Virtual visits to Wadi Al-Natroun

Nevine El-Aref , Tuesday 30 Apr 2024

Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities has launched a virtual tour of the Wadi Al-Natroun settlement

Wadi Al-Natroun
Frescos from the Wadi Natrun monastery


To promote the journey of the Holy Family in Egypt at the beginning of the first century CE, the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities has launched a virtual tour of Wadi Al-Natroun in Beheira governorate, one of the points where the Holy Family stopped on their journey through Egypt, reports Nevine El-Aref.

Available in English and Arabic, the tour allows Egyptians and foreigners to virtually tour four monasteries in Wadi Al-Natroun, including St Macarius, St Bishoy, the Parameos Monastery, and the Monastery of Al-Suryan, along with the Nabaa Al-Hamra Spring. 

It also shows the town with its streets, bazaars, restaurants, and hotels as well as the facilities provided.

Amr Al-Kadi, CEO of the Egyptian Tourism Authority (ETA), explained that the tour also showcases Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities efforts to restore and develop the four monasteries as part of plans to redevelop the points where the Holy Family stopped during their journey in Egypt.

He added that the ministry also plans to improve the services provided to visitors to these points within the framework of its “Revival of the Holy Family Journey in Egypt” project. The tour can be viewed on the social media pages of the ministry and the ETA, he said.

The Holy Family stopped at 25 points over the course of their journey from Assiut to Sinai. The family entered Egypt through Rafah in Northern Sinai, passing through Al-Farama east of Port Said and then passing through Sakha in Kafr Al-Sheikh, Tel Basta in Sharqiya, and Samanoud in Gharbiya. 

From there, they moved to Wadi Al-Natroun in the Western Desert, where the monasteries of Anba Bishoy, the Virgin Mary, Al-Suryan (Monastery of the Syrians), Parameos, and St Abu Maqqar would eventually be founded.

The journey took them to the location of Bab Zuweila in Fatimid Cairo, where the churches of Abu Serga (Saint Sergius) and Bacchus are located. After that, they moved to Maadi, where they crossed the Nile, arriving in Gabal Al-Teir in Minya in Upper Egypt. Then they proceeded to Assiut, where the Al-Maharaq Monastery is located. From there, they went on to stay in the Dronka Cave before returning to Bethlehem.

The Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and the Ministry of Local Development have started a project to revive the points at which the Holy Family stopped during their journey in Egypt, beginning with upgrading the quality of the services offered to visitors. 

The Holy Family’s stops in Sakha in Kafr Al-Sheikh, Tel Basta in Sharqiya, Samanoud in Gharbiya, the Monastery of Wadi Al-Natroun in Beheira, Gabal Al-Teir in Minya and the Tree of the Virgin Mary in Matariya in Cairo have all been improved. The project also aims to develop poorer areas and communities in the Delta and Upper Egypt and restore archaeological sites.

The four monasteries of Wadi Al-Natroun are located in the parched desert of Beheira governorate enclosed within high walls as an enduring testimony to early Coptic monasticism in Egypt. The development project of these monasteries has been completed at a cost of almost LE80 million provided by the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and Beheira governorate and includes the paving of roads leading to points on the Holy Family Trail, new landscaping, the installation of a new lighting system, and new signage, seats, and sunshades. 

Entrance gates for each monastery have also been installed.

Hisham Samir, assistant to the minister of tourism and antiquities for archaeological and museum projects, explains that most of the restoration work carried out at the Wadi Al-Natroun monasteries since 2016 has now been completed, including the restoration of the Al-Sheyoukh and Abasekhiron churches at the St Macarius Monastery and the restoration of the St Bishoy Church, the monks’ cells, and the mill and outer wall of the St Bishoy Monastery.

The main church at the Paromeos Monastery and its eastern outer wall and monks’ cells were also restored, along with the Virgin Mary Church and 14 other chapels at the Syrian Monastery.

The development and inauguration of the Beheira stop is another milestone in the development of the Holy Family Trail in Egypt, and the ministry has allocated LE60 million for the development of stops on the Trail and the restoration of monuments on it.

Facilities are being upgraded and infrastructure installed to assist visitors following the route of the Holy Family’s sojourn in Egypt. This is part of developing spiritual tourism in Egypt that can appeal throughout the year and not just during special seasons.

The Holy Family travelled in Egypt for around three years and six months. The duration of the Holy Family’s sojourn in the places they visited varied from a few days to a few months. The Holy Family’s flight to Egypt is associated with archaeological sites from Sinai to the Delta and Assiut in Upper Egypt. 

A scientific committee has been formed to document the Holy Family’s sojourn in Egypt and the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities in collaboration with Egypt’s Coptic Church has carried out a number of restoration and development projects at churches and monasteries on the Holy Family’s route. 

These include the restoration and inauguration of the Abu Serga Church in Old Cairo, the St Abba Noub Church in Samanoud, monks’ cells and other structures at the Wadi Al-Natroun monasteries, and the Virgin Mary Church at Gabal Al-Teir in Minya governorate, which is to be inaugurated soon.

The development of 25 points on the path of the Holy Family’s sojourn in Egypt in eight governorates has been carried out in full cooperation between both the ministries of tourism and antiquities and local development and the Coptic Church, with the support of the president, the follow-up of the prime minister, and the patronage of Pope Tawadros II, pope of Alexandria and patriarch of the See of St Mark.

The eight governorates have almost completed the development of the Holy Family Trail with a view to presenting it to the Egyptian public and to the world as a whole as one of the world’s most important heritage and human landmarks. 


MONASTERIES: Ahmed Al-Nemr, a member of the Scientific Office of the Minister of Tourism and Antiquities and responsible for the project of the Holy Family’s journey, said that the Wadi Al-Natroun monasteries marking the Holy Family’s sojourn in Egypt were built to similar designs and are surrounded by fortified walls that enclose several churches and living quarters for monks.

The Al-Suryan Monastery was originally built during the sixth century CE in the aftermath of a theological dispute between the monks of the neighbouring St Bishoy 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 Coptic Orthodox Church.

From the eighth to the 16th centuries, 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.

The St Bishoy Monastery was founded in the fourth century CE, and it houses the body of St Bishoy as well as other saints. 

The monastery has five churches, the main one being named after Bishoy. 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 Coptic tradition was used as a burial place for the bodies of the 49 martyrs killed by 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.

The Monastery of Paromeos 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 from 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.

The Monastery of St Macarius, located southwest of the Monastery of St Bishoy, sits on the edge of the low-lying Wadi Al-Natroun. St Macarius was a disciple of St Anthony the Great, who founded Christian monasticism. 

Within the monastery are seven churches, with three situated inside and four atop the fortress. There are also living quarters for monks, along with a refectory connected to the kitchen. Moreover, the monastery houses a library containing manuscripts and rare books.

Regarded as one of the foremost monasteries in Wadi Al-Natroun, the monastery played a significant role in the translation of the Holy Scriptures from Greek to Coptic and from Coptic to Geez.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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