In many ways the historical seat of Coptic Christianity, this little depression on the edge of the Nile Delta is about 100km (60 miles) from the city and makes a great day trip from Cairo. With four thriving monasteries dating from before the Muslim conquest, you can get a real taste here of a now much-ignored period of Egyptian history.
The name of the valley (wadi literally means "valley" in Arabic) comes from natron (as it is now known), a naturally occurring salt that can be collected here and was used by the ancient Egyptians in the mummification process. By the 6th century, however, the valley was best known as the monastic center of Christian Egypt. It had a thriving community of ascetic Christians and contained some of their most important monuments. As you can imagine, the community has had its ups and its downs since then, but though the current number of monasteries is substantially below the more than 100 that were reported in the 14th century, it has enjoyed a real resurgence over the last 20 years. What you'll find today is a viable, committed Christian community living out forms of worship that were developed at the very beginning of the religion's history.
Always call the Office of the Patriarch (tel. 02/25900218) before you go to check that the monasteries are open (they close to visitors frequently for religious holidays) and to arrange any necessary permissions. Overnight stays at the monasteries can often be arranged through the Office of the Patriarch as well. For these purposes, Deir al Baramus is the most comfortable and should be your first choice.