Introducing Wadi Natrun
Wadi Natrun, about 100km northwest of Cairo, is known for its Coptic monasteries where thousands of Christians escaped from Roman persecution in the 4th century. Of the 60 or so original compounds in the valley, only four remain. These monastery buildings are impressive, as they were fortified after Arab raids in 817, but the art inside is not as striking as at the Monastery of St Anthony in the Eastern Desert. Your experience will largely depend on when you visit – most days are quiet, but visitors mob the churches on Christian and public holidays, yielding a glimpse into contemporary Coptic traditions. The monastic tradition is thriving, and the Coptic pope is still chosen from the Wadi Natrun monks.
The area was also important to the ancient Egyptians because the valley’s salt lakes dry up in the summer and leave natron, a substance crucial to the mummification process. Today, natron is used on a larger scale by the chemical industry.
Wadi Natrun lies on the desert side of the eight-lane Cairo–Alexandria Desert Hwy, which roughly separates the green fields of the Delta and the harsh sands of the Western Desert, though the area is now dotted with farms and new satellite towns.