A scientific, archaeological and technical committee is preparing a submission file to register the Monasteries of Wadi Al-Natroun on the UNESCO World Heritage List, with a February 2020 deadline for submission to the UN organisation’s World Heritage Committee (WHC).
The file is being compiled in cooperation with two international experts who are currently visiting Egypt.
Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Khaled El-Enany met with one of the experts, Katri Listzin, an expert on World Heritage site management and a member of UNESCO’s committee in Sharjah. The two discussed technical support to complete the application file.
The Wadi Al-Natroun Monasteries of St Pishoy, Paromeos, St Macarius, and Al-Suryan are among the 25 stops made by the Holy Family on their flight into Egypt. They are built to similar designs and are surrounded by fortified walls that enclose several churches and living quarters for monks.
DEIR AL-SURYAN: This monastery was originally built during the sixth century CE in the aftermath of a theological dispute between the monks of the neighbouring St Pishoy Monastery over the incorruptibility of the body of Christ.
The monks who refused to abide by the so-called “Julian heresy” that spread in Egypt during the papacy of Coptic Pope Timothy III of Alexandria left the monastery and established another called the Monastery of the Holy Virgin Theotokos.
The Julianists believed in the incorruptibility of Christ’s body, which contradicts the faith of the Orthodox Church.
From the eighth to the 16th century, Coptic and Syrian monks lived together inside the monastery. But like other monasteries in Wadi Al-Natroun, Deir Al-Suryan was subjected to attacks that to some extent destroyed it and drove away the inhabitants.
According to a Syriac inscription found on one of the monastery’s walls, two monk brothers called Mattay and Yaqoub took the initiative to rebuild the monastery.
It flourished in the 10th century, when Syrian abbot Moses of Nisibis was responsible for important renovations in the eastern part of the church.
He travelled to Baghdad to ask the Abbasid caliph Al-Muqtadir to grant tax exemption to the monasteries, and then to the Syria region and Mesopotamia in search of manuscripts. After three years, he succeeded in buying 250 Syriac manuscripts, later making up the core of the monastery’s library, which has grown to house the largest collection of such manuscripts in the Middle East.
ST PISHOY: The St Pishoy Monastery was founded in the fourth century CE, and it houses the body of St Pishoy as well as other saints.
The monastery has five churches, the main one being named after Pishoy. The others are named after Mary Abaskhiron, St George, and the Archangel Michael. The monastery is surrounded by a keep built in the fifth century to protect it against attacks by Berbers.
An internal building was built early in the 20th century, but was later replaced by a four-storied one built by the late Coptic Pope Shenouda III. The monastery also contains the Well of the Martyrs, which according to a Coptic tradition was used as a burial place for the bodies of the 49 martyrs killed by the Berbers.
Tradition says that the Berbers had washed their swords in this well after the killings. The bodies were then retrieved and buried in the nearby Monastery of St Macarius that was founded during the fourth century. In 1969, the monastery was restored.
PAROMEOS: The Paromeos Monastery is probably the oldest of the four existing monasteries at Wadi Al-Natroun.
It was founded by St Macarius the Great and takes its name Paromeos in reference to the saints Maximus and Domitius, children of the Roman emperor Valentinian I, who had their cells in the place of the modern monastery that was rebuilt in the fifth century CE after the destruction of the old one by Berbers.
The monastery still preserves much of its ancient character. It has five churches, the oldest dedicated to the Virgin Mary and dating back to the sixth century. The second church is dedicated to St Theodore of Amasea, the third to St George, the fourth to St John the Baptist, and the fifth to the Archangel Michael.
The monastery also contains a keep, a tower, two refectories, and a guest house.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.