Al-Ahram Weekly Online
14 - 20 February 2002
Issue No.573
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Wadi Al-Natrun revisited

Pope Shenuda III recently presided over a symposium at his retreat in Wadi Al-Natrun attended by academicians, bishops, monks and some Copts from home and abroad. Jill Kamil reports on the proceedings

The Wadi Al-Natrun Symposium was held from 31 January to 5 February in Coptic Patriarch Pope Shenuda's spacious and elegant residence, where peacocks -- as in the garden of Paradise in early Christian art -- stroll the grounds. It was the first of its kind organised by Coptologist Gawdat Gabra and Fawzi G Estafanous of the Saint Mark Foundation for Coptic History Studies, along with Hani Takla, president of the Saint Shenuda Society and the patriarchate. It brought together a group of highly professional and gifted individuals who presented some two dozen lectures on subjects of their expertise concerning the heritage of Wadi Al-Natrun.

Wadi Al-Natrun , a narrow, 35km-long depression below sea level west of the Delta, derives its name Wadi (valley) Al- Natrun (natron) from the vast quantities of sodium hydroxide obtained from a chain of some ten small lakes used for mummification purposes in ancient times and, in the Roman period, for glass manufacture.

In its hey-day in the fourth and fifth centuries, under the pressure of Roman persecution, many Christians fled to the area to hide, and many hermitages sprung up. Holy men inhabited caves, and formed monasteries -- now mostly obscured by sand. Today only four monasteries survive as active, excavated and restored institutions: the monastery of Saint Macarius (Anba Maqar), the monastery of St Mary (known as the monastery of the Romans, or Deir Al-Baramus); the monastery of the Holy Virgin and John Kame (known as the monastery of the Syrians, or Deir Al-Suryan); and the monastery of St Bishoy (Anba Pschoi) where the symposium was held.

Pope Shenuda himself presided over the gathering on the first day, and also took part in the many discussions, both formal and informal. A charismatic and confident personality, His Holiness clearly enjoyed himself throughout, and there is no doubt that he brought distinction to the gathering. On each occasion he made a stately appearance, preceded by his own personal chorus singing hymns. He blessed the speakers and presented each with a recently-painted Coptic icon.

It would be difficult, indeed impossible in the short space allotted to this report, to make reference to each paper presented. Nevertheless, there were many that were memorable. One was on the importance of Wadi Al-Natrun for Coptology by Martin Krause (read by his student Siegfried Richter). A founding father of Coptology, Krause presented a comprehensive survey of how Coptic studies developed out of Egyptology. Another notable contribution was that of Peter Grossmann, who described some outstanding examples of early church architecture, especially those in which he was personally involved.

Father Samir Khalil Samir's talk on the "Christian Arabic literature of the Copts" was also noteworthy and must take pride of place, not only for its content, but for his enthusiasm, and his honeyed voice; this Jesuit from Lebanon commented on what monks in centuries long past, and without the benefit of education, read in their time -- and, indeed, what they did not read! Another priest and polyglot, Father Ugo Zanetti, talked about the liturgy of the Coptic Church; Reverend Tim Vivian covered the history of monasticism in Wadi Al-Natrun and Bastiaan Van Elderen its archaeology; while Rushdi Said took the participants back through geological time.

The Dutch presence at the symposium was strong: Johannes den Heijer spoke about the history of the Coptic patriarchs at the time when they resided at Wadi Al-Natrun; Mat Immerzeel about the stucco work in the church in the Monastery of the Syrians. Karl Innemee talked about the three different levels of wall paintings recently discovered in the same church; and Lucas van Rompay and Jacques van der Vliet presented the translations of the multi-lingual inscriptions on these wall paintings, and were able to date some of them. Zuzana Skalova, consultant in icon conservation in Egypt since 1988, traced, to Egyptian origin, five Byzantine "Deeses Portraits" at Wadi Al- Natrun .

Four other women were present at the symposium. It is worth noting this first generation of five female scholars: Elizabeth Bolman's presentation was on "Scetis at the Red Sea: Depictions of monastic genealogy at the Monastery of Saint Antony;" Suzanna Hodak talked of the ornamental repertoire in the art of Wadi Al-Natrun ; Lucy-Ann Hunt's paper was on art; and Ewa Parandowska described her work on the restoration of the wall paintings in the church of the monastery of the Syrians.

"What surprised me was the lack of young Egyptians at the symposium," Rushdi Said said on his return to Cairo. "It dawned on me that I spent a week listening to foreigners, or Egyptians living abroad, all talking about different aspects of Coptic culture, but no papers by local Copts. I was not a little disappointed," he added.

His observation is justified. The only papers by Egyptians were by Sami Sabri Shaker about how he was inspired by ancient Coptic architecture in his contemporary buildings; and Bishop Martyrus who spoke about a museum project in the monastery of the Syrians. Coptic studies have been sadly lagging behind other disciplines, and only in 1971 was a professor of Coptology appointed in Munster University in West Germany. At other universities, like those in Rome, Geneva, and Paris, Coptic studies are still largely limited to the teaching of language and literature. And as for Egypt, only since 1990 has Leiden University actively been researching Coptic art in Egypt and helping Egyptian monks and scholars understand, and preserve, their heritage. Their programme is funded by the Foundation for Christian art and culture in the Near East, and many of Leiden's internationally recognised areas of specialist knowledge -- in archaeology, art history, Coptic and Coptic-Arabic language and culture, which has been put to use in unravelling the secrets of the wall-paintings -- have been shared by a rising generation of Egyptian conservationists. Twice a year a Dutch team of researchers remains in Egypt for two months to collaborate with Egyptians in carrying out restoration .

On the question of conservation, a visit to the monastery of the Syrians was a virtual revelation. The walls were replastered five times in the course of seven hundred years, and three of these layers were decorated with wall-paintings, in which centuries of Christian history are captured. In 1995, Dutch and Polish restorers were granted permission by the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) to consolidate fragments of the dome that threatened to fall. They managed, through a brilliant combination of conservation and restoration, to remove and consolidate the outer painting of the Ascension, revealing beneath a representation of the Virgin and Child flanked by Isaiah and Moses on one side, and the archangel Gabriel, Ezekiel and Daniel on the other. Now, as participants at the symposium were delighted to see, a third layer of unique wall decoration has been revealed in this monastery. This has caused the usual dilemma because the views and approaches of restorers, researchers, and the wishes of the monks, are often in conflict. That is to say, the monks wish to see their church restored to a former state of beauty; conservationists ideally wish to preserve whatever remains without doing any more damage, while the researcher is naturally curious to learn everything possible from different layers. The cry now, is for space in order to ensure the safety of paintings once removed and properly consolidated, and for their exhibition.

A field trip to the once fabled city of St Menas (Abu Mina) at Maryut, on the northern edge of the Western Desert, was one of the highlights of the symposium. Guiding the group was no less a personality than Peter Grossman of the German Archaeological Institute, who in 1961 started excavating the old city -- earlier discovered by German archaeologist Carl Kaufmann -- and was able to establish conclusively that the ruins were the famed monastic centre of St Menas, one of the greatest centres of pilgrimage during the fifth to the seventh centuries. Thousands of people came from all over the Christian word for cures, and took home with them sacred water in tiny pottery ampoules shaped like a flat, two-handed jar and stamped with the figure of the saint between two camels, or oil from the lamp that burned before his tomb. Grossman pointed to the location of marble stairs leading down to a crypt, and the tomb of St Menas which lay 10m beneath the high altar of the original basilica, constructed in the time of Constantine, by Athanasius the Great. The site was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1979.

No more than 500m from the site of St Menas, the new monastery of St Menas with its high surrounding wall and lofty twin towers can be seen. Dominating the enclosure is the cathedral in honour of the saint. Constructed of the finest materials: marble from Italy, black and rose granite from Aswan, stained-glass windows set in white plaster, and with the walls covered a plethora of crosses in filigree and mosaic, it is rapidly gaining a reputation as a major pilgrimage site.

Today the spirit of monastic life has been revived, and this is nowhere more apparent than in the monastery of St Macarius. This was the seat of the Coptic Church in the sixth century and the residence of the Coptic patriarch of Alexandria when Egyptian Christians established independence from the Church of Constantinople in 570. It takes pride in having supplied no less than 30 patriarchs from its ranks, more than any other monastery in Egypt. A great deal of church literature was translated into the northern bohairic Coptic dialect in this monastery, and its reputation for linguistics remains to this day.

The keep, the first part of the monastery to be built, was constructed in the middle of the fifth century. With its narrow drawbridge it remained a haven of refuge for the monks until the seventh century, when it was abandoned as the main place of worship in favour of the church built in honour of St Macarius which was consecrated in 655. This was largely destroyed, only to be rebuilt. In 870, as a result of continued raids by Berbers, it was surrounded by a wall under the patriarch Shenute I. By this time the desert surrounding the monastery was heavily populated with devotees of the saint, living in hermitages. In 1978, President Sadat donated 2,000 feddans of desert land to the monastery, along with two tractors. A new well was drilled and the monastery now has a modern pump and pump-house. The farm buildings house cows, sheep and poultry. Watermelons, wheat, dates, olives and bananas grow on more than 1,000 acres of reclaimed land which has, unfortunately obliterated all traces of the early hermitages. In the monasteries of Wadi Al-Natrun are pious men with vision and education, combining a life of contemplation, prayer and discipline with scientific study. With a large number of professionals in their ranks, the monks collaborate with engineers, agronomists, and scientists at nearby Sadat City in animal husbandry and new farming techniques. With the voluntary support of wealthy Copts and income from surplus produce, development continues. A printing press publishes a monthly magazine, St Mark, as well as brochures in English and Arabic. The dispensary, which is staffed by qualified physicians, an ophthalmologist, a dentist and several pharmacists, serves the monks, as well as some 700 workers on the estate, mostly Upper Egyptians (Muslim and Christian) who work on one to two-month stretches.

The monastery of the Holy Virgin, the most northerly of the four surviving monasteries at Wadi Al-Natrun , became known as Deir Al- Baramus (a transliteration of Pe-Romeos, or House of the Romans), after two saints, Maximus and Domitius, met and were inspired by St Macarius. They eagerly took to a life of asceticism, but could not sustain the harsh desert conditions and died a few days apart. St Macarius consecrated the cell they had used, calling it the "cell of the Romans." Their bodies are buried beneath the main alter of the church.

The monastery of Saint Bishoy, where the seminar was held, was so named after its patron saint who chose a solitary life in Scetis at about the beginning of the fifth century. St Bishoy first joined the disciples of St John the Little in the area, but later chose to live alone in a cell. As news of his piety spread, he himself gained a large following. During the fifth century doctrinal disputes between Melkite and Coptic monks (those loyal to the church of Constantinople and those loyal to Egypt), St Bishoy, together with Saint John the Little, abandoned their hermitages and sought refuge in Fayoum. There St Bishoy died and his relics were later brought to Wadi Al-Natrun . The monastery that bears his name was constructed in the seventh century and has undergone restoration many times in its long history, the most recent following Pope Shenuda III's 40 months in residence between 1981 and 1985. During that time he ordained about one hundred novices, and the monastery has emerged as one of the most popular and modernised. All the buildings are of sun-dried brick, replastered with adobe made of clay and crushed limestone. Like Nubian architecture, successive applications have resulted in the disappearance of all sharp lines. In the inner courtyard, the varying sized domes, walls, windows, and stairways tend to meld, creating a clean, smooth and peaceful atmosphere. There are five churches in the monastery, the main one built in honour of the patron saint and where his relics are preserved, and the others dedicated to St Iskhiron, the Holy Virgin, St George and St Michael.

One of the most spiritual and memorable points of the Wadi Al-Natrun Symposium was the Coptic mass in the old church of the monastery of St Bishoy, held without the aid of microphones or electricity. It was sung in Coptic throughout, and as the liturgy filled the nave of the church with its high, vaulted ceiling and echoed through the side aisles, light filtered from the clerestory supported by columns with pointed arches, and, as light was cast on the massive carved doors of the transept, the congregation was carried back in time. The voices of the choir rose in chorus in the tongue of a long-forgotten language of Egypt's past, and the eyes of the congregation were carried up to the icon of the Last Supper above the central doorway to the sanctuary; to the icons of the Virgin and Child, Jesus, the Apostles and Coptic saints on each side. This church is kept for the exclusive use of Pope Shenuda and the ecclesiastics, and on this rare occasion the privileged audience was clearly moved.

TOP Left: HH Pope Shenuda in the desert of Scetis near his spacious retreat. Right:The drawbridge of the keep of the monastery of Saint Macarius. ABOVE Left: Informal luncheon in the monastery grounds. Centre: The monastery of the Syrians. Right: Studying ancient texts, with Gawdat Gabra in the foreground

A plea went out during the symposium for the sites at Wadi Al-Natrun to be protected from agricultural expansion. Apart from the monastery of Moses the Black (Deir Abu Mussa Al-Aswad ), which was excavated in 1994 by the Netherlands Institute of Archaeology, the ruins of more than twenty of the earliest monastic settlements -- mostly buildings of mud covered with domes and vaults (manshoubiya in Arabic) -- have been found, along with monastic ruins: The monastery of the Armenians (Deir Al-Arman), the monastery of the Abyssinians, the monastery of the Nubians and a church dedicated to John the Little (Anba Yuhannas) with surrounding monastic buildings are among them. Unfortunately, farming communities have already dug wells which are threatening these structures, and many as-yet-undiscovered sites. Just as a plea went out to save the monuments of Nubia in the 1960s, and those in northern Sinai in the 1990s, a plea is being made in the 21st century to save the Christian heritage at Wadi Natrun.

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