Thinking of Egypt and history brings to mind pyramids, tombs, gods, goddesses and ancient kings and queens. But on a G Adventures tour, I also visit St Bishoy Monastery. The Coptic Christian monastery was founded in the fourth century. The current complex dates to the ninth century.
St. Bishoy is the most eastern monastery in the Wadi El-Natrun. The desert is located about 55 miles northwest of Cairo.
The largest Christian community in the Middle East, Coptic Christians makes up the majority of Egypt’s roughly 9 million Christians. About 3 million more Coptic Christians are spread across Africa, Europe, the United Kingdom and the United States, according to the World Council of Churches.
The Coptic Orthodox Church split away from the broader Christian community in 451 A.D. due, in part, to differing beliefs about the nature of Jesus Christ. Coptic Christians trace their founding to the apostle Mark. Tradition holds that Mark brought Christianity to Egypt and founded the Coptic Church during the first century.
When our bus rolls up and the 14 of us claimer out, the sun is high in the sky and the desert is hot. We are greeted by a monk in a long black hooded robe who asks us to remove our shoes and follow him into a sanctuary.
The interior of the monastery is surprisingly much cooler. Along with another tour group from France, we listen as he elaborates on the church’s theology, its honored men and the property we are about to tour.
He tells us St. Bishoy made his home on the site of the present monastery and became a spiritual father to the monks who gathered around him. When the monasteries of Wadi al-Natrun was attached by the Berbers in 407, St. Bishoy took refuge in Antinopolis, where he later died.
His body was returned to the monastery in the eleventh century and is now in the church that bears his name. In the fifth century the Emperor Zenon built a fortress around the monastery to protect the monks from further attack.
Touring the Monastery
We follow the monk out of the building and into a courtyard. Like the desert, buildings are the color of sand, bougainvillea drapes itself over fences and buildings, and trees with beautiful yellow flowers shade us as we wait for the entire group to gather.
We follow him into a large room recently dedicated to the Pope Shenouda the 3rd of the Egyptian Coptic Church. He passed away 2012 and his body is laid to rest in the monastery. We are surrounded by the Pope’s clothing and other personal possessions.
Again outside, our guide says there are several monasteries in the desert valley as we slowly walk behind him. He explains there are five churches in the monastery and three haykals (sanctuaries). Then he points above our heads at a drawbridge. We are invited to climb up a series of stairs cut into the building to the drawbridge — the original from the thirteenth century — and cross it into a long hallway with access to the Church of the Angel Michael on the second level.
From here we climb even higher to the roof top where we have a great view of the complex and the valley beyond.
Although I do not agree with their theology, I found the entire experience interesting; a different perspective on Egyptian history.
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