It is the most significant monastic center in Egypt. Wadi al-Natrun is a desert depression extending about 50 kilometers long that runs southeast to northwest and lies in the Libyan Desert about 90 kilometers northwest of Cairo. The site has been known by many names: Scetis, Shiet, Shihat al-Isqit, and Wadi Habib. About 330 St. Macarius withdrew into that secluded region and followers settled around him. Within a few decades the region had been populated with hundreds of hermits, who were living in clusters around places where central facilities were available, such as a church and a refectory.
Monks lived alone in independent cells and met on Saturdays and Sundays to celebrate mass and to take part in a common meal (agape). By the end of the fourth century, four monastic settlements existed in Wadi al-Natrun. They were the origin of the four monasteries of St. Macarius, St. Pshoi, St. John the Little, and Old Baramus. The Monasteries of St. Pshoi and of St. Macarius still exist. Remains of the monasteries of St. John the Little and of Old Baramus were recently discovered. In 407, 434, 444, and about 817, desert nomads sacked the monasteries of Wadi al-Natrun.
Therefore, the monks built towers to live in and fortified their monasteries with walls. Thus, monastic life appeared to be more communal by the 14th century. The theological controversy between Severus, Bishop of Antioch and Julian, Bishop of Halicarnasus (?-518) on the corruptibility or incorruptibility of Christ before the Resurrection affected the monastic settlements of Scetis. The adherents of Bishop Severus established other monasteries: the present Monastery of al-Baramous, the Monastery of the Virgin of Anba Bishoi, which is known later as the Monastery of the Syrians, and a counterpart of the Monastery of John the Little that survived perhaps to the early 15th century. John of Petra, who probably had to flee from Scetis at the fourth sack around 570, tells us that 3,500 monks lived there around 550.
The number of monks began to decline because of the poll tax, which was imposed on them after 705. According to the historian al-Maqrizi (1346-1442), only a few monks lived in the great Monastery of St. Macarius at that time. Many foreigners from almost the entire Mediterranean world spent a period of time in Scetis. In medieval times, Syrian, Armenian, and Ethiopian monks, and Franciscans lived there and endowed Scetis with a multi-ethnic character. Beginning in the eighth century the majority of the Coptic patriarchs and many bishops were chosen from among the monks of Wadi al-Natrun.
Since the 1960s, these monasteries, which were nearly abandoned in the first half of the 20th century, have witnessed a considerable revival. The majority of the monks currently have received a degree in higher education. The monasteries of Wadi al-Natrun represent an important source for the history of the Coptic Church, and for Coptic literature, art, and architecture as well.