The Western Desert monasteries in Wadi al-Natroun that were flooded by rain water during a spell of exceptionally bad weather earlier this month are now closed to visits till they can manage to bring matters back to normal. The monasteries lie some 28 metres below sea level, in a basin lower than the nearby Cairo – Alexandria highway and the hills in the vicinity, thus suffered badly on account of the unprecedented heavy rainfall.
The area is home to four monasteries that go back to the 4th century. Three of them lie on lower ground: Anba Bishoi monastery, al-Surian’s Holy Virgin monastery, and al-Baramos. The first two are adjacent to each other; Baramos is some 10km northwest to them. The monastery of Abu-Maqar lies some 30km south of the other three and is built on higher ground, so suffered slight damages limited to the monastery’s surrounding farmland. All the monasteries have cultivated surrounding land in the desert and depend on farming and related agro-industries for livelihood.
Damage to the old churches
Even though the damages in the old churches and buildings, keeps, and old monk cells are minimal and repairable, the rains have caused extensive damage to the infrastructure, utilities, farms and livestock of the monasteries. This has brought life to a standstill till the waters are fully pumped out and the necessary repairs are done. The cost of the repairs is expected to run into millions of Egyptian Pounds.
The Ministry of Antiquities dispatched a delegation to assess the damages in the ancient or old buildings in the monasteries. The report issued declared that the dome above the nave in the old church of Surian monastery suffered extensive architectural damage, but it is a dome that has no ornamentation or decorative elements, so will not be difficult to restore. A portion of the modern wall between the Surian monastery and Anba Bishoi’s caved in. Other than that, the Ministry’s report said, Abu Maqar’s, Anba Bishoi’s, and al-Surian monasteries, walls, keeps, churches and monk cells were intact after pumping out the water. The church of the Holy Virgin at Baramos had been totally inundated; the water was 1.5m to 3m high in several spots in the monastery. The water was pumped out over some 17 hours, but the walls and floor of the church remain wet.
Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh al-Damati promised everything possible would be done to restore the old churches. Egyptologist Monica Hanna, however, told Watani that the Ministry had very limited means, so it is unlikely that it could fund the restoration. If the monasteries manage to come up with the funds through donations, she says, the Ministry can follow up and supervise the work. It is well known that the Ministry already possesses valuable expertise in that score.
Infrastructure and supplies lost
More than a week into the flooding, a large part of the grounds at Anba Bishoi’s and its surrounding farms were still inundated, and efforts to pump out the waters were ongoing. The monks say that a number of the monastery’s livestock had died, swept away and drowned under the rainwater. They also complain of losses in their fishery and beehives. They say the heavy rains were unprecedented, and that not much could have been done to avert the damages. The infrastructure of the monastery, as also in case of Surian and Baramos, has been almost completely destroyed. This includes the power, water, and drainage utilities, as well as the roads inside the monasteries and leading to them. The monasteries suffer bread and food shortages, since the bakeries were inundated and the supplies of both men and livestock drowned or were ruined by the moisture.
At Baramos, there are fears that the heavy rainfall which inundated the monastery’s farmland may cause the roots of the olive trees to rot. The olives form the basis of the main agribusiness that is the livelihood of the monks, and all efforts are now directed towards saving them. Otherwise, the water has been already pumped out of the churches and monk cells.
Saving human life
Anba Matta’os, abbot of Surian monastery, told Watani of the dreadful experience when the heavy rainwater started pouring down on the monastery from the nearby hills during the early hours of Wednesday 4 November. “All the churches in the monastery, the old and modern ones, were inundated. We focused on saving the old church which has a rich trove of frescoes that date as far back as the 7th century, but the moisture has affected the walls and floor, and caused damage to the dome atop the nave. The other churches also suffered damages, though not as serious.
“We lost our crops and supplies but, we thank God, none of our livestock. And we are entirely grateful that there has been no loss in human life. Some monks were trapped in their cells, but we made a makeshift raft boat out of wood and rowed through what had once been roads and picked up all the monks and workers. The furniture and personal belongings of the monks and workers, and the entire monastery for that matter, have however been lost.
“It was almost impossible for us to pump out the water with our primitive means, especially that we had no electricity. Thankfully, the engineering firm Orascom lost no time in sending us, and the other nearby monasteries which also faced the same fate, sophisticated equipment to pump out the waters.”
The full scale of the damages in the monasteries cannot be assessed till all the water has been pumped out. “A lot of work—and funds—will then be needed for repair and restoration,” Anba Matta’os says. “We will additionally need to build a drainage system to save the monastery from any future similar catastrophe. This time the old buildings survived the rains but, given that they are made mostly of mud brick, they may not make it through another inundation. Neither can the monastery and monks as a whole sustain another such disaster.” Dr Hanna confirmed that drains should be the first priority in repairing the damages, since the monasteries must be equipped to handle any future rains. According to one of the older monks: “I have lived here 40 years of my life. I never saw anything like that.”
Pope Tawadros II has paid a visit to the monasteries. He insisted it was not an official visit but a brotherly one of prayer and comfort, so required that he be given no ritualistic welcome. He entered the monasteries quietly, no bells chimed for him nor the usual procession and praise that welcomes a pope. He was warmly received by the abbots, monks and the lay workers. He prayed with the monks and workers in the monastery churches and talked to them. He visited the shrines and inspected the damages. “His visit was a great comfort to all of us,” Anba Matta’os told Watani.
9 November 2015