One of the many Egyptian contributions to Christianity was the idea of going off into the wilderness to subject yourself to all manner of deprivation as a means of devoting yourself to God. Monastic life began on the coast of the Red Sea with Saint Anthony in the 4th century. Some of his earliest disciples migrated to the desert just west of the Delta and established monasteries in Wadi Natrun. At its peak in the centuries after the death of Saint Anthony, the Natrun Valley hosted 50 monasteries and more than 5,000 monks. Afterward, however, it suffered almost uninterrupted decline until the 1970s, when the monasteries began to see something of a rebirth as educated, worldly Copts started taking their vows in record numbers.
Although the modern world encroaches on Wadi Natrun's earlier isolation, the monasteries still feel remote, huddled behind the high walls the monks built a millennium ago to protect themselves from Bedouin attacks. But make no mistake: these are some very hip monks. They speak countless foreign languages, run several successful businesses that include a large fruit and vegetable farm, and are more clued in to the ways of the world than most young Cairenes. They are, as well, profoundly devout, and the monasteries maintain an air of spiritual calm no matter how many pilgrims are visiting. And when the winds sweep off the desert, rustling the tall, graceful tamarind trees that shade the sand-hue domes and smooth walls of the churches, you feel a long, long way from Cairo.