It is common to allege that Wadi
Natrun was the actual birthplace for Christian monasticism. This
theory can be challenged by the theory that the Essenes of
Palestine were the first Christians, and they practiced
The reason why the early Copts chose to install themselves out
in the desert was more than piety. Under the Roman rule the
Egyptian Christians were persecuted, especially around year 300,
and many found refuge out of the cities. When Christianity
became state religion in 330 Wadi Natrun was already firmly
established as an important Christian centre, a place of piety.
The piety would be lost over the centuries, and the monks would
gradually become managers of their lands, benefiting from the
work of the monastic serfs. In the 19th century, visitors to
Wadi Natrun reported that the monks were lazy, dirty, immoral
and of little education and manners.
There were at the most 50 monasteries here, most built according
to the same pattern: fortresses with one or more churches
inside, storerooms, a dining hall, kitchen, bakery and monks'
cells. Of these only 4 have survived into modern times. Some
traveller's guide books are quite scornful at the fact that most
of what you will see at Wadi Natrun is not remotely close to its
alleged age. Many of the buildings are really from the 19th and
Personally, I found my visit here quite delightful, and certain
sections at all monasteries appear to me as very attractive and
interesting. After all, as the monasteries have been in
continuous use for more than 1,600 years, no wonder that the
monks have rebuilt the parts that needed repair.