Eleusis and Wadi Natrun

Colour: emerald green

Mnemonic: ZANTUC

Original information and clues: Eleusis, Egypt.

The location of a place called Eleusis in the Nile Delta came from a book of world mysteries by Frances Hitching (Hitching, 1978). It related to the work of Xavier Guichard who, in 1911, had been researching the origins of ancient European place names. He suggested a link between prehistoric sites based on the word Alesia and its derivations, including Alaise in France and Eleusis on the Egyptian coast. For those who are interested, further information about Xavier Guichard’s work can be found on this website at: Alaise and Creux Billard.

Oracle centres of the classical world and sites named Eleusis

In the same book of world mysteries, another writer, called Robert Temple, traced the sacred oracle centres of the Classical world and found they lay on equally spaced bands of latitude that covered the entire Mediterranean and Near East. The map also showed three locations for Eleusis; one in the Nile delta, one on an island in the Aegean; and the other southwest of Athens in Ancient Greece. Hitching believed the secrets of these ancient oracles formed part of what were known as the ‘Eleusinian Mysteries’ and ‘Eleusis’ became ‘Alaise’ in Europe and a ‘ley’ in Britain; with these near identical words describing alignments and links between ancient sites. Just two single sentences and one small map in the whole of Hitching’s book mentioned Eleusis. The map suggested the Eleusis in the Nile Delta was located near present day Alexandria; but there was nothing more. It seemed strange that such a seemingly casual reference should have been made at all; and if it was important, why hadn’t Hitching included more information? There were so many more questions than answers. What and where exactly was Eleusis and what had happened there? Were there any legends of dragons, serpents or snakes related to these sites; and lastly, were there any references to underground tunnels, which would point to the presence of a major energy centre? 

Later research and insights:

These questions were all eventually answered when I travelled to Alexandria in 2012; in the meantime, snippets and clues surfaced as internet searches provided increasingly valuable sources of information. One evening I happened to see part of a TV program by Dan Cruickshank called ‘Lost Treasures of the Ancient World’, when he descended into an underground chamber, beneath Alexandria, to see a temple with serpent guardians carved on either side of the entrance. I had missed the bit where he named the place he was exploring, but the image of those two snakes were immediately etched in my memory. There was no question this underground temple would be an important clue and I hastily scribbled down a note that went into my ‘Eleusis’ folder; to be pulled out again a few years later when planning my trip to Egypt.

It seemed there were differing ideas of how, when and where Eleusis first came into existence; with some historians suggesting the cult of Eleusis originated in Greece and was then taken to Egypt. This would explain the many references found online to Eleusis and the ‘Eleusinian Mysteries’, but always in connection with a place in Ancient Greece south-west of Athens. But other than Francis Hitching’s book, there was no mention anywhere of an Eleusis in Egypt. Then, during my stay in Alexandria, another source (www.uncletaz.com/great_initiates/chapter_37.html) surfaced, which suggested the Eleusis in Greece was in fact an early colony established by travellers from Egypt, possibly during the 3rd millennium BC. In a quiet bay in southern Greece, which they named Eleusis, they created a centre of worship for the cult of the great Isis, that focused on the fertility of the land and abundant harvests. Over time, the cult evolved and the Egyptian goddess Isis became the Greek goddess Demeter, so that by the time Alexander conquered Egypt, the ‘Eleusinian mysteries’ were an established and popular festival in the ancient Greek calendar.  

The name ‘Eleusinian mysteries’ is based on two Greek words: Eleusis, meaning arrival; and tó mystírion, meaning secrecy. It seems there were both public and secret parts to this festival; and initiates were strictly forbidden to talk about the secret rites, under penalty of death. Historians believe they relate to a myth concerning Demeter and her daughter Persephone, recounted in Homer’s ‘Hymn to Demeter’, composed around 650 BC (Foley, 1994). It tells of how Hades, lord of the underworld, abducted the goddess Persephone; and how her grieving mother Demeter forced Zeus to allow Persephone to return to her for part of each year. When Persephone is confined to Hades, the earth is cold and nothing grows; but when she returns to the surface, Demeter becomes joyful and cares for the earth again. The tale symbolizes the passing of the seasons and the birth of new life in springtime; hence the Eleusinian mysteries were all about life and spiritual rebirth. 

Some scholars believe the power of the Eleusinian mysteries came from the ‘kykeon’; a ritual drink that was thought to be psychotropic. Having consumed this powerful psychoactive potion, initiates would experience revelatory mind states, with profound spiritual and intellectual ramifications. Historical evidence suggests these Eleusinian initiations were only held in two places: the original centre at Eleusis in Greece and the new, vibrant city of Alexandria (Cavendish, 1970). One scholar, called Clement of Alexandria, who lived between 150 and 215AD, recounts how he studied the Eleusinian mysteries first-hand at Eleusis in Greece. It is Clement’s description of these initiations, which provides much of our current knowledge about this cult.  However, if Clement went to Greece as a young man, this suggests that by the late 2nd century AD the cult was no longer followed in Alexandria. Perhaps the cult of Eleusis had long been replaced by the cult of Serapis? No one knows.

In an effort to find additional clues about the actual location of Eleusis, I decided to focus on the history of Alexandria. One very convoluted clue hinted Eleusis was an ancient quarter of Alexandria, that by the 19th century corresponded to a village called Hadra, in the eastern part of the old city. There was also reference to a woman called Stratonice, a mistress of Ptolemy II, who had a celebrated mausoleum at Eleusis near Alexandria (www.tyndalehouse.com/egypt/ptolemies/straatonce.htm#Stratonice.1, n.d.). A third reference suggested Eleusis was either the name of a river, or a location near a canal that lead to Schedia and the Canopic, or most westerly branch of the Nile.

The Founding of Alexandria:

When Alexander the Great invaded Egypt in 332 BC, he freed the Egyptians from 200 years of Persian rule. His first act was to visit the famous oracle at the desert oasis of Siwa, where the Temple of the Oracle of Amun dates back to the 21st dynasty. The original temple at Siwa was built on top of a much earlier sacred site, said to be one of the key dragon lairs or energy vortices established by the Serpents of Wisdom, or ancient Spiritual Masters (Pinkham, 1997). Siwa was one of the most revered oracles in the ancient Mediterranean and its power was such that some rulers sought its advice, while others sent armies to destroy it. Alexander’s visit and reverence of this oracle, helped to establish him as a worthy successor to the throne of Egypt; and he became Egypt’s latest Pharaoh. 

After leaving Siwa, Alexander headed north and there he came upon a small fishing village called Rhakotis (or Râ-kedet), located between a large lake and the Mediterranean coast. Near the village was a hill covered in natural caves and tunnels, which legend tells was the home of a family of pythons, with a distinctive diamond pattern along their backs. The villagers revered the pythons and some even kept individual snakes as pets. Recognizing the spirituality and power of the place, Alexander ordered a temple to be built on the hill where the snakes lived, so the villagers had a place to worship them. According to legend, the snakes left the area after the temple was built, but for some reason, this was regarded by soothsayers of the time to be a good luck omen and a guarantor of prosperity for the new city (Empereur, 2002 (English translation)). It seems the original tunnels had been natural formations, which were later enlarged and enhanced, to become the underground tunnels of the Serapeum, the sacred hub of the new city of Alexandria.                                                

Historians and archaeologists agree Rhakotis was an established settlement before the 4th century BC and recent analysis of lake and sea sediments suggest it might even date to 1000 years BC. Some argue it was just a modest fishing village of little significance; others it was a substantial walled centre or town; and even perhaps a fortified settlement. Given the modern city of Alexandria has almost entirely buried any remains of earlier habitation, it’s impossible to tell. However, there is one area of the city that is still called Rhacotis (Rowe, 1954). It lies south of the Heptastadion, which is the causeway that links the mainland with the island of Pharos and its once famous lighthouse. 

Alexander is said to have chosen the site of his new city very carefully. He wanted to bring Egypt closer to the Greek world and establish a new sea port that would not be affected by Nile floods. Rhakotis was clearly a site favoured by the gods, located as it was on a rocky spit of land between the large inland waters of Lake Mareotis and the Mediterranean Sea.  Finally, it would be possible to build a canal to link the new city with the Canopic branch of the Nile, giving direct access to the rest of Egypt, for the movement of goods and trade. When the city was founded in 331 BC, Alexander and his architect, Dinocrates of Rhodes, already had a rough plan in mind for its layout. The gigantic scale was meant to impress and with extensive walls over 10 miles in circumference, the city’s size and ordered, wide street layout surpassed anything previously seen. Alexander left Egypt after only three months, leaving the city to be built in his absence, but he was never to return alive. He died in 323 BC, was buried in Egypt with all the funerary rites of a Pharaoh; and his body was interred in the Serapeum at Saqqara, near the ancient capital of Memphis. After Alexander’s death, his Macedonian Kingdom was divided up and Ptolemy, later crowned Ptolemy I, became the next leader of Egypt. Once Alexandria was completed, Alexander’s mummified body was exhumed and taken to its final resting place in his new city. Ptolemy knew that whoever held his body held the power of Egypt and Alexandria was now its new capital. The tomb of Alexander has never been found and its location is still a mystery; however, there is some evidence his mausoleum stood somewhere within the walls of the Serapeum (Empereur, 2002 (English translation)).

The cult of Serapis and the Serapeum:

A serapeum was any temple or religious precinct devoted to the worship of Serapis, a deity derived from the worship of the Egyptian god Osiris and the sacred Apis bull (Osiris + Apis = Oserapis or Serapis). This sacred bull deity was worshipped at Memphis between 2925 and 2775 BC, the time of Taurus the Bull and, was initially a fertility god associated with abundance and harvest. It was only later that Serapis became associated with Ptah, Osiris and Sokaris who were gods of the dead and the underworld. By 664 BC, the bull deity had come to embody the power of Egypt, so it was no surprise that Ptolemy I, when he succeeded Alexander as the new Pharaoh of Egypt, introduced the Cult of Serapis as a deliberate policy to unify the Greeks and Egyptians in his realm. The god was depicted as Greek in appearance, but with Egyptian trappings and was proclaimed the protector of Alexandria. Serapis is said to combine attributes from a great many deities that signify both abundance and resurrection, including Demeter and the benevolent Dionysus. Dionysus appears in the Cretan version of the Demeter/Persephone legend of the Eleusinian mysteries, as the son of Zeus and Persephone. He is also named Eleutherios (‘the liberator’) and his wine, music and ecstatic dance was said to free followers from self-conscious fear and care, whilst he acted as a divine communicant between the living and the dead. In Alexandria the statue of Serapis was kept in the Serapeum and regularly brought out to receive the ‘Kiss of the Sun’ i.e. to be recharged with divine energy. This was a sophisticated process requiring the use of magnets; and the resulting ‘miracle’ of movement, commanded the admiration of the faithful and contributed greatly to the deity’s popularity.

According to detailed accounts, the Serapeum at Alexandria was the largest and most magnificent of all the temples in the Greek quarter of Alexandria. In addition to an image of the god himself; the temple precinct housed an offshoot collection of the Great Library of Alexandria and became known for its school and centre of learning. In 1895, a black diorite statue of Serapis, in his Apis bull incarnation with the sun-disk between his horns, was found at the site; with an inscription that dated it to the reign of Hadrian in 76-138 AD (Empereur, 2002 (English translation)).

Having read about Alexander’s visit to the oracle at Siwa, just two weeks before my departure for Egypt, I toyed with the idea of changing my plans to include a trip to this desert oasis. By chance, my Lonely Planet Guide fell open at the page about Wadi Natrun, another desert oasis between Alexandria and Cairo. This oasis had been of great importance to the Ancient Egyptians (Matthew D. Firestone, Michael Benanav, Thomas Hall, Anthony Sattin, May 2010); as the salt lakes around the oasis produced large deposits of sodium carbonate, or Natron, which was a crucial ingredient for mummification. Today, Wadi Natrun is primarily known for its ancient Coptic Christian monasteries and, having been so nicely prompted, Wadi Natrun was added to my list of places to visit.

Following the clues on the ground: March 2012

On hearing that one of the famous colonial hotels of Alexandria, the Cecil Hotel, was built on the remains of Cleopatra’s Palace, this seemed an obvious place to stay in the city. The hotel overlooked the bustling square of Midan Saad Zaghoul. My room, on the fifth floor, was in the corner facing the square, but with a balcony overlooking La Corniche; that honking, wheezing, sluggish artery of carbon monoxide that snakes its way along the seashore of modern-day Alexandria. Sadly, much of Cleopatra’s palace was lost when devastating earthquakes caused it to fall into the sea. Subsequent centuries of successive structures have been built on top of the old ruins and nothing visible now remains.

Modern day ruins of Serapeum

Once again, the fates had been kind and my guide for the week turned out to be studying for a PhD, with a thesis on the myths and legends of Alexandria. What could be better? Our first stop was ‘Pompey’s Pillar’ and what remained of the Serapeum. The pillar stands 84 feet high on a hill and is made from red/pink granite originally floated down the Nile from Aswan. It has nothing to do with Pompey and is said to have been named as such by visiting Crusaders. The pillar was erected around 297AD by the Roman Emperor Diocletian and is believed to have come from some other building long since destroyed (Forster, 1922). The present-day surface remains of the Serapeum are contained in a small area that is bounded to the north by a large, modern Moslem cemetery and surrounded by a high wall that serves two purposes. The first is to stop the cemetery from encroaching on the ruins; and the second is to stop the site from being engulfed by rubbish thrown from nearby apartment blocks. It seems modern day Alexandrians have no compunction about chucking any and all rubbish out of windows and doors, without concern for where it lands or who will clear it up. My guide described it as ‘the curse of modern Egypt’. 

Near the main entrance, an artist’s impression of the original Serapeum, showed a large temple on a hill; entered via a water gate, up a large imposing set of steps; and surrounded on all sides by palisades. A nearby ‘Nileometer’ would have marked the height of the Nile at this point. My own research had suggested a canal was dug from the Canopic Nile to this new coastal port; but my guide insisted it was the Canopic Nile itself that had been re-routed to pass through the city. Whichever it was, visitors arriving by boat cannot fail to have been impressed by what they saw. What’s left now of the Serapeum is a sad, rubble filled hillside; still riddled by underground tunnels on many different levels, with just two that are open to the public. The rest have been blocked off because they are not safe; and even in Ptolemaic times lower levels would have flooded when Nile water levels were at their highest. The limestone base of the spit of land on which Alexandria is built would have been relatively easy to tunnel, but would have been subject to erosion by fluctuating water levels and required constant maintenance to keep the tunnels clear. The first open tunnel had small chamber-like niches along its sides, believed to be study places, with space for a person to sit with a book and possibly a candle. The second tunnel was called ‘The Sanctuary’ and led down to a basalt copy of the black diorite Apis bull found in 1895. My guide confirmed his own research showed the Serapeum is located on the site of the original settlement of Rhakotis, which provided a direct link with the presence of underground tunnels and legends of serpents.

Our second stop was the so-called ‘catacombs’ of Kom el Shoqqafa (multiple spellings exist for this location), which are just a short distance from the Serapeum. Today there are apartment blocks between the two locations, but it isn’t difficult to imagine underground tunnels linking the two sites. The name ‘Shoqqafa’ literally translates as pot shards and comes from the tableware and wine jar debris archaeologists found in the underground triclinium or banqueting hall; where grieving relatives are said to have paid their last respects with a funeral feast. My guide assured me it is an ancient custom that dishes used during funeral meals are always broken for luck. Apart from a grand colonnaded entrance and the building housing the ticket office and toilets, the main area was simply an open, concreted space; with various granite coffins dating from Greek and Roman times dotted around the perimeter. It seems these granite coffins were initially used as baths, until the owner died, when the plughole was blocked up.

Map of oldest tomb level at Kom el-Shoqqafa  (Matthew D. Firestone, Michael Benanav, Thomas Hall, Anthony Sattin, May 2010)

The site was originally discovered around 1900, when a donkey accidently fell down a hole in the ground; but anecdotal evidence suggests looters had been removing bones and valuables over a long period of time, so its presence was definitely known about long before then. There are three levels of tombs and chambers cut into bedrock to a depth of 35m; with the bottom tier flooded and inaccessible. The entrance shaft was in the far right-hand corner of the open, concreted area, with 100 shallow, stone steps spiraling down anti-clockwise into the Rotunda. The Rotunda was probably open to the sky, but now has a clear cover over it to let light through, whilst keeping out the rain. Bodies would have been winched down the entrance shaft, before being manhandled through the passageways of the Rotunda to their final resting place. Note: it was forbidden to take photographs inside the ‘catacombs’, so all the pictures you see here come from postcards and books. The earliest and most spectacular tomb is down on level three, just above the current water level; and regular maintenance is required to stop it from flooding. On each level there are a number of small tombs and niches, called Loculi, but many of these are believed to be later additions, when the catacombs were extended to cater for a further three hundred plus corpses. Whilst there is nothing to suggest some of the Loculi weren’t used multiple times, as the demand for burial spaces increased; it is clear this location was only used by wealthy Alexandrian nobles and their families; it was not for ‘common’ burials.

Gallery of Loculi (Empereur, 2002 (English translation))

On level three of the Rotunda, steps led down to where the oldest tomb was located. What looked like a ceremonial passageway came up from below, in front of the tomb entrance and directly on an energy line. This line followed the route a body would have been taken through the tunnels, from the entrance shaft to the Rotunda and beyond. Two pillars blocked the view of the old tomb and the area was occupied by a small group of voluble French tourists, so we turned left to explore the galleries of Loculi, which surround the tomb on three sides. As we walked around the back of this old tomb, I became aware of the strength of the energy line flowing through and there was a surge of energy across my back as we walked over it. In the time it took us to complete the circuit, the other tourists had left and we had the place to ourselves. It was at this point, with the energy line still flowing through my back and a clear view of the tomb in front of me, that I realized this was the underground chamber Dan Cruickshank had been exploring on his television program. Just beyond the pillars in a sort of ‘vestibule’ area, two figures were placed either side in cells hollowed in the rock; and called ‘Statues of Roman Nobles’ on the map. The statue on the right was that of a Roman soldier, but with his arms by his sides and left foot forward in the Pharaonic style of walking into the next world. Whilst that to the left was of a naked woman with her right foot forward, providing a mirror image of the man. As I stood there, with one energy flow going straight through me from back to front, I became aware of another, softer energy line flowing between the two statues from right to left; with the two lines crossing in the middle of the entrance way. It felt as if every cell in my body was humming. On the walls either side of the tomb entrance were carved the spectacular two serpents Dan Cruickshank had pointed out. The moment I saw these images, I felt an immediate connection and a tantalizing shiver of energy bounced across my back, increasing the general energy flow I was already feeling. The carved serpents are said to be images of the popular Alexandrian deity Agathos Daimon, or the good genius; and are a reminder of the link between snakes and the city’s prosperity. 

Entrance to the old tomb, with two snake guardians (Hasisha)  
Carving of Agathos Diamon

Passing through the entrance of the tomb, the energy continued to flow as I turned round to see two more figures carved on the reverse side of the two serpents. The figure on the right was that of a Roman soldier; whilst that on the left was of Anubis, the Egyptian god of the dead; but dressed as a Roman legionary with a coiled serpent from his waist down representing Agathos Daimon. At all times, from first entering the spiral staircase, through the Rotunda and now standing in this old tomb, I had continually made sure to ask permission to enter each space, just to ensure everything was OK. Each time the answer had been ‘yes, yes, yes’; and each time there was a distinctly welcoming feeling. The energy flow was strong but there was no harshness and I found myself both laughing and smiling as I walked through; I couldn’t help it. It was clear the guardians of this space were very pleased to see me and I couldn’t help returning their greetings and saying ‘thank you’ – it was a wonderful exchange. My guide had clearly noticed, because he asked me the reason for my smiles and laughter. After describing what was going on and what I was experiencing he smiled back and nodded. Perhaps he too was feeling the energy flow, although he never mentioned it.

Main sarcophagus with Greek/Egyptian practices (Empereur, 2002 (English translation))

Within the old tomb were spaces for three sarcophagi. It is worth noting at this time, that very few human bones have ever been found in these catacombs and the assumption, by archaeologists and historians, was that these carved out areas, including the Loculi, were all tombs, hence the name ‘catacombs’. I wasn’t convinced, for reasons which will soon become clear. By the time this tomb was supposed to have been built, in the 1st century AD, a section of the population had adopted the Egyptian practice of mummification; hence the decorated reliefs above the main sarcophagus depicting three Egyptian gods; Anubis, Thoth and Horus presiding over the mummification of Osiris; with canopic jars clearly visible on the floor. The main sarcophagus was decorated in the Greek style with the heads of two satyrs, the companions of Dionysus. My guide assured me this was a clear example of the distinctly Alexandrian approach to death that combined both Greek and Egyptian practices. 

Walking out of the old tomb and back into the Rotunda, we turned left into an area of later tombs then ducked to go through a small hole in the wall, which led to a much larger open space. But it was as I stood up again and turned back to look at the hole, we had just come through, that I saw it – the remains of a mural depicting the kidnap of Persephone by Hades, the legend at the heart of the Eleusinian mysteries 

Mural of the kidnap of Persephone by Hades (Empereur, 2002 (English translation))

This was it; this had to be the Eleusis I was looking for; and, as this thought entered my mind, another surge of energy flew up my spine. The guide book called this area the ‘Hall of Caracalla’ and suggested it was believed to be the oldest part of the catacombs, because of the mural. But standing there, in this large open space, that didn’t feel right. For one thing, there was no energy in this area; it was just a cold, vacuous space. Secondly, Caracalla was a Roman Emperor in the 2nd century AD, with a reputation for using horses and chariots to charge at and kill both opposing soldiers and civilians alike. Whilst all the evidence I’d found suggested Eleusis and the practice of the Eleusinian mysteries had occurred centuries earlier. Thirdly, this large space was named after Caracalla, solely because archaeologists had found a few horse bones lying in a sarcophagus and immediately concluded the giant Loculi found here had been burial places for his horses. There is no doubt these Loculi are much larger than those around the old tomb, but they looked more like storage places for jars, or ancient papyri and vellum documents.  Lastly, the mural depicting the kidnap of Persephone had been on the Caracalla side, not on the Rotunda side. Something in my head said the mural would have been painted at the entrance to the area where the initiation rites of the Eleusinian mysteries would have taken place. Its presence on the Caracalla side suggested the initiation rites would have taken place in the Rotunda area. This also tied in with my original impression that the triclinium, or dining area, was where initiates would have imbibed the psychotropic ritual drink from the kykeon, before being placed in the Loculi located around the old tomb. There, in complete darkness, they would experience their own journey into and out of Hades and the profound spiritual insights they sought. 

When the catacombs were first discovered in 1900, archaeologists were convinced there was another chamber beyond the Rotunda and its ancient tomb; because above ground they had found a separate entrance with stairs that had been blocked up by an old earthquake. The archaeologists decided to break through one of the walls on the Rotunda side, to see what they could find. Unfortunately, they chose the exact spot where the Persephone mural was located and, at the same time, also broke through the sarcophagus located beneath it. Fortunately, they managed to save the pieces of plaster from the painted mural and it is now restored in a museum in Cairo, for everyone to see. The image I saw painted on the wall, which so caught my eye, was a copy of the original. In that instant, there were many thoughts and questions going through my mind. Perhaps the ancient tomb, with its serpent guardians, was in fact the mausoleum of Stratonice, the mistress of Ptolemy II that I had read about? Could her tomb have purposely incorporated the site where the Eleusinian mysteries had taken place, in order to take over its power and energy? Could Stratonice have been an initiate? Perhaps the Hall of Caracalla, as it is now known, was also excavated from an earlier site; in which case older features could easily have been destroyed in the process? Whatever had happened here all those centuries ago, I left Kom el Shoqqafa knowing I had found Eleusis and now had a deep energetic connection to the place. There was however another question at the back of my mind; had I found the ‘energy pumping station’ too? Only time would tell. 

This quest had begun with three main questions and these were now answered. I had found out where Eleusis was and something of the cult and rites that had happened there. Secondly, it was clear the ancient city of Alexander was founded where it was for both spiritual and strategic political reasons; and there were several legends and images of snakes and serpents intertwined with the history of the city and the beliefs of the people who lived there. Lastly there was clear evidence of underground tunnels both at the Serapeum and Kom el Shoqqafa; but I had a strong feeling there was more to come. 

Over the next two days, as we explored Alexandria further, it became clear there was a huge network of tunnels that extended right across the ancient area of the city. Trade, politics and intrigue would have been a way of life for most of the population and, it doesn’t take much imagination to envisage the necessity for clandestine meetings and secret underground tunnels, which allowed people to move unseen between public buildings and palaces. In addition, many of the tunnels are part of a purpose-built, extensive underground water system, with tunnels, reservoirs and cisterns that were linked, by canal to the Canopic branch of the Nile. In late summer, when the Nile flooded and water levels rose in the canal, the subterranean cisterns would automatically fill, providing the city with a source of fresh water for the rest of the year. Both public health and the prosperity of the ancient city had depended on these systems being well maintained. Even today, with new building works in the city, it’s not unusual for new foundations to suddenly disappear into this ancient tunnel system.

‘Energy Pumping Station’ location and description:

Modern Wadi Natrun is a bustling, colourful Bedouin city on the dusty road to the Coptic Christian monasteries that lie near the ancient oasis and natrun lakes of Pharaonic times. The oasis of Wadi el-Natrun lies in a north-westerly oriented desert depression about 60 kilometres long, located some 90 kilometres northwest of Cairo. The area is some 23 metres below sea level and its lakes are fed from the water table of the Nile. The natrun, or sodium bicarbonate as it is also called, occurs naturally in solution in the alkali lakes; and forms a crust around the edges and deposits on the lake bottoms. 

In the 1st century AD, when the first Christians fled to Wadi el-Natrun, it was to escape persecution in Alexandria. The area was a remote oasis of eight lakes; a haven for wild birds and nomads alike. These early Christians lived as hermits in small caves, attracted by the solitude and belief that desert life would teach them to eschew the material things of this world and allow them to follow God’s call in a more deliberate and individual way. Since these early beginnings, the area has been a place of pilgrimage, known in Christian literature as Scetis. This desert area was and remains one of the most sacred regions in Christianity, with some of the earliest Christian monasteries in the world located there. Today there are only four of an original 30 Coptic monasteries in Egypt left; and two of these are regularly open to visitors: Deir Anba Bishoi (or the Monastery of St. Bishoi) and its female balance Deir El-Sourian (the Monastery of the Syrians). 

The first Monastery of St. Bishoi was built in the 4th century AD, when thousands of Christians fled from persecution by the Romans. Unlike the now dominant Roman version of Christianity; the Coptic Christians believe in reincarnation, karma and Christ as an Archangelic being. They also believe that embalming and mummification prevent the soul from being reincarnated. As we left the dusty, noisy streets and ‘tuk-tuks’ of Wadi Natrun City behind, the oasis appeared. But it wasn’t until we were quite close, that the outline of the Monastery became visible; because it was made of the same ubiquitous sand that reached to the horizon. The sand glinted and shone in the sunshine and there was an overall ‘mirage effect’ which made the building shimmer from a distance. Close up, the walls were imposing, with just a simple, small wooden entrance door to one side. The walls were well maintained and although made of sand, they were clearly sealed with some kind of ‘fixing agent’, because they were solid to the touch and grains of sand could not be brushed off. 

Once through the small wooden door the temperature immediately dropped, as we entered the high passageways between the walls and the old fortress that gave access to the main monastery precincts. It was cool and refreshing and although there were people walking around, the atmosphere felt remarkably peaceful. We were to be given a guided tour by a monk called Father Jakob. All the monks have tasks which help to bring revenue into the monastery; and whilst there are no entrance fees or charges for guides, there is a donation box by the main entrance. Father Jakob was short with a slightly hunched back, grey-flecked beard and eyebrows, with twinkling eyes and glasses. He wore long, black flowing robes, which appeared to be made from a very light, airy material; and a black, full-head skull cap with delicate white and silver embroidery work. Father Jakob spoke a smattering of English and French in a soft, warm voice. 

Layout of the old monastery (Dunn)

The timing of my visit to Egypt and, to this monastery, was a time of great change for the Coptic Christians in Egypt. Two weeks earlier, the old, much loved Coptic Pope had died and just 2 days before my visit to Wadi Natrun, his body had been moved to a newly built mausoleum in the old monastery grounds. The vaulted ceilings of the new building were highly decorated and there were many pilgrims come to visit his last resting place and pay their respects to this much revered old man. The throngs of people were at least four deep all round. The sarcophagus was a cube shape, with a covering of green silk embroidered with small gold and yellow flowers; all encased in a fitted, clear plastic cover, to protect it from the many hands which would touch it every day. Although it was a Tuesday and a working day, the throngs of worshippers were in their ‘Sunday best’, and many were carrying young children and babies that were presented to passing monks for a blessing. 

Mourners waiting to enter the new mausoleum
One of the painted, vaulted ceilings

Despite the numbers of people and the clear sadness at the recent passing of their Pope, there was no wailing or gnashing of teeth. Instead the whole monastery was filled with lightness and a feeling of joy and laughter everywhere. There was also an undefinable peace and great feeling of love, seemingly emanating from every nook and cranny. When I mentioned this to Father Jakob he smiled knowingly and pointed out there had been monks living here since the 4th century; hence, despite attacks by Barbarians, the place was imbued with sixteen centuries of love. Sixteen centuries that had created a place of love energy that emanated out into the desert beyond. 

The rooftop chapel of St. Michael

After visiting the Chapel where St. Bishoi’s remains are housed, we climbed up and onto the roof of the old fortress, which gave a spectacular 360° view of the surrounding desert and whole monastery complex. It was dotted with carefully tended gardens of fruit and vegetables, olive and date trees; and many hives for the resident prolific bees. On one side of the roof was a small chapel dedicated to St. Michael and, after asking permission, I entered through a small door into a beautifully simple space that had a stunning energy. I sat quietly on one of the small chairs along the back wall, facing an embroidered image of St. Michael. The dominant feeling was one of immense peace, tranquility and simple acceptance of all that is. Much love had been poured into this chapel over the centuries and now it flowed out to any who took the time to be still. 

Sitting there, thinking about the ‘energy pumping station’, there was no doubt in my mind, that it was in the landscape here. The love energy carried by this monastery, together with the Monastery of the Syrians, plus the oasis and the lakes, all played a part; as did the silica rich land and the buildings made of sand. Together they formed an energy vortex, which ‘shone’ in the landscape; whilst at the same time, holding a balancing energy for the clearing that was happening in Alexandria and the distorted energies of Cairo. A silent question about underground tunnels, was immediately answered with a mental image of the underground water source for the oasis as part of a network of water channels in the area; and it was the presence of water and the ability to establish wells that had determined where the monasteries were located.  For centuries, even millennia, the oasis had provided the fresh water that fed the crops and trees grown here, keeping both people and animals alive. 

At last the time came for me to leave, but it was hard to say goodbye to this beautiful space. I said ‘thank you’ to the guardians and walked out of the small wooden door without a backward glance, knowing I could link back in at any time. My heart was full and a smile filled my face. This was one energy signature I would not forget. As we made our way back to the entrance, I thanked Father Jakob for his time and love and made sure the donation box did not get forgotten.

Local geology:

The spit of land on which Alexandria was built, is of limestone; a rock laid down over many millions of years from the secretion and burial of calcium carbonate shells and skeletons from trillions of flora and fauna living in the warm, shallow waters of an ancient sea. Its relatively soft structure is not difficult to carve, hence the presence of underground tunnels and the limestone foundations of key buildings. Even today, many modern structures are made from the local limestone, which weathers very quickly in the salty, Mediterranean climate. Newer buildings have special weather-resistant coatings on them; but a short trip along La Corniche quickly exposes the devastating effects of weather and erosion on the once beautiful, now crumbling apartment blocks along the sea-front. So, it’s not surprising to find that any ancient remains exposed above ground have quickly deteriorated.

The most important structures and palaces were faced with high grade, mainly pink and red granite; imported from Aswan and floated down the Nile to the new city. The hard-wearing granite survives much better than the local limestone; hence the still standing remains of Pompey’s Pillar, on the now rubble-filled site of the Serapeum. Although the original temple would also have been built with Aswan granite, blocks would have been removed and reused in other buildings, as religious practices in the city changed. At the same time the quartz and other silica-based minerals in the granite would have magnified any energy flows through key temples and other buildings.

At Wadi Natrun, the predominant material is sand, which again has a high silica content. The same sand that was used to build the imposing walls of the Coptic Christian monasteries. Because the buildings are made from the same material as the surrounding desert, they blend easily into their surroundings, which was of great importance in the 9th century, when they were constantly being raided. Again, the silica-based sand has magnified any energy flows both in and around these buildings; magnifying the ‘love energy’ as it flows out into the surrounding area.  

Local legends:

There are several versions of the ‘legend of Demeter and Persephone’, mostly based on Homer’s ‘Hymn to Demeter’ written in the 7th century BCE. Two different versions are included here:

Version 1: Demeter’s daughter Persephone (also referred to as Kore, or maiden) was gathering flowers with friends, when she was seized by Hades, the god of death; and he took her to his underworld kingdom. Distraught, Demeter searched high and low for Persephone. Because of her distress, and in an effort to coerce Zeus to allow the return of her daughter, she caused a terrible drought in which the people suffered and starved; thus depriving the gods of sacrifice and worship. As a result, Zeus relented and Demeter was reunited with Persephone; and the earth returned to its former verdure and prosperity: the first spring. However, it was a rule of the Fates that whoever consumed food or drink in the Underworld was doomed to spend eternity there. Before Persephone was released to Hermes, who had been sent to retrieve her, Hades tricked her into eating pomegranate seeds (six or four according to the telling), which forced her to return to the underworld for some months each year. When Persephone returned to the surface, Demeter became joyful and cared for the earth again. For the months when she returned to Hades, the Earth was cold and barren (Trckova-Flamee, 2006).

Version 2: The goddess Demeter was desperately searching for her daughter, Persephone, who had been kidnapped by Hades. During her wandering she came to the city of Eleusis. Here she was welcomed by Queen Metaneria, who took her in as a nurse for her young son, prince Demophon. Each night Demeter brought the boy near to the fire to make him immortal and she fed him with the nectar and ambrosia of the Gods. When the child´s mother saw one night what was happening, she was astonished. Demeter revealed who she was and asked the Queen to build a sanctuary to teach them secret rituals. Demeter shut herself in the temple, troubled for her daughter and she did not allow any seed to grow from the fields until she saw her daughter again. So, Zeus decided, that Persephone would spend one third of a year with Hades in the underworld and the other two thirds with her mother, Demeter. When Persephone leaves to go to the underworld Demeter mourns for her and all nature is ready to die, to be reborn again in the spring, when she returns (Trckova-Flamee, 2006).

The Story of the two sisters: there were once two sisters, who were daughters of a wealthy sheikh. The eldest daughter ran away from home and entered the Monastery of St. Bishoi as a man, because women weren’t allowed to become monks at that time. Even though she had completely cut herself off from her family and they had no idea where she was, she settled well in to her new life. Several years later, when the sheikh’s youngest daughter became ill, she was sent to the Monastery to be healed and put into the care of a monk who was a particularly successful healer. The younger sister recovered without knowing who the monk was. When she returned home, her parents asked her about the monk who had healed her, but were unhappy to hear the monk had hugged her and kissed her on the cheek. They sent a messenger to the Monastery and asked for the monk to visit them, saying they personally wanted to thank him for giving them back their daughter. When the monk arrived, the sheikh thanked him then asked why he had cuddled and kissed his daughter on the cheek. The monk replied ‘I will tell you, but only if you promise to let me return to my life at the monastery.’ The sheikh agreed, and so the monk disclosed herself and her true identity. The sheikh and his family were overjoyed to see their long-lost daughter, whom they had presumed to be dead. Sometime later, when the daughter insisted on returning to the Monastery as a monk once more, the sheikh asked if there was anything he could do for the monks. She explained about the Barbarian attacks they were experiencing and he agreed to pay for all the monasteries to have fortresses built within their walls to protect them (Dunn).  

Later observations and insights:

The love energy from the Coptic Christian Monasteries at Wadi Natrun is still flowing strongly, despite the political situation in Egypt. The beautiful chapel dedicated to St Michael, on the roof of the fort at the Monastery of St. Bishoi, continues to ‘shine its light’ out into the desert and beyond; and pilgrims continue to come to this thriving oasis in their droves, to pay homage to their past Pope and, to this holy ancient place in the desert.  

Works Cited

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