“This stunning site is of priceless archaeological value. The caves above the ground indicate there are many more underground waiting to be excavated. The tips of churches buried in the sand are all we can see—for now. Much work needs to be done for this spectacular treasure of a heritage to be uncovered. This will take years to accomplish—the site stretches across a staggering 700 feddans—but it is unthinkable that we would not do it.”
This is how Loay Mahmoud, head of the Center for Coptic Studies at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, enthused about the area that is home to the cave monastery of St Macarius the Alexandrian in Wadi al-Rayan, Fayoum, some 150km southwest of Cairo. He had gone there last Tuesday 28 October, together with a group of archaeologists, Coptologists and restorers, to visit the site following reports that a road would be built there, which might very well threaten the heritage site and caves. The heritage site, which is home to mountain caves the history of which goes back to the first AD centuries when they were home to a thriving hermit movement, is well known to the Coptic Church but is not officially registered with the Egyptian authorities as a site of antiquity. “It is of equal importance to such monastic centres as Kellia in present-day Wadi al-Natroun in the Western Desert,” Dr Mahmoud said.
Building a road
The group of archaeologists last Tuesday went to see for themselves the heritage site and assess its need for protection and how much hazard a nearby road would pose. Dr Mahmoud told Watani they will be handing a documented report on their findings to the Minister of State for Antquities Mamdouh al-Damati who should then declare the area a site of antiquity, which would place it under protection of the law.
The story goes back to last September when the Ministry of Transportation announced plans to build a new road to link the oases in the Western Desert to the Upper Egypt highway. The new road would cross the natural park of Wadi al-Rayan in Fayoum and the monastery of St Macarius, known as al-Deir al-Manhout, the Carved Monastery. The monks claimed the road would effectively divide the monastery in half, and vociferously called upon President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi and Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab to intervene in order to preserve the monastery.
The man who speaks on behalf of the monks and who goes by the name of Daoud al-Rayani insisted that there were alternative routes which the road could follow; he said the monastery provided the relevant authorities with proposals of two alternative routes that are shorter and can be less costly.
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 al-Hitan is famous for the hundreds of fossils of the earliest forms of whales.
Minister of State for Environmental Affairs Khaled Fahmy told Watani that the decision to build a new road in Wadi al-Rayan natural park had no sectarian undertones.
“The ministry is rather worried about the environmental damage that the new road might cause,” Mr Fahmy said. “Unfortunately, though, the natural park is already highly damaged. The human activity that has been illegally ongoing in the absence of law enforcement following the Arab Spring in 2011 has taken its toll on the park. Crops that are originally cultivated in Upper Egypt and which should never have been planted in Wadi al-Rayan have caused much damage to the fragile ecosystem. Much of the wildlife has been destroyed. We have repeatedly warned of environmental degradation.”
The Minister said that the General Authority for Roads, Bridges, and Land Transport had studied other route alternatives away from the natural park; these were eventually rejected for non-compliance with engineering standards. The decision was thus made to pave the road inside the natural park despite the high financial cost due to the area’s rough terrain. “The regulations for any natural park usually include areas where human activity is allowed and others where it is banned. The first priority is public interest.”
Dr Fahmy denied the monks’ allegations that the road would divide the monastery in half and fragment it after it had been a single unit enclosed within a wall. “These claims are a gross exaggeration,” he said. “The monastery will not be touched; the churches, the sanctuaries, cells and guest house will remain intact. The road will cross the agricultural land adjacent to the monastery. This land belongs to the State not to the monastery in accordance with the agreement signed between the State and the Coptic Church in 2012.”
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. The Coptologist and lecturer at the Institute of Coptic Studies, Atef Awad, says that the monastery of St Macarius the Alexandrian in Wadi al-Rayan was described by German Coptologist Otto Meinardus in his book Christian Egypt Ancient and Modern, The Caves of Wadi al-Rayan. Meinardus describes in detail his visit on 26 January 1960 and the monks who used to live there at the time, notably Fr Matta al-Meskeen (1919 – 2006) who lived to be one of the greatest figures of contemporary thought and monasticism in the Coptic Orthodox Church. Meinardus recounts seeing a number of caves and monk cells carved in the mountain, and old paintings and inscriptions on the plastered cave walls. He describes the great cave of St Macarius of Alexandria—a contemporary of St Macarius the Great—dating from the 4th century, in which he used to spend the period of Lent. Meinardus also describes the tombs of the monks at the end of the hill near the area which is today cultivated.
The renowned Egyptologist Ahmed Fakhry wrote in the Annals of the Antiquities Authority, volume 46 of 1947, that Wadi al-Rayan was populated for a long time in history, and that the caves are carved in the mountain in the same style as those of Cappadocia in Turkey. Much valuable information was also included about this area in the PhD dissertation of Anba Abra’am, Bishop of Fayoum.
Centuries-long monastic movement
Monasticism continued for centuries in the Wadi al-Rayan area. The site, including the St Macarius monastery, featured in the biography of St Michael I, the 46th pope (744-767), then later in writings by the 12th century historian Abul-Makarem.
In the Description de l’Egypte, the series of publications issued by the French scholars who accompanied Napoleon’s military campaign in Egypt in 1798, the location of a monastery called Deir al-Zakawa—another name common to the St Macarius monastery—in Wadi al-Rayan is included among 34 other monasteries in the site. In his book, La Géographie de l’Egypte à l’Epoque Copte (The Geography of Egypt in the Coptic Era), Emile Amélineau wrote that St Samuel the Confessor spent some time in this monastery before relocating in Naqlun.
One of the most beautiful caves in the area is cave number 4 carved in the northern side of al-Munqar mountain. The inscriptions on the walls of the caves are mainly Coptic texts including names of saints, priests and deacons who lived in the caves. A date is written on an icon of a saint indicating the first days of the first month of year 1168AD (884 on the Coptic calendar of the Martyrs). Much archaeological evidence indicate that the area includes many more caves carved in the mountain or hidden in the ground waiting to be discovered. The modern-day monks have been discovering one ancient cave after another until the number reached 16. The cave walls carry many Coptic paintings and inscriptions. The relics of an ancient monk buried in his monastic costume was found in one of the caves.
Bishops take charge
Monasticism was reestablished at Wadi al-Rayan in 1960, Dr Awad says, at the hands of Fr Matta al-Meskeen who was then a monk at St Samuel the Confessor’s some 30km away. The Bedouins had showed him the main cave of St Macarius the Alexandrian and other caves.
In 1969, Pope Kyrillos VI ordered the Wadi al-Rayan monks 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 al-Rayan and carried out 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 for the protection of the monks, and the Church signing a document acknowledging that the grounds were government property.
Last Sunday the Coptic Orthodox Church issued a statement relieving Fr Elisha al-Maqari of his duty regarding Wadi al-Rayan monastery, and declaring it will be placed under the joint supervision of Anba Abra’am, Bishop of Fayoum; Anba Macarius, Bishop-General of Minya; and Bishop-General Anba Ermiya.
The Church said it stands for projects that fulfil public interest, but demands that the sacred and archaeological sites in the area should be peacefully preserved including the old churches, caves and monk cells.
Last week, construction equipment was brought on standby at the site, prepared for use to start construction of the new Oases-Upper Egypt road.
Dr Awad insists that the planned route for the new road crosses the monastery and must go uphill at a very steep slope until it reaches the other side of the mountains towards the Oases road. This route is expected to demolish many of the undiscovered caves which could contain invaluable historical heritage.
When asked how could the Ministry of Antiquities be unaware that Wadi al-Rayan monastery is a site of inestimable heritage, Dr Mahmoud replied that more than two thirds of the Coptic antiquities are not registered in the ministry. Consequently, if the area is damaged, nobody will be liable because the caves are unlisted; this is a problem facing most Coptic heritage sites in Egypt.
“When Zahi Hawass was in charge of the antiquities authority before the Arab Spring uprising, the western desert road was supposed to cross the archaeological site of Abydos,” Dr Mahmoud recalls. “Dr Hawass realised the impact that the road would have on the historical site. It was then decided to change the route to turn around Abydos rather than pass through it. The State paid for the expenses of the detour to protect our ancient heritage.” Dr Mahmoud is confident that once the Minister of Antiquities is provided with all the documents that prove the great historical value of the monastery he will spare no effort to preserve it from the dangers that may threaten it.
29 October 2014