The valuable Syriac documents which came from the Monastery of the Virgin in the Wadi el-Natrun, are still labeled sometimes as “Nitrian.” Similarly, the dialect of the Coptic manuscripts from St. Macarius’ Monastery, situated in the same desert, is called “Nitrian Bohairic.” This label seems to imply that the two monasteries are located in the desert of Nitria.
However, neither the Monastery of the Syrians, nor that of St. Macarius is situated there! The assumption that Nitria and Wadi el-Natrun would be one and the same place is wrong, being based on a topographical confusion.
The ancient name of the Natron Valley, the source of the documents mentioned above, was “Scetis.” While the first community in Nitria goes back to Amoun, the founder of Scetis was Macarius the Egyptian. These two settlements, along with Kellia, formed the three important monastic communities situated to the West of the Nile Delta.
From a geographical point of view, Scetis is situated deeper in the desert than Nitria and it is the paneremos (or vastissima eremus, as Rufinus calls it). According to the Historia monachorum in Aegypto, it takes 24 hours to walk the distance between the two hermitages.
As to the four well-known monasteries, they are located in Scetis, not in Nitria. Therefore, the adjective “Nitrian” could not apply to them in any sense. This label was used by scholars in a period when the geography of the Egyptian desert was still obscure, but today it must be discarded.
The first who pointed out that the Wadi el-Natrun is not Nitria, was Hugh G. Evelyn White in his monumental The Monasteries of the Wadi ‘N Natrun. Here are the first two volumes of this important work: