Blessings from the Natron Valley

Nader Habib , Thursday 29 Jun 2023

Al-Ahram Weekly commemorates the journey of the Holy Family into Egypt and the Feast of the Martyr Abskhairoun Al-Qalini by visiting the Monastery of St Mark the Apostle in Wadi Al-Natroun.

The Church of St Mark and Martyr Abskhairoun Al-Qalini
The Church of St Mark and Martyr Abskhairoun Al-Qalini


Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church celebrates the anniversary of the journey of the Holy Family into Egypt at the beginning of June every year. The journey, which lasted nearly three years, saw the Holy Family flee from Palestine to Egypt to escape the oppression of king Herod. The latter sought to kill the infant Jesus out of fears that he would share his rule, according to the Magi priests from Persia. 

Although only a few places where the Holy Family are believed to have travelled are famous, Coptic tradition has it that they passed through the Natron Valley northwest of Cairo and stopped at the Al-Hamra Lake, so called after the red natron salt that is found there. The Virgin Mary blessed the lake, and a spring of sweet water flowed that quenched the thirst of the infant Jesus. 

During Pharaonic times, the 15-feddan lake was named Heaven Lake because its salt was used in mummification. Later on, its name was changed to Ayoub’s Spring, in reference to the Prophet Job and its ability to heal many skin diseases.

In the early fourth century CE, the first monastic communities were established in Wadi Al-Natroun under the guidance of Father Maqar Al-Kabir around 330. He established a monastery in the valley and attracted various hermits, solitaries, and monks to join him. By the end of the fourth century, there were four monastic communities in the region: Al-Baramous (Saint Mary), Abu Maqar (Saint Macarius the Great), Anba Bishoy (Saint Bishoy), and Anba Yehnis Colobos (Yoannis the Short).

Initially, these communities were groups of cells — small rooms where one priest could live at a time — with a church in the centre. However, as raids by Berbers and Bedouins on the area became more common, the communities began constructing walls and watchtowers for protection.

 The monastery entrance

Over time, the monastic communities grew in size and importance, becoming centres of learning and spirituality that attracted pilgrims from around the world. Today, Wadi Al-Natroun remains an important destination for those seeking to connect with the rich traditions of monasticism and spirituality in Egypt.

Between the second half of the fourth century and the seventh century CE the number of monasteries in Wadi Al-Natroun mushroomed to 700, served by thousands of priests from Egypt and all over the world. The area became known as Scetis, or Skete in Greek, which means “to weigh the heart”, a reference to the role of the priests and monks.

The monasteries in Wadi Al-Natroun continued to flourish during the Islamic conquest of Egypt in 639-640 CE. However, during the eighth and ninth centuries problems arose due to the imposition of taxes and administrative issues with the government. As a result, many monks abandoned their monasteries, which were eventually destroyed over time.

The Church of St Mark the Apostle and Martyr Abskhairoun Al-Qalini
But despite these challenges, four monasteries remained in the region and continue to thrive to this day: the Monastery of Abu Maqar, the Monastery of Anba Bishoy, the Monastery of Al-Baramous, and the Monastery of Al-Suryan (Syrians).

Since 2002 and until his death, the Coptic Orthodox pope Shenouda III was interested in excavating the ruins of the monasteries in Wadi Al-Natroun, including their churches, cells, and the relics of saints preserved within them. His successor, Pope Tawadros II, has focused on reconstructing and restoring existing Coptic monasteries, particularly those in Wadi Al-Natroun, including the Monastery of St Mark the Apostle and the Martyr Abskhairoun Al-Qalini, known as the annex to the Monastery of Glass.

On 17 April 2021, Pope Tawadros II issued an administrative decision, published in Al-Kiraza magazine, assigning Archpriest Lucas Anba Bishoy to supervise the annex of the Monastery of Glass situated at the 115 km mark on the Wadi Al-Natroun-Alamein Road. The role included overseeing the spiritual, administrative, financial, and other aspects of the monastery and acting as its legal representative before government agencies, official bodies, and the courts. He is also required to submit periodic reports on his supervision.

According to Karas Ava Marcus, assistant head of the Monastery of St Mark the Apostle, the monastery has been known by various names throughout history. One of these is the Glass Monastery, which is derived from the region where it is located, as the glass industry has long been present there. 

It is also known by the Latin words monasterium patrum, meaning Monastery of the Fathers, because it has produced six patriarchs and 16 bishops. The monastery was the seat of the patriarchate for almost 49 years. It is also said that every new patriarch sitting on the papal chair would go there the day after his seclusion to the Monastery of St Mark the Apostle. This tradition continued until the 11th century.

Egyptian historian Taqieddin Al-Maqrizi, who was active during the Mameluke era, also called the monastery the Monastery of the Ninth Mile. Later it was known as the Monastery of Kings because kings and princes used to visit it and seek its blessings.

Karas added that the monastery has long had significant historical, scientific, archaeological, and religious importance. The monastery’s religious significance lies in the fact that it houses cells, a church, and more than 2,000 monks. Its scientific importance is derived from the fact that it was the place where the Bible was first translated from Greek to Coptic. Many of its monks also taught theology in Alexandria.


He said that the monastery remained well-known to historians until the 13th century and was recorded in many history books and manuscripts. It became so famous that many Syrians also attended it, eventually becoming patriarchs of the Coptic Orthodox Church.

References vary regarding the decline of the monastery. Some say that it disappeared due to a plague, while others say it was destroyed during wars and barbarian attacks. From the 13th until the 20th centuries, the monastery was not heard of, except in history books and in the Coptic Synaxarium, a diary of day-to-day events.

Pope Tawadros II assigning Archpriest Lucas the supervision of the monastery

RECONSTRUCTION: Karas said that Lucas has been actively involved in renewing and reconstructing the monastery. He has overseen the construction of three churches distinguished by their Coptic architectural character that dates back to the fourth to sixth centuries CE.

Lucas is an engineering graduate who specialises in Coptic architecture, and he designed the reconstructed churches in the traditional form found in ancient monasteries. The first is the Church of St Mark and the Martyr Abskhairoun Al-Qalini, which is characterised by inscriptions in the form of crosses on the walls and columns that divide the church into three sections.

The second church, named the Church of the Three Peasants, is constructed in the shape of a cross and commemorates the saints of the city of Esna in Upper Egypt and the Martyr Anba Wannas, the patron saint of Luxor. It has an altar in the middle and is built in the shape of a cross, with each rib having special tombs to preserve the remains of well-known saints of the Coptic Orthodox Church. The first and second churches are built of red brick.

The Three Peasants and Martyr Anba Wannas Church

The third church is named after the Virgin Mary and is built of wood in the shape of Noah’s Ark. One of the things that distinguishes these three churches is the calmness and tranquility that visitors feel when entering them. There is a peaceful atmosphere that pervades the monastery along with a spiritual energy that emanates from it.

Virgin Mary Church

The monastery also has 17 monks’ cells, a table for the monks, and a library for reading and research. It is distinguished by the two towers built in the old Coptic style at the entrance. These can be easily seen from the road, and they add to the splendour of the architectural beauty of the building. 

The present writer was able to visit the Monastery of St Mark the Apostle and speak with Lucas, its head. The monastery is notably well-maintained, even the kitchen where they serve breakfast for visitors. The dining area can host up to 1,500 people, and the monastery offers a delicious breakfast meal and refreshments to visitors free of charge as a gesture of hospitality.

The breakfast we had while visiting the monastery consisted of fava beans, white cheese, “Roman cheese,” a kind of Egyptian hard cheese, pickles, and tomatoes, all of which were wrapped and not opened except when it was time to eat. These were served with a plate of fruit, tea, coffee, and water.

Dining area

Karas said that the monastery is one of Egypt’s oldest and that it had produced six popes of the Egyptian Orthodox Church: pope Yohanna II, the 30th patriarch (reigning from 505 to 516 CE); pope Boutros IV, the 34th patriarch (567 to 569); pope Damien, the 35th patriarch (569 to 605); pope Simon I the Syrian, the 42nd patriarch (692 to 700); pope Alexandros II, the 43rd patriarch (704 to 729); and pope Simon II the Syrian, the 51st patriarch, who was made head of the Church a little over five months before his death.

Despite the passage of time, the Monastery of St Mark the Apostle and the Martyr Abskhairoun Al-Qalini remains a source of spiritual and cultural connection between the generations. This is evident in the Feast of St Mark the Apostle, celebrated on 8 May when the monastery receives sometimes more than 6,000 visitors. 

St Mark the Apostle and Martyr Abskhairoun Al-Qalini statues

Next week, the monastery will celebrate the Feast of the Martyrdom of St Abskhairoun Al-Qalini, its second patron saint. This feast corresponds to 7 Baounah in the Coptic calendar. Lucas said that Abskhairoun Al-Qalini had been a brave soldier who was beloved by his companions and superiors. He was a devout Christian who refused to carry out the orders of the Roman emperor Diocletian to worship pagan idols, and he paid for his faith with his life when he was tortured and decapitated.

St Abskhairoun Al-Qalini was later renowned for performing miracles, and he is considered the patron saint of those who are about to get married, married couples, and those who are facing marital problems in the Coptic Orthodox Church.

One of his most famous miracles is reported to have taken place in the town of Qalin in Kafr Al-Sheikh governorate. According to the story, the people of Qalin used to hold multiple weddings on a single night, likely due to the difficulty of transportation at harvest time. During one of these celebrations, around 100 people were gathered in the local church when enemies of the faith stirred up persecutors against them.

The people prayed to St Abskhairoun, who was originally from their town, for assistance. During the same night, and before the persecutors could carry out their evil intentions, the church and all those inside it were miraculously transported to the Behu region in Upper Egypt. When the people emerged from the church in the morning, they found themselves in a completely different part of the country to their own.

The saint is said to have appeared to the people in an unfamiliar form and accompanied them to the banks of the Nile. There they boarded a boat and were able to return to Qalin in one day instead of the usual three. The ship owner also became a Christian as a result. The location of the church in Qalin is not known, but in its stead there is a pool called Lake Walini. Meanwhile, there is a Church of St Abskhairoun Al-Qalini in the Behu region of the Minya governorate.

Inside the Monastery of St Mark the Apostle and Martyr Abskhairoun Al-Qalini, there is a library that offers books and Christian and Pharaonic gifts to visitors, as well as children’s toys. The monastery also sells locally made products such as olives, olive oil, and honey, and it has its own farms raising chickens, pigeons, and rabbits.

Today, the monastery receives two types of visitors, Karas said: those who come to receive blessings and choose to buy the monastery’s products as a form of blessing and those who are on their way elsewhere since the monastery is located on the road to Alamein. When such visitors visit the monastery, they can purchase supplies at relatively low prices, Karas noted.

Lucas said that the daily life of a priest in the monastery of St Mark the Apostle follows the same general structure as in other Coptic monasteries. The priests wake up at 4am to the sound of bells, gather in the church for Mass, and then proceed to their assigned work for the day.

Some monasteries, including this one, hold prayers relatively late from 9 to 11 am in order to accommodate visitors. The monastery also provides services to the wider Church and the state, contributing to the production of products such as premium vegetables, honey, and olives. This helps to ensure its self-sufficiency, with any surplus going to the wider public.

Because the monastery is located on a highway, it provides services 24 hours a day. These include assistance for travellers who may encounter problems on the road. It has a car mechanic, and the priests are always ready to help anyone in need.

Pope Tawadros II has emphasised the importance of love and hospitality at the Monastery of St Mark, Lucas said, encouraging its priests to love their neighbours and establish good relations with them. In the past, the monastery had to inform the security services before allowing foreign visitors to enter, but today conditions have improved, and the priests are able to welcome guests before informing them.

In order to better serve the community, there are plans to establish a medical unit at the Monastery. Karas was originally a doctor before entering the monastery, and the medical unit will provide free medical services to residents of the area who may need them. These services will also be offered free of charge.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 8 June, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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