It is the southernmost monastery in Wadi al-Natrun. The monastery bears the name of its patron St.Macarius, who died in about 390. This monastery became an officialoccasional residence for the Coptic patriarchs toward the middle of the sixth century when the Byzantine authorities did not allow themto reside in Alexandria. Thirty patriarchs were chosen from among the monks of the Monastery of St. Macarius, and many patriarchsconsecrated the chrism there. Epiphanius of Jerusalem (ca. 800) speaks of “a thousand cells” dominated by a fortress at the site ofthe monastery.
The old church of St. Macarius was dedicated in latertimes to St. John the Baptist and Patriarch Benjamin I (626-665). Its12th-century paintings feature interesting scenes from the Old and New Testaments: Moses and Aaron, the sacrifice of Abraham, themeeting of Abraham and Melchizedek, the purification of Isaiah,Jacob’s dream, Job, the three Hebrews, John the Baptist holding amedallion containing “the lamb,” the Annunciation to Zachariah, theAnnunciation, the Nativity, Christ and Nathanael, Christ flanked bythe Apostles and evangelists, the Resurrection, the Ascension, the Twenty-four Elders of the Apocalypse, and many saints as well.
Themonastery’s keep or tower is one of the best preserved of its kind inEgypt. It dates from the 13th century and contains a number of chapels and a church. Some of the chapels are decorated with the figuresof famous Coptic saints such as Sts. Antony, Paul of Thebes, andPachomius. By the middle of the 14th century, the monastery began to decline because of the Black Death, the Mamluk persecution, andthe impoverishment of the Coptic Church.
The monastery’s librarypossessed valuable manuscripts for the Coptic literature and liturgy, of which the vast majority were removed to Europe. Beginningin 1969 the monastery witnessed a “renaissance” when Father Matta al-Miskin and his disciples started to revive monastic life there. See also MONASTICISM, EGYPTIAN.