Saint Catherine’s Monastery

The Saint Catherine’s Monastery was built in a spot where God revealed himself. For centuries there have been constant prayers behind its walls, and the burning bush - the plant in which God is said to have appeared to Moses in the midst of flames -has never taken root in any other corner of the globe, despite many attempts.

The beginnings of Saint Catherine's Monastery date back to the 4th century AD, when the Empress Helena ordered a small chapel to be erected in the spot where Moses is believed to have had his revelation. Throughout the following centuries, it was fortified and enriched by subsequent rulers of the Sinai Peninsula. It is currently included among the world’s oldest continuously inhabited Christian monasteries.

The development of the monastery is connected to the life and works of its patron saint, Catherine of Alexandria, who suffered a martyr’s death at the age of 18 for her open criticism of religious persecutions in the empire. A sentence was given after a stormy dispute during which Catherine single-handedly proved the superiority of her arguments in a debate with 50 non-Christian sages. Religious records state that angels carried her martyred body to the highest peak of the peninsula.

In the 10th century, the relics of Catherine were brought from the uplands by hermit monks, and then placed in a gold casket and buried in the monastery. The peak of the mountain was named in honour of the saint, and the monastery began to be connected to her cult. In this same century, throngs of pilgrims from Europe began to travel to the valley at the foot of Mount Catherine and Sinai. The paths leading to the monastery were protected by knights who were in the region as a result of the Crusades. When blood began to flow during the religious wars, on the monastery's grounds people of various faiths prayed side-by-side. Even a small mosque with a minaret was built for the Bedouins who were hired to work in the monastery. Above it towers a three-storey church steeple, which is extremely rare in Muslim countries (such a situation is regarded as heretical). Every morning a bell tolls from it 33 times, symbolising Christ's age.

Apart from the monastery, the Well of Moses and the Chapel of the Burning Bush, the library, which is not accessible to visitors, is also extremely significant since it contains priceless Early Christian illustrated manuscripts written in various languages. In the 19th century, the Codex Sinaiticus, one of the oldest known copies of the Bible, was discovered here. So far it has only been made accessible to a very smal I number of researchers.

The library also contains "The Ladder of Divine Ascent", a work by one of the oldest hermit-monks, known also as "The Ladder of Saint John Climacus". The manuscript contains a description of the monastic virtues that are essential for salvation. The writings of Climacus were influential, especially in the Orthodox Church. Even though empires, borders and laws have changed, the monastery has never been seriously damaged. An interesting twist of history is the fact that it was Mohammed, himself, who issued a special document which ordered Muslims to respect the autonomy of the Christian monastery at Sinai - protecting it from attacks and absolving it from paying taxes.

The monastery belongs to Greek Orthodox monks. There are currently about 20 of them, originating primarily from the Greek mountain of Athos. Entry onto the grounds of the monastery is free, but it’s necessary to respect the solemnity of the place and remove your shoes in certain rooms.

Tags: Egypt, Sinai