GHARBIA, Egypt – 2 November 2017: After we left Monastery of Parameos in Wadi el-Natrun, we headed to the nearby Monastery of el-Suryan in the footsteps of the Holy Family in Egypt.
Edited map of the holy family’s route in Egypt – Egypt Tourism Authority
Although it is unconfirmed whether the Holy Family crossed that area, the complex of monasteries at Wadi el-Natrun are some of the oldest in the world, possessing unique art and architecture, as well as rich history and culture. El-Suryan Monastery is included in the Vatican’s recently announced pilgrimage list.
Edited map of the Holy Family’s route in Egypt – Egypt Tourism Authority
We parked our car at the gate of the monastery and passed through the portal built within the ancient walls of the monastery. We saw a group of workers doing restoration work. We went to the information desk, and then met with Reverend Sergius el-Suryani, an older monk who keeps an icon of the Virgin Mary on his desk.
He welcomed us and ordered us tea, and asked us cordially how we were doing. We noticed a photograph of a man in a turban on the wall, and Father Sergius told us it is an image of Ibrahim el-Gohary, a generous Christian statesman who built dozens of churches and monasteries during the time of Mohamed Ali Pasha.
Next to this photo, there was another of Father Faltaous el-Suryani, the most famous monk in the monastery in the modern age, who passed away a few years ago. He was famous for his miracles.
The monk told us an anecdote from his brother’s life, saying that a Coptic doctor accidentally hit a passerby with his car and was sentenced to a long time in prison. He visited Father Faltaous, who told him he would only pay a LE 500 fine. The doctor could not believe him. However, Father Faltaous ended up being right. He then asked the doctor to buy him kebab, though he would not be able to eat meat, as he was too old to chew it. Instead, he gave it to poor people who visited him in the guest house of the monastery.
The phone rang, interrupting the reverend’s stories about Father Faltaous. He told us that Reverend Timon el-Suryani was waiting for us outside the ancient church and would take us on a tour inside the monastery.
4: A woman helping a child lighting a candle at el-Suryan Monastery in Wadi el-Natrun – Ahmed Hindy
Reverend Timon told us the story of monastic life in this monastery. He said that a group of Orthodox Syrian monks had heard about the flourishing monastic life in this desert. They wanted to belong to the first school of monasticism in Egypt, so they came to Egypt in the 5th century A.D. and lived a monastic life with their Egyptian brothers. They stayed there until the 16th century A.D. as generation after generation would adopt the life of monasticism.
Saint Pishoy was the first one to live in Wadi el-Natrun, said Reverend Timon as he headed to the cave where the Father of Monks lived in this area. In front of the cave, a yellow light illuminates a sign that reads “Saint Pishoy’s Cave”. The Reverend told us that Saint Pishoy was a third-generation monk. We ducked to enter the cave, which is divided into two sections; the first was the place where he received other monks, and the second was his monastic cell where he isolated himself to pray to God and talk to Him. In this small cave in the mountain, dozens of visitors have written their hopes and dreams on scraps of paper. Reverend Timon said that Saint Pishoy taught approximately 5,000 monks, who lived over the span of 100 years in that cave.
3: Messages left at St. Pishoy’s cave at el-Suryan Monastery in Wadi el-Natrun – Ahmed Hindy
We entered the cave and Reverend Timon took us to a long, ancient table that dates back to the 4th century. We saw this same table in different monasteries in Wadi el-Natrun. However, the Monastery of el-Suryan put paper sculptures of monks around it.
Reverend Timon told us that monks used to isolate themselves all week long, and on Saturday and Sunday, they would gather and sit on the ancient mastabah (bench) to eat together and read the Bible and some pages from “Bustan Al-Ruhban” (The Monks’ Garden). There were metal utensils covered with sand on, and visitors would come and go as they ponder the monks’ lives in the desert.
2: The ancient table where monks used to eat in el-Suryan Monastery at Wadi el-Natrun – Ahmed Hindy
We passed by caves in the monastery until we got to the ancient church. Reverend Timon opened the wooden door, and it was as if he opened the door to a magical world of art, history and religion. Once we stepped into the ancient church, we felt like we were dreaming. The church was built according to a vision, where Saint Youhannes Kama, one of the saints of the monastery, saw the Virgin Mary.
In the vision, she gave him three gold dinars to build this church. This is depicted in the most famous icon in the church, painted on an old wooden shrine surrounded by crosses from all directions. Reverend Timon continued the story behind the church, saying that after Saint Youhannes Kama saw the Virgin, she disappeared, and he saw an angel in his cave 3 kilometers away. Once he left the cave, it collapsed immediately.
This is when Saint Youhannes realized that the Virgin did not want him to build the church in his cave. He walked until he reached the current location of the church, where he found a group of Syrian monks living their monastic life, so he joined them.
Reverend Timon stood in front of the Door of Prophecies, a wooden door surrounded with frescoes and murals. Next to it, there were inscriptions in Syriac.
The Door of Prophecies at el-Suryan Monastery in Wadi el-Natrun – Ahmed Hindy
However, the inscriptions on the door are the most extraordinary thing we saw in that church. The door is divided into six sections adorned with ivory. Each section tells a part of the history of Christianity, and even predicts the future of the religion.
In the first section, there are icons depicting the twelve apostles, who preached Christianity all over the world. The second section is about the second generation of Christians, and the Suryans drew small crosses. Reverend Timon explained to us that Christianity was slowly spreading back then due to persecution.
In the third section, the crosses are bigger and are surrounded by circles. Reverend Timon explained that they signify the continued persecution of Christians in those times. In the fifth section, the cross looked clear. Reverend Timon said that this section depicts the times when Christianity flourished with monasticism, which started in the 4th century and became solid in the 5th century.
Reverend Timon then asked us what we think the symbol in the sixth section indicates, and we said it is the symbol of Nazism. He then told us that Suryans predicted that this symbol would change the history of the world. During that period, the Council of Chalcedon was held, separating churches and leading to division between them. The shape of the cross we could see clearly in the fifth section was changed to a less clear one. In the sixth section, the cross looks a lot smaller, indicating the current state of “prevalent atheism”. As for the last section of the door, the cross then emerges clearly, which indicates Christ’s resurrection at the end of times according to the Christian faith, said Reverend Timon.
There were frescoes and colorful paintings on the walls of the monastery, each depicting a story, refuting a heresy or telling a tale from the long history of Christianity. Beneath every mural, there is another one. On each wall, there are three layers of colorful frescoes painted by successive generations of monks who lived in the monastery, according to Reverend Timon.
1: Father Timon explaining the history of frescoes at el-Suryan Monastery in Wadi el-Natrun – Ahmed Hindy
Reverend Timon took us back to the church cloister and showed us Ephrem the Syrian’s tree, a giant tree enclosed in a special compartment, with its branches towering over the compartment ceiling. It is also surrounded with metal utensils and potteryware, which date back to the 18th century.
The Reverend told us that Saint Ephrem the Syrian planted his stick in the soil, and Saint Pishoy’s disciples watered it. The stick then became a tree more than 1,700 years ago, as a witness to the encounter between Saint Ephrem and Saint Pishoy in this monastery. Next to the tree, there are old monastic cells. The Reverend told us they are currently occupied by new monks who try the original monastic life of asceticism and austerity.
Before leaving, Reverend Timon told us the story of Al-Hamra Spring, which is seven kilometers away from the monastery. It is believed that the Holy Family stopped at that area. The story is that there was a salty lake that Christ wanted to drink from, but the Virgin Mary stopped him. He then only put his finger in the water and a spring of fresh drinking water began to stream in the middle of the salty waters.
We said goodbye to the gracious reverend and left the monastery to go to our appointment in Macarius Monastery in the Scetis Desert, the last monastery in our trip in Wadi el-Natrun.
Translated by Heba Fadel