| 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 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.
Muhammad's Charter of Priviliges to Christians
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, or to carry anything from it
to the Muslims' houses. Should anyone take
any of these, he would spoil God's covenant
and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are
my allies and have my secure charter against
all that they hate.
No one is to force them to travel or to oblige
them to fight. The Muslims are to fight for
them. If a female Christian is married to
a Muslim, it is not to take place without
her approval. She is not to be prevented from
visiting her church to pray.
Their churches are to be respected. They are
neither to be prevented from repairing them
nor the sacredness of their covenants. No
one of the nation (Muslims) is to disobey
the covenant till the Last Day (end of the
English translation from
'Muslim History: 570 - 1950 C.E.' by Dr. A.
Zahoor and Dr. Z. Haq, ZMD Corporation. P.O.
Box 8231 - Gaithersburg, MD 20898-8231 - Copyright
Akram Zahoor 2000. P. 167.
In AD 330 Saint Helena, Emperor Constantines
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
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
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
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
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
Mukadas, 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 Aarons Hill is a Jebeliya Bedouin cemetery.
Traditionally the graves were shallow and marked
by a single upright rock but today they are more
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
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 Pashas 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
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 Jethros
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.
Weekly: St Catherine's on the list
Mount Sinai, A Walking Trail Guide - National
Parks of Egypt Protectorates Development
The importance of the written word
"The Ministry of Culture, in cooperation with the custodians of the monastery, have announced a three-phase project, the first of which includes comprehensive documentation of all the manuscripts -- one of the richest monastic collections in the world and second in importance only to the Vatican. (...) Manuscripts in the library exceeded all previous estimates put forward in existing catalogues and hand-lists, which registered a total of about 2,000 codices. The new study revealed that the Greek manuscripts alone numbered 2,250, Arabic manuscripts in the neighbourhood of 600, and Armenian, Coptic, Georgian, Polish, Slavic and Syriac numbering several hundred volumes."
World Heritage sites in panography - Sainte Catherine Monastery
"The WHTour is a non-profit org documenting in panographies (360-degree imaging) all sites registered on the World Heritage List by UNESCO. [...] This is for people who are willing to know more about the natural and cultural heritage of our world in order to share, enjoy and protect it for future generations."
The Greek Orthodox fathers of Saint Catherine Monastery have opened its Treasury to the public. A special gallery has been built within the monastery so selected holy objects can be exhibited in showcases, properly documented with concise information in English and Arabic
IN THE SANDS OF SINAI, AN ANCIENT MONASTERY
"The monastic life is stern. There are three fast days a week when the monks eat only vegetables boiled without olive oil. (...) At 4 A.M. they wake up and pray in their cells until 8. From 8 to 9 is a rest period, which ends with each monk doing the task assigned to him, which might include working in the library, digging in the garden or cleaning icons. Lunch (the day's first nourishment) is served about 1 P.M. and all monks eat together in silence while a novice reads aloud from a religious text. From 1:30 P.M. until 3 is a rest period; vespers are held until 5, when the monks return to their cells. At 10 P.M. lights are turned out but the monks are permitted to read in their cells by lamplight or candles. "
New York Times
Mount Sinai, Egypt
"On the peak of Jebel Musa stands a small chapel dedicated to the Holy Trinity. This chapel, constructed in 1934 on the ruins of a 16th church, is believed to enclose the rock from which God made the Tablets of the Law. In the western wall of this chapel is a cleft in the rock where Moses is said to have hidden himself as God's glory passed by (Exodus 33:22). Seven hundred and fifty steps below the summit and its chapel is the plateau known as Elijah's Basin, where Elijah spent 40 days and nights communing with God in a cave. Nearby is a rock on which Aaron, the brother of Moses, and 70 elders stood while Moses received the law (Exodus 24:14). Northwest of Elijah's plateau hardy pilgrims visit Jebel Safsaafa, where Byzantine hermits such as St. Gregory lived and prayed. Beneath the 2168 meter summit of Ras Safsaafa stands the Plain of ar-Raaha, where camped the Israelites at the time Moses ascended the mountain and where Moses erected the first tabernacle."
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