Wadi El Natrun is a depression in northern Egypt located 23 m (75 ft) below sea level and 38 m (125 ft) below the Nile River level. The valley contains several alkaline lakes, natron-rich salt deposits, salt marshes and freshwater marshes.
In Christian literature, it is usually known as Scetis (Σκήτις in Hellenistic Greek) or Skete (Σκήτη, plural Σκήτες in ecclesiastical Greek). It is one of the three early Christian monastic centres in the Nitrian Desert of the northwestern Nile Delta. The other two monastic centres are Nitria and Kellia. Scetis, now called Wadi El Natrun, is best known today because its ancient monasteries remained in use. Unlike, Nitria and Kellia, which have only archaeological remains. The desertified valley around Scetis, in particular, may be called the Desert of Scetis.
The area is one of the best-known sites, containing large numbers of fossils of large prehistoric animals in Egypt. Also, for this reason, ancient discovered the place in the first century AD and probably much earlier.
Wadi al-Natrun is the common name for a desert valley west of the Nile Delta, along the El Tahrir markaz. This valley exists about 10 km west of the entrance to Sadat City on the Cairo-Alexandria Desert Road and about 50 km from Khattabah on the Nile, Rashid Branch.
The depression is the smallest in the Egyptian Western Desert, about 500 km2. It falls below the level of the plateau surface surrounding it by about 50 meters. The length of this depression ranges between 5, 55 and 60 km, while its average width is 10 km, and its deepest point reaches 24 meters below sea level. It has no source, estuary or tributaries, so the launch of the word “Wadi” during the depression is not topographically correct. Therefore, it is true that it is a depression, not a valley because the region is a closed depression with a beginning and an end.
The Wadi contains 12 lakes, the total surface area of which is 10 km square and their average depth is only 2 m. The colour of these lakes is reddish-blue because the Natron salt saturates the water.
Natron valley is first attested in the story of the Eloquent Peasant, and ancient Egyptians mentioned it among the list of seven oases in the Temple of Edfu. In Ptolemaic times it constituted part of the Nitrite nome (Ancient Greek: Νιτριώτης νομός). Also, Copts called it Mountain of Salt (Coptic: ⲡⲧⲱⲟⲩ ⲙⲡϩⲙⲟⲩ).
The importance of the Natrun valley dates back to the Pharaonic era, as the ancient Egyptians and the Libyans fought many battles. Furthermore, this ended up with the Egyptians overcoming them and annexing the eastern side of the desert, which still belongs to Egypt. Then, Wadi al-Natrun became an administrative part of the country in the Pharaonic era. However, there is no information about its history during its reign. The latest writings on the wars between the libu and the Egyptians indicated that the last one was in 1170 BC during the reign of Ramesses III.
As for the religious significance of Wadi al-Natrun, many discoveries indicated that this area was sacred as early as the year 2000 BC, at the very least. Among these discoveries is a bust of black granite dating back to the Seventeenth Dynasty of the Pharaohs. There is also a granite gate and stones from the lintel of a door-bearing cartridge for King Amenemhat I in a place called the backbone.
The alkali lakes of the Natron Valley provided the Ancient Egyptians with the sodium bicarbonate used in mummification and Egyptian faience. Later, the Romans used it to extract a flux for glass making.
The authority launched the Egyptian Salt and Soda Company Railway at the end of the 19th century. It is a 33 miles (54 km) long narrow gauge railway with 750 mm. Consequently, it attracted the first tourists to the valley.
The desolate region became one of Christianity’s most sacred areas. The desert fathers and cenobitic monastic communities used the desert’s solitude and privations to develop self-discipline: asceticism. Hermit monks believed that desert life would teach them to eschew the things of this world and follow God’s call. Between the 4th and 7th centuries AD, thousands of people worldwide joined the Christian monasteries in the Nitrian Desert. Thes monasteries were centred on Nitria, Kellia and Scetis, and Wadi El Natrun.
Saint Macarius of Egypt first came to Scetis, Wadi El Natrun, around 330 AD, establishing a solitary monastic site. His reputation attracted a loose band of anchorites, hermits and monks who settled nearby in individual cells. Many came from nearby Nitria and Kellia, where they had previous experience in solitary desert living; thus, the earliest cenobitic communities were a loose consolidation of like-minded monks.
Monasteries of Wadi El Natrun
By the end of the fourth century, four distinct communities had developed: Paramus, Macarius, Bishoi and John Kolobos. At first, these communities were cells centred on a communal church and facilities. However, enclosed walls and watchtowers developed over time in response to raids from desert nomads. Nitria, Kellia, and Scellis also experienced internal fractures related to doctrinal disputes in Egypt. At its peak, the place contained 700 monasteries. The monasteries flourished during the Muslim conquest of Egypt (639–642). However, in the eighth and ninth centuries, taxation and administration concerns conflicted with the Muslim government. Eventually, Egyptians abandoned Nitria and Kellia in the 7th and 9th centuries. Nevertheless, Scetis continued throughout the Medieval period. Although some of the individual monasteries were ultimately abandoned or destroyed, four have remained in use to the present day:
Some of the most renowned saints of the region include the various Desert Fathers, including Saint Amun, Saint Arsenius, Saint Isidore of Scété, Saint John the Dwarf, and Saint Macarius of Egypt, Saint Macarius of Alexandria, Saint Moses the Black, Saint Pishoy, Sts. Maximos and Domatios, Saint Poimen The Great and Saint Samuel the Confessor. To this day, Wadi El Natrun remains the most important centre of Coptic monasticism.
Saint-Exupéry’s plane crash
Historians identified the environs of Wadi Natrun as the likely site where the plane of French aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry crashed on December 30, 1935. After miraculously surviving the crash, he and his plane’s mechanic nearly died of thirst before being rescued by a nomad. Saint-Exupéry documented his experience in his book Wind, Sand and Stars. The event has inspired his most famous work, The Little Prince.