Al-Sourian Monastery between the past and the present
It is one of the four current monasteries at Wadi El Natrun in Egypt’s western desert. It is fourteen Kilometers away from the Rest House that is located in the Cairo- Alexandria Desert Road. The monastery is only a few meters away from the Monastery of St. Bishoy.
The monastery’s establishment and history:
This monastery was founded in the fifth century AD, and was at first named “The Virgin Mary and St. Bishoy”, at that time some monasteries had a dual names. This was during the debate period, relating to the issue of the Theotokos - i.e., the Mother of God. The monks insisted on honoring her as the mother of God, hence, beside each monastery they established a church and cells in the "Virgin Mary, The Mother of God". This is why this monastery was named "The Virgin Mary and Saint Bishoy’s Monastery.”
Later, in the late eighteenth century some Syrian Monks joined the monastery. Egyptian Monasteries were known for welcoming monks from all over the world, especially since Egypt is the main/original source of monasticism. The Syrian monks remained at the Monastery until the sixteenth century and therefore the monastery was named:"St. Mary’s Monastery El Sourian”.
Some monasteries that are close by to El Sourian monastery in Wadi El Natrun area (such as St. Yehnis Kame’s Monastery) were ruined in the fourteenth century. Hence, this forced the monks of that monastery,(which was 3 kilometers southeast of El Sourian Monastery), to migrate to El Sourian Monastery. Along with them they brought the relics of St. Yehnis Kame.
The Syrian monks remained with the Coptic monks in monastery until the seventeenth century, until all the monks residing there became Copts, after which the monastery was finally named:
“ The Monastery of the Virgin Mary and Anba Yehnis Kame- El Sourian” and in brief it is called El Sourian Monastery.
The Monastery’s landmarks:
The Door and fences:
The main door is in the northern side of the monastery and the walls of the monastery are one of the highest walls amongst all the desert monasteries. The door’s length is three times its width, exactly as the dimensions of Noah's Ark. This door dates back to the nineteenth century and its thickness ranges from 2-3 meters.
The fort was created in the middle of the ninth century AD, and is considered the highest fort in Wadi El Natrun monasteries. It is a four-storey building, which was unusual (the usual was three stories). Its door opens in the second floor and is reached via a wooden bridge, which is based from one end of the fort door and attached to another end in the opposite building. It also has stairs which are raised when necessary, via iron chains.
The remains that are located in the Monastery’s churches:
- In the first tube are the remains His Grace Bishop Yehnes the Great.
- The second tube has remains of the following Saints:
- St. Mar Ephraim the Syrian
- St. Moses the Great
- St. James
- St. Kyriakos and his mother Julith
- St. Dioscorus Pope of Alexandria
- St. Yehnes the short
- St. Sawiris of Antioch
- Saint Tadros Mashreqi
- The forty martyr of Sabastia
- Mary Magdalene’s hair
The Monastery in the middle of the twentieth century
Bishop Thaofilos became the monastery’s Abbot in year 1947 and this blessed bishop played a significant role not only in the first reconstruction activities at the monastery, (Which was the first of its kind), but has also presented a generation of highly qualified intellectuals monks. One of those monks was the late Pope Shenouda III. Bishop Thaoufilos’ love for monasticism was the reason behind the growth and progress of his monastery. Among his achievements were the following:
1 – Construction of new cells in the archaeological monastery. It was a building made up of four-stories, and later five stories. This was the first time that such a model was built at the monastery.
2 – A library consisting of thousands of references and dictionaries and manuscripts, both in Arabic and foreign languages. This library is considered one of the oldest libraries in Wadi El Natrun monasteries. The library also embraces a group of Coptic, Arabic and Syrian manuscripts.
3 - Among the constructions achievements of the departed Bishop Thaofilos was the monastery’s museum located at the bottom of the library at the palace building.
4 – El Sourian Monastery was the first monastery that established a retreat house, and this was under the reign of Bishop Thaofilos.
The Monastery Nowadays
The monastery went through a monastic and architectural revival through the talents of the late Pope Shenouda III, under the leadership of His Grace Bishop Mettaous, who became in charge in 06/06/1993. Cells were built in the Sourian Monastery’s garden and more were scattered throughout.
Some of the recent works at the Monastery include:
1 – Cells Building: Three buildings were built in the Monastery’s garden; each building is a three-storey building containing 36 cells
2 – The solitude Cells and caves: after an absence of up to ten centuries and after cells were only built within fenced areas, in the nineteenth century, His Holiness Pope Shenouda allowed those who were seeking solitude to build cells in the desert behind the monastery, towards the southern and western sides. Also, his holiness has allowed others to live in caves to practice true monasticism and live a life of solitude.
3 – His Grace Bishop Mettaous built a guest hosting building that consists of two floors. This building is used in order to welcome visitors from the monks’ families and visitors seeking blessings.
4 – In order for expansion, HG Bishop Mettaous arranged for land reclamation and cultivation for vast areas of lands. In addition, he himself planted the first trees, vegetables, and fruits that are currently used to fulfill the monastery’s needs.
5 – A building was built for consecrated priests with a church for prayer.
6 - A library was allocated for the manuscripts of the monastery, to ensure heritage preservation, and to restore the effects caused throughout the years.
7 – New churches were built in the monastery’s garden for liturgies and prayers, namely:
- - Saint Paul’s Church
- - Saint Anthony’s Church
- - St. Mettaous El Fakhoury’s Church
- - St. Abi Siefen’s Church
8 – Many remains of saints were brought into the monastery, those include:
- The remains of the Martyr Abu Siefen
- The remains of the martyr Abu Fam Alausamy
- The Martyr Abanounb
- Saint Rebecca and her children
- Saint Bashnona El Makary
- Saint Mettaous El Fakhoury
- Bishop Saint Thomas
- Saint Abba Sarabamoun Abu Tarha
9 – An external fence to the monastery was built and joined to the monastery’s main gate
10 – A new Cathedral for the Virgin Mary was built outside the archaeological monastery and attached to a Baptistery.
11 – A fish farm was established to cover the monastery needs.
12 - A mechanic workshop was established for agricultural machinery services.
With the blessing of our Lord Jesus Christ, the prayers of the Virgin Mary and the saints of the monastery, and through the attention and follow-up of HG Bishop Mettaous- the monastery’s Abbot, an ancient portrait of the Theotokos was discovered under the picture of the Departure of the Virgin Mary in the first choral at El Sourian church. This portrait dates back to the tenth century AD.