancient Egypt: The Salt that Gives it its Name

Wadi Natrun has been a known location since the times of Ancient Egypt, with references dating back to the reign of Ramses II. The name “Natrun” is derived from the mineral salt called “natron” that is found here after the seasonal lakes dry up in the summer.

Natron had two main purposes in Ancient Egypt, both of which were related to funerary rites. Firstly, it was used in the mummification process to treat the body of the deceased, as the salt helped to dry out and preserve the body. Secondly, natron was used to create glazed ceramics called “Egyptian faience,” which were used to make figurines or Ushebti that accompanied the deceased to the tomb.

A Refuge for Ascetics Since Roman Times

The true history of Wadi Natrun begins to unfold in Roman times when the first Christians were subjected to brutal persecution for their beliefs. Seeking refuge from persecution and desiring a life of contemplation and austerity, the Egyptian eremitic movement was born, led by Saint Paul of Thebes and Saint Anthony the Great. They established themselves in the third and fourth centuries in the eastern desert of Egypt.

On the other side of the Delta, in the western desert, others were inspired by their example and became role models. Among them was Saint Bishoi (or Bishoy), who was probably the founder of the first monasteries in Wadi Natrun in the fourth century. These monasteries had a less eremitic and more monastic character, with rules that governed the secluded but communal life of the monks.

Since then, Wadi Natrun has remained a haven for Christians, both in the monasteries located there and in nearby Nitria and Kellia. According to some sources, there could have been dozens or even hundreds of monasteries in Wadi Natrun and the surrounding area. However, difficult relationships with the Byzantine authorities and later Arab rulers led to the closure of most of them.

Wadi Natrun in Recent Times

Today, only four monasteries have managed to survive in Wadi Natrun, and they continue to be of great interest to tourists as well as religious pilgrims. Although they may appear peaceful and serene for most of the year, on important religious occasions they are filled with devotees seeking spiritual solace.

These monasteries have preserved fascinating works of art, thanks to their religious activity and their remote location. Agriculture is the main economic activity in the surrounding area, while the exploitation of natron has declined sharply with the industrial use of other salts. Notably, the most ambitious project in this regard was the construction of the Egyptian Salt and Soda Company railway line, which linked these deposits with Al Khatatbah and then to Cairo.

Exploring the Monasteries of Wadi Natrun

The four monasteries of Wadi Natrun are the main tourist attractions of the area, although they are not situated close to each other (with a distance of approximately 25 km from one end to the other). However, visiting all four monasteries is highly recommended, as each one boasts a rich history and features structures and artwork of great artistic interest. In the surrounding areas, there are no other notable monuments or attractions. Let’s take a closer look at each of the four monasteries.

Monastery of Saint Bishoy (or Deir Anba Bishoi)

The Monastery of Saint Bishoy, located in Wadi Natrun, is arguably the most significant of the four monasteries. It is named after Saint Bishoy the Great, who founded it in the mid-4th century. In fact, his body is preserved in one of the churches on the site, which is said to be incorrupt and is taken in procession every July 15. He is revered by both the Coptic Church and the Orthodox Church under the name of Saint Paisios.

The monastery is a fortified structure, as is typical of many monasteries in Egypt, to protect it from attacks. The first iteration was constructed in the 5th century, but the current building dates back to the 20th century, promoted by Coptic Pope Shenouda III, who began his monastic life there and is buried there.

The monastery features five churches, each with simple yet prominent bell towers that contrast with the semi-spherical shapes of the domes. The golden color of the adobe mixed with the green of the gardens creates a striking contrast, a feature that is common to other monasteries in Wadi Natrun. 

Monasterio Dar el Sourian

Monastery of Syrians (or Deir El Sourian)

The Monastery of Syrians, located close to the Monastery of Saint Bishoy, was founded in the 6th century and derives its name from the Syrian monks who lived there from the 8th century onwards. It is part of a long tradition in Egypt of welcoming monks from different parts of the world to this country, which is considered the birthplace of monasticism. Wadi Natrun is a major reason for this.

Today, the monastery is not inhabited by Syrians anymore and its true name is the Monastery of the Holy Virgin Mary. It is a place of devotion that emphasizes the important role of the Virgin Mary as the mother of God. The most impressive features of the monastery are its fortress and churches.

The fortress is notable for its height and its gates, some of which are drawbridges. The churches include the church of the Holy Virgin Mary, which is renowned for its Door of Prophecies, altar, and vaults adorned with frescoes and engraved decorations. Visitors can also see the cave where Saint Bishoy used to pray, and the point on the ceiling where he tied his hair to avoid falling asleep during night prayers.

Monastery of Saint Macarius (or Deir Abu Makar)

The Monastery of Saint Macarius is one of the earliest monasteries in Wadi Natrun, founded by Saint Macarius in the mid-4th century, who was one of the spiritual leaders of the Egyptian monastic movement and chose this place for his spiritual retreat.

This monastery is of great importance as many Coptic popes have come from here. It also houses important relics such as those of the “forty-nine martyrs of Scetis” and the remains of Saint John the Baptist, which can be visited with permission from the monks.

Architecturally, the monastery underwent extensive restoration in the 20th century, which resulted in a rationalist and austere style. However, it also retains ancient structures of the fortress and religious buildings. The main church contains some carved wooden doors, and its tower stands out from the entire complex artistically.

Monastery of Romans (or Deir Al Baramouse)

The Monastery of Romans was also founded in the 4th century, possibly by Saint Macarius, although its name comes from the Coptic term for “two Romans,” referring to two saints from the Roman era, Maximus and Domitius, whose remains are kept here.

In the 7th century, the monastery was fortified, and in the 11th century, the most notable artistic works of the complex were carried out: the frescoes of the church of the Virgin, which depict scenes from her life. Visitors can also enjoy the monastery’s well-maintained gardens, which showcase the more scenic side of the complex.

Information of Interest About Wadi Natrun

Now that you have learned about Wadi Natrun’s location, history, and tourist attractions, here is some additional information that may be useful during your visit. The most common way to visit these monasteries is on a day trip from Cairo or Alexandria.

How to Get to Wadi Natrun

The only way to reach Wadi Natrun is by road, as there are no airports or train stations nearby. The railway line previously used by the Egyptian Salt and Soda Company Railway is now a thing of the past.

To reach the monasteries, you can drive from Cairo or Alexandria using Highway 75, which connects both cities. About halfway through the journey, take the Wadi Al Netroun – Al Deblomasein road, and after approximately 10 km, you will arrive at the monasteries. The total travel time is approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes from both Cairo and Alexandria.

To make these trips, you can rent a vehicle or use a private taxi for a more comfortable experience. If you prefer a hassle-free tour, Egipto Exclusivo offers a tour package with all the necessary details for an enjoyable experience.

Organizing a trip to Wadi Natrun by bus can be quite complicated. Most major bus companies do not include this destination among their regular stops. As a result, there is no direct way to reach the monasteries by bus. Your only viable option is to take the Cairo-Alexandria route (or vice versa) and get off at the Master Rest service and rest area. From there, you may find taxis or tuk-tuks waiting for tourists to take them the rest of the way to the monasteries. Therefore, if you plan to try this option, be sure to confirm with the bus company that they allow intermediate stops between Cairo and Alexandria.

Getting Around Wadi Natrun

As we mentioned earlier, the monasteries in Wadi Natrun are not located close to each other, but are instead scattered across a large area with a distance of approximately 25 km between the two furthest ones (Al Baramouse and Saint Macarius). Therefore, having a means of transportation is essential for exploring all the monasteries, as visiting only one would be an incomplete experience.

A taxi is the most suitable option for moving from one monastery to another, as there are no regular transport lines connecting all of them. While you will find taxis in the area, negotiating a fixed price for all four trips will likely be necessary. If you book with us, however, you won’t have to worry about this as our driver will accompany you throughout the excursion.

Other Useful Information About Wadi Natrun

To plan your visit to Wadi Natrun, it’s important to consider the opening and closing periods of the monasteries, as they are active religious sites that may be closed for various reasons. This is especially true during the period of Lent (from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday), Advent (the four weeks before Christmas), and the Assumption of Mary (mid-August).

It’s also important to note that there isn’t much variety in terms of shops in the area. There are only a few stalls where you can purchase souvenirs related to the monasteries, and basic cafes where you can grab a tea or a quick bite. Some of the monasteries may offer accommodations and food services to pilgrims and visitors, but it’s best to check with them directly for details on their offerings.

Additionally, there is no tourist information office in Wadi Natrun. However, all of the monasteries have websites and/or offices in Cairo where you can call to get any questions or doubts resolved.

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