For other uses, see Natrona (disambiguation).
Its Arabic name stands for "Natron Valley"; Coptic: Ϣⲓϩⲏⲧ Šihēt "Measure of the Hearts" In Christian literature it is usually known as Scetis (or Skete; Ϣⲓϩⲏⲧ in Coptic; Σκήτις, Σκέτη in Ancient Greek) and is one of the three early Christian monastic centers located in the desert of the northwestern Nile Delta. The other two monastic centers are Nitria and Kellia. These three centers are often easily confused and sometimes referred to as a single place (such as "Nitria" or "Nitrian Desert"), but the locales are distinct, though geographically close together and with interrelated histories. Scetis, now called Wadi El Natrun, is best known today because its ancient monasteries remain in use, unlike Nitria and Kellia which have only archaeological remains.
The Nitrian Desert is sometimes used to mean the entire region where the monasteries are located. It can also more specifically refer to the immediate area around Nitria and Kellia, with the region around Wadi El Natrun then more specifically called the Scetis Desert. (In modern Greek usage, regarding monasticism the word Scetis, the transliteration of Σκήτη can also refer to an isolated monastic cell, that is not part of a convent, whereas Kellia (Κελλία (sing. Κελλίον from Latin 'cella') is a monastic cell within a convent.)
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 century A.D., hundreds of thousands of people from the world over joined the hundreds of Christian monasteries in the Nitrian Desert, centered on Nitria, Kellia and Scetis (Wadi El Natrun).
Saint Macarius of Egypt first came to Scetis (Wadi El Natrun) around 330 AD where he established a solitary monastic site. His reputation attracted a loose band of anchorites, hermits and monks who settled nearby in individual cells. Many of them 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. By the end of the fourth century, four distinct communities had developed: Baramus, Macarius, Bishoi and John Kolobos. At first these communities were groupings of cells centered on a communal church and facilities, but enclosed walls and watchtowers developed over time and in response to raids from desert nomads. Nitria, Kellia, and Scellis also experienced internal fractures related to doctrinal disputes in Egypt. The monasteries flourished during the Muslim conquest of Egypt (639-42), but in the eighth and ninth centuries taxation and administration concerns led to conflicts with the Muslim government. Nitria and Kellia were eventually abandoned in the 7th and 9th centuries respectively, but Scetis continued throughout the Medieval period. Although some of the individual monasteries were eventually abandoned or destroyed, four have remained in use to the present day:
The Egyptian Salt and Soda Company Railway was built at the end of the 19th century as a 33 miles (54 km) long narrow gauge railway with a gauge of 750 mm, which attracted the first tourists to the wadi.
Some of the most renowned saints of the region include the various Desert Fathers, including Saint Amun, Saint Arsenius, Saint John the Dwarf, 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.
The environs of Wadi Natrun have been identified as the likely site of 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 is thought to have inspired his masterpiece, "The Little Prince".
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