If only by virtue of its accessibility, Deir Anba Bishoi has become the busiest monastery in Wadi Natrun, but it remains one of the most charming. The monastery dates from the 4th century, as does its oldest church (one of five), which was built with domes and irregular stone-and-silt-mortar walls covered in smooth sand-hue plaster. The interior consists of a high triple-vaulted main hall. Tiny apertures pierce the ceiling, admitting streams of brilliant sunlight that catch the plumes of incense that fill the air. To the left, through a spectacular 14th-century door, is the haykal (sanctuary), where contemporary frescoes depict John the Baptist, Saint Mark, and the 12 apostles, along with early monastic fathers. The carved wooden door (hidden behind a velvet curtain) was donated in the 7th century by the last Byzantine pope, just before the Arab invasion marked the emergence of Islam in Egypt. The coffin is that of Saint Bishoi.
Elsewhere in the monastery, there is a workable
(though unused) grain mill that looks every bit as old as the church itself. The monks live in cells known as lauras, and a cell is exactly what they are: small boxes with a single window and few comforts. Near the entrance gate is the keep, a defensive tower with a drawbridge into which the monks could retreat in the event of attack. The Coptic Pope Shenouda III maintains a residence within the monastery, but it is not open to the public.
If you exit the grounds by a small door in the back wall, you will see the rolling fields of farmland that the monks reclaimed from the desert and now use to grow dates, grapes, olives, and vegetables for sale in markets throughout the country. If that's not worldly enough, the monks even have their own gas station and car-repair shop. They employ impoverished Egyptians, mostly from the Upper Nile Valley, and teach them skills for use when they return to their home villages.