A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The "Coptic Mount Athos": Wadi Natrun, Shenouda's Last Resting Place

Anba Bishoi Monastery (Wikipedia)
Pope Shenouda III of the Coptic Church was laid to rest yesterday at the Monastery of Anba Bishoi in the Wadi Natrun. Both the monastery itself and the monastic region in which it is located play central roles in the history and tradition of Christian Egypt, and probably deserve notice while world attention has been focused on the Coptic world.

Although Shenouda's home monastery, where he had labored as a monk, was the Suriani, also in the Wadi Natrun, he liked to retreat to Bishoi to meditate or to protest political developments; ironically (or perhaps not) it was also the monastery to which Anwar Sadat exiled him when he deposed the Pope in 1981. Of the four monasteries still in use in the Wadi Natrun, Bishoi is the easternmost and the first to be reached coming from the Cairo-Alexandria road.

Monastery, Wadi Natrun 1978 (Dunn)
Like several of its neighboring monasteries, Bishoi is a fourth century AD foundation, dating from the earliest days of the Desert Fathers of Egypt, who developed monasticism, at least in its group form, and later saw it spread to the rest of Christianity East and West. Along with the even older Monastery of Saint Anthony in Egypt's Eastern Desert, the Wadi Natrun and neighboring areas became centers of the monastic life in Egypt, analogous to the comparable (but younger) Greek Orthodox center of Mount Athos.

Scene, Wadi Natrun, 1978 (Dunn)

 Known to the Greek world as the Scetis, the place of ascetics, or as Nitria for the natron that gives the Wadi Natrun its Arabic name, the region and adjacent areas once harbored dozens of monasteries, separate areas of monastic cells where monks lived in solitary, and other religious institutions. Often subject to depredations by bedouin tribes, the monasteries developed fortress-like walls in many cases. Many of the Coptic Popes have come from these monasteries, of which four survive today: Anba Bishoy, Anba Maqar or Saint Macarius, associated with the reform movement led by the late monk Matta al-Maskin, Suriani (the monastery of "the Syrians";
Wadi Natrun, 1978 (Dunn)
Shenouda's home monastery), and Baramos.

So the Wadi Natrun is a fitting resting place for a Coptic monk, even one who reigned for 40 years as Pope. And Anba Bishoi, so often a haven (or exile) from the political world during Shenouda's life, will host him in death.

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