Monasteries, Mummies (& Tatooine?)

A few months ago I felt that we were due for an adventure, so I convinced Ron and Ben to take a day trip out to the monasteries of Wadi Natrun.

For most journeys, getting out of Cairo is typically the most difficult part, basically because once you get out of Cairo there is only one road in whatever direction you’re heading… in theory, that is. We decided to start things off wrong right from the get-go and managed to take the wrong bridge out of Zamalek, getting completely turned around in the Dokki area (we think). We did some loops and made it back to Zamalek, took the right bridge out, drove 20 minutes, missed the turn off for our road (the sign was a mile before the turn), drove another 10 minutes before we could turn around, missed the turn off again (just morons this time), and had to drive 20 minutes back to Cairo before we could turn around again. By this point we decided to stop for gas, traveling for over an hour and yet being only a mere few miles from home. But daunted we were not! During our gas lay-over we saw a horse-n-cart gassing up at the pumps – not a common sight, but I guess moreso when you consider it was a benzine cart. (Photo credit goes to Ben.)

Second attempt, or was it third, we managed to take the correct exit and headed out into the desert on the Alexandria-Desert Road. As you leave Cairo, the sights become less exciting and you rely more on the wacky cars and trucks for visual amusement. One thing we did note was the proliferation of walls in the desert. Just plots of land, often with no more than two or three sides of a wall delineating the property line. Sometimes just a gateway stood in the dirt. Future markers for the next round of villas and highrises as Cairo continues to overflow.

The Wadi Natrun area is about 60 miles northwest of Cairo. Its oldest historical significance comes from the mineral deposits found on the saline lakes in the area. In ancient Pharaonic times the natrun found here was used for many household needs, including mummification (it’s always so hard to find a good mummifier, isn’t it?), as it would draw out the moisture from the body and act as a drying agent.

Then, during the Roman persecutions of the 4th century, many Christians retreated to the Wadi Natrun area and hid in the caves. Over the years hundreds of thousands of people sought refuge here and they built up over 60 monasteries in the area. Many believe that this marks the beginning of Christian monasticism. (As a side note, Islam was brought to Egypt with the Arab conquest in 641 AD.) Today only four monasteries dating back to the 4th century survive (all having been rebuilt at least once, with the oldest structures currently dating to the 8th century): Monastery of St. Bishoi, Monastery of the Syrians, Monastery of the Virgin of Baramus, and Monastery of St. Macarius. All remain active and all can be visited, however please note for planning purposes, visits to the Monastery of St. Macarius must be arranged in advance.

The not-so-exciting scenery did end when we finally reached the small town/village/area of Bir Hooker. Actually, they had one of the nicest rest stops I’ve ever seen in Egypt – pure Americana, repleate with playground area. We stopped for a break and discussed whether we knew where to go from here. The guidebooks were a little fuzzy, “Turn left at Bir Hooker.” Which would have been fine had it been a one-station stop, but it was fairly built up and the road had a nice wide median preventing us from turning left at all. I begged the boys to ask for directions (two geniuses willing to wander for days in lieu of asking for directions) and they did, and much to Ben’s delight (so he could continue to mutter “I told you so”) we got multiple variations of no directions. So we opted for continue driving until we could turn around.

We did this and by pure luck there was a sign (but only for those coming from the north). We turned onto a road that led through a very small village (passing tuk-tuks and locals) back into the desert where Ron noticed some domed buildings off in the distance and between that and a few more signs, we made it to the Monastery of St. Bishoi.

This monastery has historical significance to the Coptic church as many of the Coptic Popes have been chosen from this order, including the current Pope Shenouda III. He also has a large residence located here (see photo below) that he used during his exile under President Sadat. We knew from some of the guidebooks that there was an English-speaking monk who could provide tours, and we were extremely lucky that Father Shedrak was available for us.

He first offered us a bite of lunch in the dining hall where the monks eat. We were offered a typical meal of tea, boiled eggs, bread, salad and fuul (beans). While we nibbled a little, Father Shedrak told us the history of St. Bishoi and answered Ron and Ben’s philosophical questions. I may be willing to blather on about things I know only a smidge about, but when it comes to religion I tend to just sit and listen (considering the majority of my knowledge base comes from Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals and our pre-cana classes).

Following the meal, Father Shedrak took us on a tour of the grounds. The grounds and buildings are extensive and in addition to Pope Shenouda’s residence, include five churches, living quarters for the ~150 monks currently staying there, kitchen, dining hall, cemetery, large garden, and several historical buildings and rooms that are used exclusively for tours. These include an original mill, original living quarters, a fifth-century well that is said to have been used by Berbers to clean their swords following a massacre, an ancient drawbridge (daunting to cross, I can tell you), a trap door above the main entrance that allowed the monks to protect themselves against invaders and yet still offer food to the poor and a dining hall that was strewn with ancient artifacts on a built-in stone table spanning the length of the room and had the most amazing architectural details.

The domed-architecture was not just to delight future “Star Wars” fans who felt they landed in Tatooine, it was also functional. The thick stone and brick walls kept the heat out, the domed ceilings with small open windows at the top allowed light and air in and the rounded shape helped distribute the light evenly as well as aid the acoustics. It really was a brilliant design (adding it to the mental files for future kitchen designs).

Father Shedrak showed us all around and spoke to us for hours on all subjects (he’s a very learned man and really interesting – throughout the day he would ask about an English word here or there and dutifully added them all to a little notebook, expanding his vocabulary at every chance). He ended our tour as all good Egyptian hosts will do, with some tea. Ours was the fresh mint variety and was delicious.

The drive home was less exciting than the drive out, but it was also done in a third the time. As a daily outing goes, this was perfect and just what we all needed. I mean, how can you go wrong with monks, mummies, ancient history, and a look-alike for Luke’s home planet?