Sunday, April 12, 2015

Saint Catherine's Monastery

Saint Helena's Chapel, also known as the Chapel of the Burning Bush, was ordered built by Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine in about 330 A.D., at the site believed to be where Moses had seen the burning bush. Helena was apparently responding to requests from Christian ascetics living in the Mount Sinai area who had followed the example of the third century Saint Antony. In about 548, the Emperor Justinian ordered the building of the monastery which enclosed Saint Helena's Chapel and it was completed in about 565. The monastery is known as Saint Catherine's, after Catherine of Alexandria, a Christian martyr. Angels apparently took Saint Catherine's remains to the area and they were found by the monks in about 800. However, the official name is the Sacred Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai. I love the term "God-Trodden Mount Sinai." However, I think of God meeting Moses at the top, and Moses going up and down the mountain. So perhaps "Moses-Trodden" or "God-Visited" might be a better fit. The monastery is at 4,854 feet and the summit of Mt. Sinai is 7,497 feet.
This photo of Saint Catherine's with Mount Sinai in the background is from Wikipedia. Note the gardens to the right of the monastery, outside the main walls. None of my own photos capture the high peak in the background. 
Saint Catherine's Monastery viewed from the Stairway of Repentance on the way down from the summit of Jebel Musa. 
The monastery is Greek Orthodox and headed by an archbishop who is also abbot of the monastery. It is one of the oldest working monasteries in the world and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

The library has the second largest collection of early manuscripts in the world, after the Vatican. Until May 1844 it held the Codex Sinaiticus, a 4th century manuscript which was the oldest almost completely preserved manuscript of the Bible. It was written sometime between 325 and 360 and originally included both the Old and New Testaments, but only about half of the Old Testament survives. It has the complete New Testament, the Epistle of Barnabas and portions of The Shepherd of Hermas. It, along with the Codex Vaticanus, are considered the two best Greek texts of the New Testament. It was apparently borrowed by the Russians, then sold to the British and is now housed in the British Museum. The monastery contends it was lent, not given, and wants it back. I heard Prince Charles recently say that if the British Museum gave back everything that was stolen there would be nothing left in it. Unfortunately for us, the library is not open to the public and we could only view it from the outside looking in. The current library was built in 1951 and is the most modern structure in the monastery. 

A museum in the monastery has a copy of the Ashtiname of Muhammad, which is a charter ratified by the Prophet Muhammad granting protection to the Christian monks of Saint Catherine's. It is sealed with an imprint representing Muhammad's hand. Tradition has it that Muhammad frequented the monastery and granted the charter in 626. The original ashtiname was taken to the Ottoman Treasury in Istanbul by Caliph Selim I in 1517 who replaced it with a certified copy. The ashtiname worked as Saint Catherine's survived the Arab conquest whereby Christian life on the Sinai Peninsula all but vanished by 800. Later, more was apparently needed to preserve the monastery's precarious existence. In the 10th or 11th century a Fatimid mosque was also built within the walls of the monastery, but it was not correctly oriented towards Mecca and so it has never been used. But it was apparently enough and a help as it still exists.
The ashtiname. Photo from Wikipedia. I'm guessing that the steps to the church and church, above, may be a representation of the Church of the Holy Trinity on the summit of Mount Sinai. 
The mosque minaret is to the right of the bell tower. 
The monastery has been blessed from many sources over the centuries. Papal bulls and proclamations from Pope Honorius III in 1217, Pope Gregory X (1271 to 1276), Pope John XXII (1316 to 1334), Pope Benedict XII in 1358, and Pope Innocent VI in 1360 expressed goodwill or intercessions in the monastery's behalf. Turkish Sultans including Selim I and Suleiman the Magnificent issued favorable decrees exempting the monastery from custom duties. And when Napoleon conquered Egypt in 1798 he put the monastery under his protection. 
Our Bedouin guide mentioned that this blocked up entrance was done either in anticipation of Napoleon's arrival or by Napoleon after he arrived. I couldn't find confirmation of this anywhere else. 
The monastery was not impacted by Byzantine iconoclasm and as a result now contains the best collection of early icons in the world. Unfortunately, like so much in Saint Catherine's, we could not take pictures of them. But it was pretty spectacular. I've gotten a few images off the internet.
The oldest known icon of Christ Pantocrater. From Wikipedia. 
A 6th century icon of Virgin and Child. From Wikipedia. 
Icon of Saint Catherine. From Wikipedia. I assume the depiction in the bottom right is of her body being moved by angels to the Sinai Peninsula. 
The Crucifixion. From Wikipedia. 
The outside walls of the monastery have changed little from the time they were ordered built by Justinian. They are built of blocks of granite, with a height varying from 26 feet on the south side to 115 feet on the north side. The thickness of the walls ranges from 6.5 to 10 feet.  The thickness was one of the very impressive things to me as we first entered. Right above where we entered is what is called a machicolation, from which boiling oil could be poured down upon attackers.
This gives a sense of the massive outer walls. 
A view from one of the corners at ground level.
The main entrance with a machicolation above it. 
Note the thickness of the walls through the main entrance. 
The main church of the monastery is the Church of Saint Catherine, built at the same time as the outer walls of granite blocks. The older Chapel of Saint Helena was incorporated in to the church. The walls, pillar, roof,  inscriptions and front doors are all from the time of Justinian. The old roof is now covered by an 18th century ceiling and the floor, interior decorations and iconostasis date to the 17th and 18th centuries.
The Church of Saint Catherine as viewed from without the walls. Inside it is too close quarters to get any kind of a panoramic view of it. 
View of the church from the front doors. Picture borrowed from Somali Press.
Mosaic of the Transfiguration. Picture borrowed from Tour Egypt.
Unfortunately, it was quite dark, no pictures were allowed, and large sections of it were cordoned off. We did get a good look at the massive front doors. They are made of cedar wood from Lebanon and carved with reliefs of animals, birds, flowers and leaves.
Front doors of Saint Catherine's Church. Picture borrowed from the internet. 
The iconostasis was made in 1612 in Crete at one of the monastery's dependencies.
The iconostasis. Photo borrowed from Egypt Travel Search.
I noted in my post on the burning bush that it had been moved several yards so that Saint Helena's Chapel could be built there. The altar of that chapel stands above the roots of where the burning bush originally stood.
The burning bush is just visible to the left. Note the gate that bars entrance. Saint Helena's Chapel is within the enclosed granite walls of the larger Saint Catherine's Church. An upper wall of the main portion of the church is visible to top right. The central dome with a cross on top covers Saint Helena's Chapel. The door in the center is an entrance to the Chapel and I believe you can also enter from inside Saint Catherine's Church as well. Our Bedouin guide indicated he had been in the Chapel many times and I believe he said it was now open to the public only one day a year.  
The bell tower was built in 1871. It has nine bells of varying sizes that were gifts from the Czars of Russia.
19th century bell tower.
The gardens and orchards of the monastery are outside the main walls. They date from at least the 4th century as they were mentioned in a journal of that period. Soil has been brought in from other locales and tanks which trap rainfall and melting snow provide irrigation water. They grow vegetables, flowers, decorative plants and olive, apricot, plum and cherry trees.
Part of the monastery gardens.
More of the monastery gardens.
Monks are buried in a small cemetery which is among the gardens. Because of limited space, they are later exhumed and their bones placed in the ossuary. The oldest skeleton in the ossuary is that of St. Stephen, the 6th century monk whose chapel we saw in Elijah's Basin. Unfortunately, the ossuary is now closed to visitors.
The ossuary.
I have a few more photos I liked which just illustrate how old Saint Catherine's is.
Old wood incorporated into the outer wall.
This section has an almost Old English feel to it. 
I love this embedded inscription. I assume it is in Greek.
A mosaic on a newer wall. 
The history of Saint Catherine's is staggering. It was actually my main interest in going to the area - the climbing of Mount Sinai was secondary. Although, given all that was closed of to our view in the monastery, I rate the visit to the top of Mount Sinai as the literal and figurative high point of the visit.

Information for this post has come primarily from Wikipedia and especially which has a wonderful website full of information on the area. 


  1. Spectacular post. Hard to believe that a monastery out in the boonies of the Sinai has the second-largest collection of ancient manuscripts behind the Vatican! That icon of Christ Pantocrater is beautiful, almost modern looking. And the interior views of St. Catherine's--WOW.

  2. Sacred Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai, Stairway of Repentance--these guys are masters at great names. Sinai is spectacular, with so much so see. No wonder you were so motivated to get there--I'm glad you were able to figure it out.