St. Catherine’s Monastery – a Gem in the Egyptian Desert

The Monastery of St. Catherine, also known as the Monastery of the Transfiguration, is located in a triangular area between the Desert of El-Tih, the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba in the Sinai. It is situated at an altitude of 1,480 meters in a small, picturesque narrow valley between the mountains. It is a region of wilderness made up of granite rock and rugged mountains which, at first glance, seems inaccessible. In fact, while small towns and villages have grown up on the shores of the two gulfs, only a few Bedouin nomads roam the mountains and arid land inland. Well known mountains dominate this region, including Mount Sinai (2,285 meters), Mount St.Catherine (map) (2,637 meters) and Mount Serbal (map) (2,070 meters). Click here for the Gallery.



St. Catherine’s Monastery - Maps
St. Catherine’s Monastery – Maps

This is the region through which Moses is said to have led his people, eventually to the Promised Land, and there are legends of their passing in many places. Of course, one of the most exceptional locations is that of Mount Sinai, where Moses met with God who delivered to him the tablets containing the Ten Commandments. Obviously, the region is sacred to Christians, Jews and Muslims alike.

The Orthodox establishment monastery holds the burning bush from which God first revealed himself to Moses. It also contains a treasure trove of icons, unique mosaic and ancient manuscripts. It’s also one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world and has been the center of monastic life in the southern Sinai.

While grazing his flocks on the side of Mt. Horeb, Moses came upon a burning bush that was, miraculously, unconsumed by its own flames. A voice speaking out of the fire (Exodus 3:1-13) commanded him to lead his people out of bondage in Egypt and return with them to the mountain. Upon his return Moses twice climbed the mountain to commune with God. Regarding the second ascent, Exodus 24: 16-18 states: And the glory of the Lord abode upon Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days; and the seventh day God called unto Moses out of the midst of the cloud. And the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like devouring fire on the top of the mount in the eyes of the children of Israel. And Moses entered into the midst of the cloud, and went up into the mount; and Moses was in the mount forty days and forty nights. During this time on the mountain Moses received two tablets upon which God had inscribed the Ten Commandments, as well as precise dimensions for the Arc of the Covenant, a portable box-like shrine that would contain the tablets. Soon thereafter, the Arc of the Covenant was constructed and Moses and his people departed from Mount Sinai.

St. Catherine’s Monastery - Monks
St. Catherine’s Monastery – Monks

Monks have lived here almost without interruption since the Byzantine Emperor Justinian built the monastery in the 6th century. An earlier chapel on the site is said to have been erected on St Helena’s orders in 337. Since the location was difficult to protect from violent tribes, Emperor Justinian surrounded the monastery with a high wall of close-fitting granite stones, about 2 meters thick. Most of what can be seen on the site today dates back to the 6th century.

The Burning Bush

St. Catherine’s Monastery - Burning bush
St. Catherine’s Monastery – Burning bush

The holiest part of St Catherine’s Monastery is the Chapel of the Burning Bush, a small chamber behind the altar of the basilica. It is often closed to the public and those who enter must remove their shoes, just as Moses did when he approached the burning bush (Exodus 3:2-5). Under the chapel’s altar is a silver star which is believed to mark the site of the bush from which God called Moses to lead his people out of Egypt.

The reputed bush was transplanted several meters away. The pilgrim Egeria, who visited between 381 and 384, described it as “still alive and sprouting”, and situated within a pretty garden and it sill is.

Moses’ well

St. Catherine’s Monastery - Moses' well
St. Catherine’s Monastery – Moses’ well

St Catherine’s Monastery also holds the Well of Moses, also known as the Well of Jethro, where Moses is said to have met his future wife, Zipporah.

As recounted in Exodus (2:15-21), Moses was resting by the well when the seven daughters of Jethro (also called Reuel) came to draw water. Some shepherds drove them away and Moses came to their defence. In gratitude, Jethro invited Moses to his home and gave him his daughter Zipporah in marriage.

The well is still one of the monastery’s main sources of water.

Monks’ Bones

St. Catherine’s Monastery - Maps
St. Catherine’s Monastery – Maps
St. Catherine’s Monastery
St. Catherine’s Monastery

When monks die, they will be buried in the cemetery (see above). After their bones decay, they will be exhumed  and transferred to the charnel house, where they will be cleaned and categorized. You can see the bones of thousands of deceased monks, with separate piles for legs, hands, feet, ribs and skulls. Martyrs and archbishops are in open coffins.

St. Catherine’s Monastery
St. Catherine’s Monastery

Inside the door, dressed in purple robes, sits the skeleton of Stephanos, a 6th-century guardian of the path to Mount Sinai.

Mosque

An unusual feature of the monastery compound is a mosque. Originally built in the 6th century as a hospice for pilgrims, it was converted to a mosque in 1106 for the use of local Bedouin, some of whom work at the monastery.

Of the monastery’s four original gates, three in the northwestern wall have been blocked for hundreds of years. Until the middle of the 19th century, access was by basket and pulley to a gate about 9 meters above ground level in the northeastern wall. Then a new gate was opened in the northwestern wall.

Protection from Mohammad

By the 7th century, the Monastery faced a dangerous situation and a grave crisis, mainly due to the Arab conquest. By the year 808, the number of monks in the monastery had been reduced to thirty, while Christian life on the Sinai peninsula had all but vanished. However, the monastery itself did not vanish.

The Fathers of the Monastery requested the protection of Mohammed himself, who saw the Christians as brothers in faith. Apparently, the request was favorably accepted and the so called ahtiname, or “immunity covenant” by Mohammed instructed his followers to protect the monks of the Sinai. Though this document has been a matter of controversy, it is doubtful that the monastery could have survived without the protection afforded by Mohammed and his successors.

Tourists and Pilgrims

Through the 14th century, many thousands of pilgrims came annually to the monastery, even though the journey from Cairo took eight days by foot and camel.
Following the Reformation, the popularity of Christian pilgrimage drastically declined until, during the mid 1900s, no more than 80 to100 pilgrims made the arduous journey each year.
In the 1950s the Egyptian government paved roads leading to oil fields and mines along the western Sinai coast and also developed a dirt track to the foot of Jebel Musa and the monastery, which allowed increasing numbers of secular tourists to travel in taxis from Cairo.
The completion of a paved road further increased the number of visitors to Jebel Musa. Bus service to and from Cairo became available on a daily basis in 1986 and today it is not uncommon for a hundred or more pilgrims and tourists to visit the ancient sacred site in a single day.
Currently Greek Orthodox monks tend the monastery and its extraordinary collection of Byzantine art and illuminated manuscripts.

St. Catherine’s Monastery Today

St. Catherine’s Monastery might have mighty walls and is defensively designed, but it can’t hold an attack against mortars, guns and rockets. The region is restless and it’s known that terrorists and Islamic extremists are active. Bedouins resume their duty and didn’t forget their vows to protect the Monastery, but that might not be enough!
For you, my traveler and Pilgrim, who want to pilgrimage to the St. Catherine Monastery, you are at risk to be attacked by these extremists. For the time being, please wait until the region is safe again before you go here.

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