Natrun Valley Attractions Wadi el-Natrun
The Wadi Natrun, the Greek region of Nitria and the Roman Scythiaca, is a 20mi/32km long depression in the Western Desert between Cairo and Alexandria, some 50-55mi/80-90km from each city. Strung along the valley are 12 salt lakes, linked with the Nile by underground channels, which dry up almost completely in summer. The deposits in the lake basins and the surrounding area yield salt and natron, used for bleaching cloth and in the manufacture of soap and glass.The Wadi Natrun is famous for the hermitages and monasteries which were established here from the fourth C. onwards and, together with the other desert monasteries (St Antony's, St Paul's and St Catherine's), had great influence on the development of Christianity. They were repeatedly raided, plundered and destroyed by Berber hordes, particularly in the ninth C., so that out of more than 50 monasteries which once flourished here there now remain only four houses occupied by Coptic monks. None of these monasteries have preserved their original aspect, and only a few scanty remains survive from the period of their foundation. They are all surrounded by defensive walls and have a watch tower or keep (qasr), entered by a drawbridge, in which the monks could take shelter in case of attack. In order to protect the monks' seclusion only one monastery, the Deir Amba Bshoi, is open to visitors. For admission to the other monasteries it is necessary to obtain a permit from the Patriarch of Alexandria, granted only to visitors who can show a special reason for going (e.g. for purposes of study).
The Monastery of the Syrians was originally constructed in the 6th C and was purchased for Syrian monks in the 8th C. It was abandoned in the 16th C and eventually became the property of Coptic monks.
Monastery of St Macarius
4mi/7km southeast of the Deir Amba Bshoi, at the southeast end of the Wadi Natrun, is the Deir Abu Makar, founded in the fourth C. by St Macarius the Great (c. 300-c. 380/390), in which Patriarch Theodosius I sought refuge in the sixth C. Apart from the three churches and the qasr, the buildings are modern. The principal church, and the oldest in the monastery, is the Church of St Macarius, which has an iconostasis dating in part from the fourth and fifth C. and fine frescos of the 10th-11th C. The old qasr has been converted into three chapels, one above the other, dedicated respectively to the Virgin, St Antony and the Archangel Michael; the frescos date from the 14th C.
River without Water
2mi/3km west of the Deir Amba Baramus is the end of the Bahr Belama ("River without Water"), an old river bed, perhaps a former arm of the Nile but now filled with sand, which runs north from the Dakhla and Bahriya oases into the Wadi Natrun. At this point it is 7.5mi/12km wide. Evidence of the erstwhile fertility of the valley is provided by petrified tree trunks 26-33ft/8-10m long.
Kelya - Hermitages and Monasteries
Scattered about in the desert some 30mi/50km northwest of the Wadi Natrun, on the road to the City of St Menas, are about 700 hermitages and monasteries of the fifth-seventh C., abandoned at various times down to the 15th C. and now covered by sand. The area, known as Kelya (from Latin cella, "cell"), was rediscovered and partly excavated in 1964 during the construction of irrigation works. Of particular interest are the ruins of a seventh C. monastery with fine frescos.
Some 37mi/60km from Giza on the desert road from Cairo to Alexandria and 12.5mi/20km before the turning for the Wadi Natrun a road goes off on the right and runs northeast towards the Delta, coming in 14mi/22km to the Rosetta arm of the Nile. A short distance to the north is the Kom Abu Billo, the site of ancient Terenuthis, where remains of a temple dedicated to Hathor, "Mother of the Turquoises", and a cemetery used from the time of the sixth Dynasty to the fourth C. A.D. have been discovered. A distinctive feature of the late tombs is the occurrence of gravestones (known as Terenuthis or Kom Abu Billo stelae) on which the dead man is depicted lying on a bier with his arms raised, with demotic or Greek inscriptions.