The Monastery

Monastery of Saint Katherine

The Monastery of St. Katherine is the oldest continuously inhabited monastery in the World and its library has the largest religious collection after the Vatican. It was built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the 6th century AD, although there was already a church at the site of the Burning Bush erected by the Empress Helena in 330 AD. Byzantine Orthodox monasticism has even earlier roots, and the area is sacred to all three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

The Monastery is open Monday to Thursday and on Saturday between 10 AM and 11.30 AM. Admission is free. Please be appropriately dressed.NOTE: Religious events at the Monastery of St. Katherine are not open for the public. If you wish to attend you should make an advance enquiery.

Official site and contacts: www.sinaimonastery.com

The monastery was under the protection of the Prophet Mohammed, Arab and Turkish leaders and Napoleon, which helped to preserve it virtually undameged. In the walled compound there is a Fatimid mosque built next to the Orthodox church, a rare coexistence of religions in today’s World.

Prophet Muhammad’s Charter of Priviliges to Christians
Letter to the Monks of St. Catherine Monastery
Letter to the Monks of St. Catherine Monastery“This is a message from Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them. Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by Allah! I hold out against anything that displeases them.No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries. No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it…” Full text >>

In AD 330 Saint Helena, Emperor Constantine’s mother, erected a small church at the site of the Burning Bush, to commemorate the spot where God appeared to Moses, and a tower to serve as secure shelter for the monks. In the 6th century, the Byzantine Emperor Justinian ordered the building of a fortified monastery encompassing the church and tower.

Tradition relates that the relics of the martyr Saint Katherine were borne by angels to the summit of Mount Katherine where they were discovered and transferred to a reliquary in the basilica in the 9th century. From that time the place has become known as the Monastery of Saint Katherine.

Frequent attacks between the 15th and 17th centuries caused the gates of the monastery to be walled up by rope and pulley. Evidence of this system can be seen on the northeastern wall of the Monastery.

“The Monastery of St Catherine, constructed in 530 by the Emperor Justinian who gave orders for architects and builders to go to Sinai to build a fortification enclosing a large new basilica. This, the Church of the Transfiguration, replaced an earlier chapel dedicated to the Holy Virgin on the site of the “burning bush” where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. The site was considered sacred by large numbers of ascetics from various parts of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, including Egypt and Syria, many of whom escaped there to avoid Roman persecution. The first written documentation of such pious communities are found in the narratives of the monks Silvanus, Ammonius and Nilus, who lived in Sinai between 350 and 420. The latter described continued raids on Christians by aggressive Blemmys, tribes from the Eastern Desert, who looted the monastery and even murdered monks. This was the reason for Justinian’s building.

This is one of the few churches of early Christendom to have survived, and is one of the finest and richest cathedrals in existence. The interior is an impressive example of Greek ecclesiastical architecture and adornment, rich and opulent. The nave is flanked by six monolithic marble columns, the capitals of which support arches and the upper walls of the clerestory, which is set with rectangular windows. Between the columns are elaborately-carved thrones of the patriarchs and bishops, and the walls are covered with icons and painting, some of great antiquity. The nave is separated from the altar by a 17th- century gilded iconostasis presented to the monastery by the patriarch Cosmos of Crete. In front of it are three pairs of tall early-18th-century candlesticks; the iconostasis is crowned by a great crucifix bearing the figure of Jesus Christ painted in bright colours; and behind is the altar table, inlaid with mother of pearl, the work of a 17th-century Athenian artist.

The vault of the apse above the altar is adorned with the monastery’s greatest treasure, an astonishing sixth-century mosaic. The figures stand out in exquisite shades of blue, green and red against a background of dull gold glass. To the right of the altar is a marble sarcophagus or domed canopy supported by four slender marble columns containing two richly inlaid silver caskets. These hold the relics of St Catherine: one contains her skull encircled by a golden crown studded with gems, and the other her left hand, ornamented with gold rings set with precious stones. To the left of the altar is a votive sarcophagus, wrought in pure gold and studded with precious stones; the two sarcophagi were gifts of the Czars of Russia, Peter the Great in 1680, and Alexander II in 1860.

The Chapel of the Burning Bush, the most sacred part of the monastery, is a small chamber that lies below and behind the altar of the church. The bush, protected by a stone wall, is of a bramble species, the like of which is not to be found in all Sinai; it neither blooms nor gives any fruit, although carefully tended by the monks.

The Mosque near the belfry stands as evidence of the protection of the monastery by the caliphs of Egypt, and also the monks’ tolerant attitude to Islam. It is a rectangular building with two sturdy pillars upon which the arches of the roof rest. Although it is generally assumed that the structure was erected as a mosque, there is archaeological evidence to show that it was originally a guest house and was converted into a mosque in the early 11th century. Inside is a pulpit with a kufic text recording that it was built to fulfil a wish of Abu Mansour Anushtaken in 1106. The minaret faces the church belfry, and the local Bedouin, the Jabaliya, are entrusted with the keys to the mosque as a hereditary privilege.

The Old Refectory, situated south-east of the basilica, is a rectangular chamber 17 metres long with an arched roof in Gothic style. The long wooden table, brought from Corfu in the 18th century, is carved with angels and flowers in rococo style. Both the outside and inside of the door frame, as well as the inner and outer frames of the window, bear coats-of-arms of European pilgrims in mediaeval times. A small chapel attached to the refectory is liberally marked with graffiti by visitors from the 14th to 17th centuries.

The Library, which was built between 1930 and 1942, is a spacious and well-built fireproof concrete wing more than 10 metres wide and 15 metres long. It represents one of the richest monastic collections in the world, second in importance only to the Vatican. It contains more than 6,000 volumes and manuscripts, 3,000 of which are ancient, the bulk — more than 2,000 — in Greek, and hundreds of others in 12 languages including Arabic (some 700), Syriac, Armenian, Georgian, Coptic, Polish and Slavonic.

The Icon Collection is the monastery’s great artistic treasure. The most important single collection in the world, it includes more than 2,000 works, 150 of which are unique pieces dating from the fifth to the seventh centuries. The collection represents some of the finest Byzantine work and includes a large number of icons from the period of the iconoclasm (726-843), when the depiction of the saintly or divine form in art was considered heretical. In Christian centres elsewhere during this period almost all representations of religious figures in icons, mosaics and wall paintings were removed or destroyed. Only in the remote Monastery of St Catherine did so large a number remain unharmed.

Known by the monks as the Treasury, or Sacred Sacristy, several important manuscripts are displayed in glass cabinets. These include a fine collection of icons, including some of the oldest and most valuable owned by the monastery. Also on display is a large collection of ancient and modern vestments embroidered in gold and silver thread, mitres, chalices and trays of the finest workmanship, gold and silver crosses of various sizes and shapes, and illuminated Bibles of incredible beauty in gold and silver filigree containers set with precious stones.”

“The Monastery and the Jebeliya Bedouin share a very close and interdependent relationship. In the past, the Jebeliya depended on the supplies and services that the monastery provided while the monastery was reliant on the local people for manual labor and protection. Today the Jebeliya continue to be employed by the monastery as gardeners, stonemasons, groundsmen, bakers, blacksmiths, carpenters and general labourers. Traditionally, all disputes not settled by Jebeliya people have been presented to the Archbishop of the Monastery to resolve.”
The three round objects above the walled-up old entrance are representing bread (libbe), symbolizing that the Jebeliya, Ulad Said and Muzeina Bedouin tribes could go to the Monastery for help.

Other sights around the Monastery (Wadi el Dier)

At the mouth of Wadi El-Deir opposite the Plain of El-Raha (the resting place) also called Wadi Muka’das, the Holy Valley is a small hill, Nabi Haruun, where a white Christian chapel and a Muslim shrine stand, both of them dedicated to the Prophet Aaron. The site is reputedly where Aaron and the Israelites made the golden calf while Moses was on Mount Sinai. The arrangement of rocks and small circular buildings in the south-western side of Aaron’s Hill is a Jebeliya Bedouin cemetery. Traditionally the graves were shallow and marked by a single upright rock but today they are more elaborate.

On the rock face to the right, near the foot of Megalo Manna Garden is a rock in the shape of a calf. The Bedouin call it the Cow (El-Bagara) and believe that the Israelites used it as a mould for their idol.

Further up closer to the Monastery the stone ruins on the road are the remains of The Askar, the mid-19th century barracks built for Abbas Pasha’s soldiers and workers. The barracks were organized around two main courts and a mosque. The mosque was located on the side of the ruins closest to the Monastery.

The lower slopes of the mountains on the left were stripped of loose stones to expose solid granite for quarrying. This Roman quarry was the source of the first building blocks for the foundations of the monastery, the church and its fortification in the 6th century. The architecture of cut stone seems to have been gradually abandoned after the Arab conquest in the 7th century, although loose stones were taken from this quarry as late as the 19th century.

The red granite massif rising North of the Monastery is Jebel El-Deir – the mountain of the Monastery. You can see several shrines, hermitages and gardens in the mountain crevices. A zigzag path leads to a small monastery, Magafa, which nestles amid date palms and Byzantine stone walls.

The small mountain to the south is called Jethro’s Mountain or Jebel El-Muneijah (Calling of God). This site is where Jethro and his daughters were supposed to have lived when Moses first came to Mount Sinai and where he saw the Burning Bush and spoke to God. The small white church on its summit is dedicated to both Saint Theodore the Commander and Saint Theodore the Tyro, or Recruit, Roman soldiers who were martyred.

References:

Al-Ahram Weekly: St Catherine’s on the list
• Mount Sinai, A Walking Trail Guide – National Parks of Egypt Protectorates Development
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Mt Sinai hike on Google Maps Mount Sinai hike, St Catherine Egypt        

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