A sectarian problem might be looming on the horizon with the alleged approval by the Roads and Bridges Authority of a new road in Fayoum, some 150km southwest of Cairo. The road, which should link the south of Fayoum with the oases in the Western Desert, has been designed to go through the monastery of St Macarius in Wadi al-Rayan, so that it effectively divides the monastery into two halves. The monks have accordingly sent SOS pleas to President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi and Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab to intervene and preserve the unity of the monastery.
Father Daoud, spokesman for the monastery, told Watani that the approval was issued last month and that work is scheduled to begin right after Eid al-Adha, the Muslim feast of the sacrifice which ends next Tuesday, 7 October. Fr Daoud insists that there are alternative routes which the road can follow; he actually confirms that the monastery has provided the relevant authorities with proposals of two alternative routes that are shorter and can be less costly.
Furthermore, he says, the projected road passes through the national park of Wadi al-Rayan which includes within its boundary the UNESCO World Heritage Site Wadi al-Hitan (Valley of the Whales). The Wadi Hitan is famous the hundreds of fossils of the earliest forms of whales. How could the Ministry of the Environment, which is in charge of national parks, have approved the new road? Fr Daoud asks.
Third century caves
The St Macarius monastery in Wadi al-Rayan is the site of mountain caves that were used by Christian hermits as far back as the third century. The cave walls still carry Christian inscriptions from those times. In modern times, monks started re-inhabiting these caves in 1960 and until 1969 when they were ordered by Pope Kyrillos VI to leave and go restore and develop St Macarius Monastery in the Western Desert. In 1998, another group of monks headed by Fr Eleisha went to Wadi Rayan for a monastic revival there. Even though their relationship with the mother Coptic Orthodox Church has been bumpy, their population grew; they built a church, and cultivated a plot of land near the caves. Conflict erupted between the monks and the Environment Ministry which, in 2011, accused the monks of encroaching on the national park of Wadi al-Rayan because they built a wall to protect them from the all-too-frequent attacks by local Bedouin during the security breakup that followed the Arab Spring uprising in January 2011. The conflict was resolved in 2013 by the government sanctioning the building of the wall and the monks signing a document acknowledging that the grounds were government property.
Where does the Environment Ministry stand?
No one from the Environment Ministry or Roads Authority was available for comment owing to the official holiday in honour of Eid al-Adha. It is far-fetched that the Environment Ministry could have approved the building of the road, since the law explicitly bans building on national park lands. Watani will, however, follow up on the matter as soon as the public holiday is over next Tuesday.
4 October 2014