Egypt: Wadi Natrun, the desert of ascetics

Where pilgrims have sought refuge for centuries

12 November, 12:45

    Wadi Natrun Wadi Natrun

    (ANSAmed) - CAIRO, NOVEMBER 12 - Pilgrims travelling to the Orthodox Coptic monastery of Anba Bishoy, in Wadi Natrum (salt valley), will find Father Bejimi waiting for them.

    ''In the darkest time of the revolution that started in January 2011, though the road connecting Cairo to Alexandria was dangerous and constantly at the center of robberies and aggressions that ended in tragedy, pilgrims continued to arrive'', he said. ''An unstoppable influx of people seeking protection and comfort''.

    Of Eritrean origin, the priest has been living in the monastery in the Libyan desert for 20 years. It is one of four monasteries - together with the monasteries of Syrians and Romans and that of Saint Macarius - founded in the IV century, in an area where Egyptians extracted natron, a natural salt used for mummification.

    It is in this arid valley, behind the high, honey-colored walls that monks find refuge, trying to get away from the mundane.

    Monasticism started here before spreading to the West.

    ''This is one of the most sacred regions for Christianity'', said Father Bejimi. According to tradition, in this area the Holy Family stopped during its trip to Egypt. This is why Wadi Natrun has become part of a tourism route launched by Egyptian authorities to attract foreign visitors.

    ''Pilgrims arrive here by the thousands, in particular during festivities, between May and August. While foreigners do not exceed 1,000 a year'', he said.

    There were once 60 monasteries here, monks abstain from food for over 210 days a year, and offer local products like bread, honey, olives, watermelons, figs, dates, eggplants and liquor to visitors who can stop overnight. Many, however, just spend the day.

    With bare feet, seating on carpets, a missal in their hand, they pray inside churches built in the monastery complex.

    ''An oasis of peace, where protection can be sought in these terrible times experienced by the country'', continued the monk who tells the ancient story of these monasteries. They are completely self-sufficient, hosting true farms exceeding 4,000 hectares, as Anba Bishoy, where 220 monks live, including a 'qsar', a small fortification which thanks to a drawbridge enabled monks to seek refuge from invasions and devastation that until the 7th century affected the region.

    Choosing to visit Wadi Natrun, as Father Bejimi recalls, means seeking to draw closer to this world made of simplicity and spirituality. There are no mosaics or breath-taking frescoes among these walls. The art made by Coptic monks, often living in extreme poverty, however includes small masterpieces such as bas-reliefs, paintings, manuscripts, codes, icons, wood caskets, painted fabrics.

    Some of the frescoes and icons date back to the 7th century, decorating the main church dedicated to the Virgin close to the monastery of Syrians, the smallest of the four. As well as preserving the most important work of Coptic art after the year 1,000, Deir El Soriany is famous for its vast library (in the 19th century, 1,000 books were moved to the British Museum).


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