Desert Fathers

Coptic monastery in Egypt remains faithful to tradition while opening to the modern world

text and photographs by Sean Sprague

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Along a billboard-flanked highway two hours northwest of the smog of Cairo, a group of pilgrims steps out of a bus and into a realm safeguarding traditions dating to the earliest days of Christianity.

They have come to pray at one of the living centers of their deep-rooted Coptic faith. Deir Al Sourian is one of four ancient monasteries in Wadi Natrun, a valley in Egypt’s Western Desert.

Founded by disciples of Egyptian Christianity’s first saints, the monastery is today home to 145 monks. Many live as hermits, but the community strives to maintain a balance between nurturing the spiritual lives of its monks and sustaining modern Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Church. The strictures and piety of monasticism govern the daily life of the monastery, but it also opens its doors to pilgrims and tourists who come to pray, appreciate its historical treasures and immerse themselves in the oldest traditions of the Coptic faith.

The monastery’s abbot, Father Mattaos, is eager to protect the monastery as a sanctuary for spirituality, but also recognizes its role in serving Egypt’s Copts, who number between 6 million and 10 million.

“I became a monk out of love for our Lord and for the sake of our Lord only, without the distractions of the world,” said Father Mattaos, who has been a monk for 38 years and abbot since 1993.

The abbot, however, was more than happy to entertain a group of pilgrims and pose for photographs with young children. “Fridays and Sundays are holidays,” he said, “and many people visit us on their spiritual journey.”

Only a limited number of monks, however, are in contact with visitors; others remain in seclusion. The guests also do not usually stay the night. “We do not want them to become a distraction,” the abbot said.

Protected by 40-foot-high earthen walls, the monastery is said to be shaped like Noah’s Ark. The monastery’s portal opens to a courtyard with a four-story keep on one side and the seventh-century Church of the Holy Virgin on the other.

Within a short distance are chapels, a library, a shop selling icons, a water fountain, public toilets, office buildings, residences, workshops, storerooms, a kitchen, a dining room and other structures that vary in age.

Monks clad in black robes solemnly stroll about, while others greet visitors at a reception desk and organize tours of the chapels. They explain the monastery’s history, show the recently discovered frescoes and lead prayers.

Father Yehnes was leading a tour through the monastery. He was an accountant before entering monastic life 16 years ago, although he said he had considered a religious vocation since he was a child.

“I wanted to be a monk when I was very young,” he explained. “I saw St. Bishoi, the founder of the monastery, in a dream when I was a child. I first came to Wadi Natrun when I was 14 and stayed a month, then came back every year during holidays.

“A monk became my spiritual guide and advised me to experience the world before becoming a monk. I took many jobs, my last being with the Bank of America. I was very successful,” adding sheepishly, “but I did not taste sin.”

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Tags: Egypt Pilgrimage/pilgrims Monastery Coptic Orthodox Church Media