the great four Coptic Monasteries at Wadi al-Natroun; St. Macarius, St, Bishoi, The Sirians and al-Baramus
Wadi Natrun which is in the eastern desert near the delta, is one of the prime attractions for the Christian religious tourist that comes to Egypt. Christianity reached the area with St. Macarius the Great who retreated there in c.330. Other religious men were drawn to the area and a sort of loose community was formed. The community grew in number and became more organized. Thus, a flourishing monastic system was created.
The history of the Wadi and its importance to the Copts goes back to the 4th century. Anchorites inhabited caves around the valley and built monasteries. After the Arab invasion of Egypt, the Khalifa of Moslems in Arabia gave Christian monks in Egypt the amnesty to practice their religion. For that reason, the area became the official residence of the Coptic patriarch. Even now the patriarch is elected from Wadi Natrun monks.
A Coptic monk has to wait for ten years before being considered as a hermit monk. After that time he quests for a cave around the area or digs one for himself. This tradition has been carried out for centuries among Copts. Most of the monasteries in the area have been rebuilt and restored between the 8th and 11th centuries. The early churches had similar Roman/Coptic Architecture. The monasteries were divided on the inside into three sections, including communion, reading catechism, and a basin for sinners to bath.
The population of the Wadi was decimated by the two waves of plague that swept through the Middle East and Europe in the 14 century. It has never recovered. There are four remaining monasteries today with buildings of Late Antique and unique character. The monasteries have a similar design, they were all surrounded by a high fortified wall, (to be defendable against the attacks of the Bedouins and the Berbers), that encloses several churches, living quarters and a qasr (keep) which had on its upper story the church.
The word Wadi stands for valley. The reason that this area is called a valley is because it is a flat land surrounded by 10 lakes. The water mainly comes from the rainwater of desert storms. The area is rich with salts and carbonates of sodium, which ancient Egyptians used to mummify their dead. The Romans extracted silica for glass from here. During the British occupation era, a railroad system was built to move the salt in the valley to Cairo.
The Main fuor Coptic Monasteries of the Area
1- The Monastery of al-Baramus
the Monastery of al-Baramus. It is also sometimes called the Monastery of the Romans and is very probably the first monastery established in the Wadi al-Natrun. In fact, it is said to occupy the place where Macarius the Great settled in 340 (or as early as 330) when he devoted himself to monastic life. The modern name of the monastery (al-Baramus) is Arabic and is derived from the Coptic Christian Pa-Rameos, which means "that of the Romans". The origin of this name is certainly in dispute. The most widely held tradition concerns Maximus and Domitius, who Coptic texts and tradition holds as Roman saints as well as children (perhaps illegitimate) of the Roman emperor Valentinian (presumably Valentinian I (364-375 AD). They are said to have gone to Scetis (Wadi al-Natrun) during the days of St. Marcarius after having visited the Christian shrines of Nicea and Palestine. St. Marcarius tried to dissuade them from staying, but the "two little strangers" nevertheless established themselves in a cell. The older of the brothers is said to have attained perfection before his death, and only three days later, the other brother died. It is said that when the desert fathers came to Saint Macarius, he used to take them to the cell of the two brothers and say to them, "Behold ye the martyrdom of these little strangers". A year after their death, Saint Macarius consecrated the cell by building a chapel and said, "Call this place the Cell of the Romans". However, some scholars maintain that it was Paphnutius, Marcarius's successor, who first called the chapel by this name.
Some believe that the "young strangers" received by Macarius and later on venerated by the monks of the Wadi were not necessarily of Roman origin. In this tradition, it is thought that the name of the monastery could be due to the fact that a Roman monk named Arsenius settled in Wadi al-Natran (Scetis) in 394 and became the abbot of the community. Still other traditions hold that Arsenius had been the tutor of Arcadius and Honorius, the emperor Theodosius' sons, who in their turn became emperors. According to this interpretation, this bit of history could have led to confusion and the identification of the two "young strangers" as Romans.
2- Monastery (Deir) al-Anba Bishoy
The most eastern surviving Christian monastery in the Wadi el-Natrun of Egypt is Dier Al Anba Bishoy (Pshoi, Bishoi), which was founded by St. Bishoy (Pshoi). Though similar, the story of Saint Bishoy is sometimes told with varying details. However, in general, we believe that Saint Bishoy was born in the Egyptian Nile Delta in 320 AD. Apparently, his parents were deeply religious, and it is said that in a dream one night, an angel of the Lord asked for the services of one of his mother's children. St. Bishoy's mother gave the angel his selection of her children, and the angel chose Bishoy.A frail child, his mother thought that the angel might do better, but the angel said that, "the Lord's power in frailty is perfect". At the age of twenty, Bishoy joined the Monastery of Seetis. He was particularly fond of the book of Jeremiah from the Old Testament, and was therefore called Abbot Bishoy the Jeremian. It is also said that he was a close spiritual friend of John the Little (Saint John the Short), who also established a monastery at Wadi el-Natrun. Indeed, some references claim that, at first, he joined Saint John the Little, who lived by himself for many years. After apprenticing himself to John the Little, the Saint recommended that Bishoy leave him and live by himself in a cave. While observing this solitary life, Bishoy had several visions in which the Lord Jesus Christ appeared to him.
3- Monastery of the Syrians (Deir al-Surian)
This monastery, one of the four well known of its kind in Wadi al-Natrun, was probably founded in the sixth century, though some might date it later. It is located about five hundred meters northwest of the Monastery of Saint Bishoi. It's establishment is closely connected with Julian's heretical doctrine which spread throughout Egypt under the patriarchate of Timothy III (517-535). The Julianist (Gaianists, after Archdeacon Gaianus, a supporter of Julianist theology who was a bishop in Alexandria c. 50 was an even more extreme approach to Julianist) heresy, which owes its name to its principal exponent Julian, a theologian and bishop of Halicarnassus (Halicarnarsus) in Ionia, is also called Aphtartodocetism (Aphthartcdocetae or Phantasiastae). Julian was exiled to Egypt for having defined the doctrine of the incorruptibility of Christ's body. Julianist basically believe in an extreme view that the body of the Lord Jesus Christ was incapable of corruption. They held that Christ's body was so inseparably united with the Holy Father that its natural attributes made it sinless and incorruptible. To the Orthodox Church, however, Christ had taken human flesh that prevented him from being ideal and abstract and therefore corruptible. Thus, the Orthodox Church reaffirmed and clarified the idea of the real human nature of Christ. Yet, in the monasteries at Wadi al-Naturn (Scetis), the monks embraced the doctrine of Julian.
4- Monastery of St. Macarius (Deir Abu Magar, Abu Maker)
It is said that the Christian, St. Magar (Maker), who lived as a hermit monk in a cave for over forty years, received a divine revelation in the form of a dream to build a church. When he died in 390 A.D, he was buried in his beloved cave, but his monks remained and the cell where he was buried became the venter of the monastery. His relics were kept as treasures and still remain. The monastery became a memorial to him so that people might not forget his story, devotion and piety.
Deir Abu Magar, also called Deir Anba Makaryus was probably the first monastery in the Wadi al-Natrun.. In the 6th century, the Byzantine rulers mandated that the Coptic Patriarchs no longer reside in Alexandria and so Deir Abu Magar acquired a new importance as the seat of the Coptic church. It remained an important monastery throughout the ages.
Seemingly, the monastery began as an open, informal structure more like a village. There was a church and a keep (tower).
Most of the present monastery was rebuilt by Patriarch Shanudah (859-81) after it was attacked and mostly destroyed for the third time by Berbers in 866. By the end of that century, the tower's outer walls were reinforced, and most of the settlement was surrounded by an outer defensive wall, giving it the real appearance of a monastery. This wall may have encouraged hermit monks to live within, resulting in a true monastery.
The monastery is said to be the richest in the Wadi Al Natrun. There is a coffin in the church of Abu Magar, which contains the relics of sixteen patriarchs of the Coptic church. There is also the relics of the forty nine martyers killed by the Berbers and buried in the church of the Elders. Relics also include those of the three Macarii who are St. Macarius the Great (Abu Magar or Maqarah, St. Macarius the Alexandrian and the Martyr St. Macarius the Bishop of Edfu (Idfu). Other releics include those of St. IIaria, the daughter of King Zenun, who disguised herself as a man in order to be a monk in the monastery. And finally there are the relics of St. John the Little (St. John Colobos or Anba Yoanis the Short).
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