Religious Places

Beyond the many religious places found around the Monastery of St. Katherine and on the top of Jebel Musa (Mt. Sina) and Jebel Safsafa there are many other churches, monasteries and holy places in the area and a bit furhter afield. The most notable ones are described below.

The Chapel of St. Katherine is on the summit of Jebel Katherina, the mountain where the body of the saint from Alexandria was placed by angels, according to Christian beliefs. The saint, born as Dorothea in 294 AD, was educated in pagan schools but converted to Christianity for which she was executed. Her body vanished, but some three centuries later, monks guided by a dream found it on the mountain. It was brought down and placed in a golden casket in the Monastery what became known since the 11th century as the Monastery of St. Katherine.

Hajar Musa (Rock of Moses) in Wadi el Arbain, where Prophet Moses fetched water from the rock. A holy place to all the big monotheiostic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Locals believe the twelve clefts on it represent the twelve springs mentioned in the Quran (Sura 2:60). It is also mentioned in the Exodus as the rock which sustained the children of Israel (1 Cor. 10:4). There is a small Orthodox chapel next to it. According to Swiss orientalist Johann Ludwig Burkhardt the Jebeliya Bedouin believe “that by making [female camels] crouch down before the rock […] the camels will become fertile and yield more milk”. There is also a Bedouin marriage proposal rock in the walled compound.

The Monastery of the Forty Martyrs, in Wadi el Arbain “was constructed in the sixth century in honor of the forty Christian martyrs who died in Sebaste (central Turkey). Monks relate that forty Christian soldiers from the Roman Army in the third century were commanded to worship pagan gods. They refused and were put to death by being exposed at night to the bitterly cold winds off a frozen lake. Those who survived until morning were killed by the sword. […] In the grounds of this monastery is a chapel dedicated to the hermit Saint Onuphrius. Coming from Upper Egypt, he was said to have lived for seventy years in the rock shelter at the northern end of the garden, until he died in AD 390.”

The Monastery of Cosmas and Damianos in Wadi Talaa, named after the martyred brothers who were doctors and treated locals for free in the 3d century AD. The garden of the monastery, looked after by a Bedouin family, has a long olive grove, some tall cypress trees, other fruit trees and vegetables. There are more gardens belonging to the Monastery further down in the wadi.

The Chapel of Saint John Klimakos, or St. John of the Ladder, was built in 1979 in Wadi Itlah to commemorate his devotional work in the 6th century AD. Also spelled St. John Climacus or Climax, the saint spent forty years in solitude in a cave above the existing chapel. “During this time, Klimakos was elected Abbot of Sinai and asked to write a spiritual guide. He composed The Ladder of Divine Ascent which likens spiritual life to the ladder seen by the Patriach Jacob extending from earth to heaven (Genesis 28:12-17).” According to the book the ladder “consists of 30 rungs, each step corresponding to a spiritual virtue. Through silence and solitude hermits and monks sought to climb the divine ladder. The first rung instructs the renunciation of all earthly ties and the next 14 relate to human vices such as talkativeness, anger, despondency and dishonesty. The final 15 rungs relate to virtues including meekness, simplicity, prayer, holy stillness and humility. The crowning virtue is love.”

The Monastery of Wadi Feiran, with its chapel dedicated to Prophet Moses, is some 60 kms before reaching St. Katherine. The wadi is mentioned in the Genesis (21:21) “as the place where Hagar dwelt with her son after Abraham sent her away. As late as the 7th century, Firan was a city and an important Christian center, with its own bishop.”

The Monastery of El Tur was built by Emperor Justinian in the important port city, which was an early Christian center from the 3d century AD. Today it lies in ruins but there is a new monastery in the city, as well as a church and a guest house. TheSpring of Moses is reputed for its therapeutic value.

Other important monasteries in the region are the Monastery of Ramhan south of Mt. Katherina, the Monastery of Hodra near the oasis of Ain Hodra, and several smaller, ruined monasteries and churches. Most of the best preserved places are found close to the village of St. Katherine in Wadi Shrayj, Wadi Anshel, Bustan el Birka, Wadi Abu Zaituna, and also in the High Mountains such as at Ain Nagila and in Wadi Jebal.

Places important to local people include the tombs of local saints such as Sheikh Harun (Aaron’s Tomb) and Shaikh Salah (Nebi-Salah’s Tomb) in the main wadi (Wadi Sheikh) before reaching town, or Sheikh Awad and Sheikh Ahmed in the mountains. Some of the Bedouin gather at these tombs to celebrate “Zuara“, while others consider this practice to be “bidaa“, an innovation and not consistent with Islam. (In fact, most of the bidaa is actually predating Islam and is rather a survival of a tradition than an innovation.) Zuara, also known as Sheik Day or Mulid (Moulid), “is performed by most Sinai tribes at the tombs of Sheiks, or in nearby shelters called mak’ad when a Bedouin or group of Bedouin wish to ask the Sheikh to intervene with Allah on their behalf. Zuara is the generic name for any activity of this sort. In addition to the Mulid, the bedouins often practice Zuara on a weekly basis. The sick Bedouins or their relatives, pregnant mothers looking for healthy children, or people looking for a good crop, go to a tomb. […] Until the 1956 war in the Sinai, the Gebeliya and the Auled-Said shared a common Mulid (the annual Zuara) at the tomb of Nebi-Saleh; however the war forced them to conduct the ceremonies at separate locations; but the tribes are still apparently close. Now the Gebeliya go to Aaron’s tomb down the road, and the Auled-Said go to Nebi Salah’s tomb. Both go in the 8th month. The Garasha and Sawalha also go to Nebi-Salah’s tomb for their Mulid but in the 7th Month.” Some of the Jebeliya gather at the Tomb of Sheikh Awad on the second day of Eid el Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice.

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