BEHEIRA, Egypt - 1 November 2017: On their way out of the Nile Delta, the holy family boarded a boat to cross the Nile River towards the west, then to the south towards a valley rich in salt; Wadi el-Natrun in Beheira governorate on the left side of Cairo-Alexandria Desert Road. It is about 114 kilometers from Cairo.
Edited map of the holy family’s route in Egypt – Egypt Tourism Authority
We first visited the Virgin Mary church in the Paromeos monastery, which has recently been included in the Vatican's pilgrimage list. The road to the monastery was bumpy, but it got better as we approached it. In the distance, we could see the monastery’s lighthouse and large crosses. We took a paved road to the left, parked the car, and turned to cross the small, ancient gate to the monastery. Women, children, and men were coming and going through the gate as they arrived from different Delta governorates in search of blessings.
Hieromonk Cyril el-Parameosi was waiting for us in his simple black monastic garment, short beard and friendly smile. He welcomed us and shook our hands as he held his cross to bless us with it.
Before he started talking about the world of monastic life in Wadi el-Natrun, Father Cyril said “welcome to our monastery, our home. This is the Paromeos Monastery, and the word ‘Paromeos’ means ‘that which belongs to the Romans.’ The monastery was built in the 4th century A.D. The name goes back to the brothers Maximus and Domatius, sons of a Roman king, who became monks in the monastery. It was built by Saint Macarius the Elder, also known as al-Anba Makkar (Bishop Makkar), as part of a monastic movement that began in Egypt in the 4th century A.D. led by Saint Anthony the Great, the first monk in history.”
Monasticism was founded in Egypt and spread all over the world. At the time, there were two monastic areas: one in the east, between the Red Sea Mountains (the Monastery of Saint Anthony and the Monastery of Saint Paul the Anchorite) and one in the west (the Paromeos Monastery, the Monastery of Saint Pishoy, the Monastery of Saint Macarius and the Monastery of el-Suryan; Paromeos Monastery is the oldest).
When a Copt becomes a monk, they renounce the name they were born with and are given a new name. Monasticism is like death in this world, and a rebirth of a new life with God. Father Cyril was born with a different name, but the Abbot named him after the famous saint. “El-Paramoesi” is to indicate he belongs to the monastery to which he dedicated his life.
Icons leading to the altar of one of Parameos Monastery’s churches – Ahmed Hindy
Father Cyril stood before the ancient fence around the monastery which was built in the 10th century A.D. The fence was covered with woodwork made by the monks in the monastery, crosses, and icons of saints with verses from the Holy Bible. The fence was built at the order of Pope Cyril of Alexandria as a form of defense against Berber raids. Berber tribes raided monasteries in the fifth century for food and drinks. However, the fence has no religious foundation, said the monk.
Frequent raids compelled monks to be careful and cautious. In each monastery, there is a fort to which they retreat from the external world.
Father Cyril, who is responsible for welcoming guests at the monastery, had previously studied architecture and oversees all restoration projects at the monastery. He indicated that Wadi El Natrun used to be called “sekhet hemat” in hieroglyphic, which means “salt valley.” Ancient Egyptians used to extract the needed salt for mummification from this area. In addition, he pointed out that there is no proof that the holy family passed through this area except for the homily that pope Theophilus I, the 23rd pope of the Coptic Church, left. He asserted that the holy family crossed this area but did not specify how long they resided in it. This was before the construction of the monasteries, which were later built in dedication to the holy family.
“In the 4th century A.D., saint Macarius came here to live as a monk, a life of constant prayer and meditation. It was a life fully lived for God. He was followed by a group of other monks who lived with him. When there was not enough room for all of them, he left the monastery and went to another area in the Natrun desert. The cave where he lived became what is the Macarius monastery today,” said Father Cyril.
“Monastic life in the past was different from our life today,” he explained. “Monasteries in the past used to be closed. No visits or any communication with the outside world. Today, we welcome everyday hundreds of visitors who seek the blessings of the monastery’s saints. However, the essence of monasticism remains unchanged.”
Parameos monastery in Wadi el-Natrun – Ahmed Hindy
“Monasticism used to be ‘eremitic’ in the past. Each monk used to live in a cave in the mountains called a ‘monastic cell.’ Later, each group of monks used to live in convents. Those who lived in a convent used to come from the same area. Egyptian regions back then used to speak different languages, so monks could not live with other monks they could not communicate with,” Father Cyril said. “There used to be an abbot in every convent who would teach his students about monasticism and its rituals.”
“Today, to a great extent,” Father Cyril said, “monasticism is not eremitic. Monks live in communities, which is the tradition saint Pachomius established. As a monk in Dendera, saint Pachomius established the tradition of monks living together in groups, or cenobia, where they work together, share food and exchange services.” He indicated that monasticism involves handwork. Some monks farm, while others do woodwork and other kinds of handwork.
Father Cyril took us on a tour of the churches of the monastery. He goes back in time to 1876 as he spoke to us about Mar Youhana church, which was built by pope Kyrollis VI. He was one of the monastery’s monks and used to carry the name ‘Youhana’ as a monk. He built a church under his name over the ruins of an older church that had collapsed.
The church used to be called Saints Abib and Apollo and it was built by Ibrahim El-Gohary. We heard the name Ibrahim El-Gohary frequently throughout the tour. That man lived back in the time of the French expeditions. He used to work as a scribe for a Mamluk prince but then rose to the position of chief scribe. He was a generous and benevolent man who donated a lot and built churches and monasteries all over the country.
There is a palace next to the church that was built in 1911. It is the pope’s residence in the monastery when he visits. There is a wooden engraving pinned on the wall of the palace inscribed by a monk which says, “he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities.” It is a verse from the bible referring to Jesus Christ.
Father Cyril led us from the church to the ancient area in the monastery through a desert road. We feel like we moved from one era to a completely different one. He points upwards to al-mat’ama (eatery), which is a room a monk occupies. The monk is called a bawab (attendant), and he would let down a long rope attached to a basket full of food for any hungry passerby. Next to the steps leading up to the mat’ama (restaurant), there was a large hole similar to a well. He told us this was a furnace where monks burned gypsum for construction.
We continue our tour. Our guide showed us the fort from the outside. The fort is accessed through a set of stairs and over a bridge. It was built in the seventh century. This is where monks used to hide from Berber raids. We went on to check the antiquated table, located in a small hallway. We had to bend down to get into it through a passageway. Monks and the abbot used to sit around the table to eat. A monk would read them pages from “Bustan Al-Ruhban” (the Monks’ Garden), the primary reference of Christian monasticism. Father Cyril said that the table dates back to the ninth century A.D., and the walls of the room used to be adorned with frescoes that have now disappeared.
We entered the ancient church in the monastery after leaving our shoes at the door. The church is divided into three sections; each called a “choir.” The first choir, the closest one to the altar is called the clergy choir, where Christians get ready for the holy communion. The second choir was for new Christian converts, who sat down and listened to exhortations and sermons. The third was for pagans who wanted to embrace Christianity. The church is home to the remains of saint Moses the Black.
Father Cyril told us the story of the saint’s life, recounting that he used to be a thief, but he searched for God, and when he found him, he gave up his old way of life with all his sins. He was killed while defending the monastery against a Berber raid.
In front of the church sanctuary, our guide drew open curtains embroidered with the icon of the Virgin Mary and infant Jesus. It is as if he opened the gates of history. We see the door to the ancient sanctuary, which dates back to the Fatimid era. It is a wooden door adorned with crosses and Christian engravings and decorations. Although they are Christian, they belong to an era famous for Islamic art.
A man asks for blessings at the remains of saints Maximus and Domatius at Parameos monastery – Ahmed Hindy
On the walls, we saw frescoes and ancient drawings. The monk told us they consist of three layers. Whenever one layer is removed, another emerges. Artists used to come to the monastery to draw these frescoes throughout the ages. The colorful murals depict the journey of the holy family, moments in the life of Christ and other portraits of saints.
Our tour ended in Paromeos monastery. Father Cyril insisted that we have lunch, so he took us to the monastery guest house and offered us food made by monks for visitors. They offered us fava beans, bread baked in the monastery, eggs and meat. Before leaving, he gave us a book on the monastery and a wooden tablet with the word “Allah,” made by monks. Then we said goodbye.
We left Paromeos monastery and headed to the nearby monastery of Saint Pishoy. This monastery is home to the pope’s residence, where he stays for three days every week. It has a gate separate from the venerable monastery. As for the ancient insides of the church, you can enter it through its small gate and start your tour among the ancient churches, which look like the Paromeos churches to a great extent. This monastery also has an ancient fort, a table and a furnace. There is also a high fence. The monastery was raided five times by Berbers which did not leave the monastery in its original condition, as Hegumen Sarabamon and bishop Pishoy told us.
In the modern age, this monastery is known to be the residence of popes. The monastery is home to pope Shenouda’s shrine (where he was buried). Monks turned it into a museum of the belongings of popes in the modern age. In the pope’s shrine, his black monastic garments are hung from the ceiling in a small museum of his belongings. In this small museum, we could also see messages from his followers asking for his blessing. In the background, we could hear recordings of the pope as he preached his followers. The monastery played recordings of his most popular sermons. We could also see his books and valuable writings.
When you leave the shrine, you see saint Pishoy’s church, which was subject to many raids and natural disasters. It is the largest church in Wadi El Natrun. Berbers raided it in the fifth and sixth centuries A.D. It was also reconstructed due to damage caused by a white ant infestation in pope Benjamin’s time.
The shrine of late pope Shenouda III at Anba Peshoy monastery of Wadi el-Natrun – Samy Wahib
In the monastery’s cloister, you see its ancient fence which goes back to the fourth century A.D. To your left, you will also see an old car in a steel cage. It is pope Shenouda’s car, and the monastery is keeping it as a relic.
We quickly left the monastery of saint Pishoy, as we try to catch up with our appointment in el-Suryan monastery nearby before sunset.
Translated by Heba Fadel