My chance to visit storied Saint Catherines Monastery came at last. The illustration above, from a purchased booklet, captures the aura, the mystique, of this holy place ― a pilgrimage site for centuries ― the oldest continuously inhabited monastery in the world.
It's a crack of dawn start to get there, a three hour drive from Sharm el-Sheik deep into the Sinai desert plateau, because the monastery closes to visitors before noon. Travelling the desert one is ever mindful of the long Exodus led by Moses into this land. Situated at the foot of looming Mount Sinai (Jebel Musa aka Mount Horeb), here it's believed Moses received the Ten Commandments. The biblical burning bush is located at this place. Tradition says here Moses met a daughter of Jethro at the well and married her ... Old Testament references are abundant. The prophet Elijah sought refuge here in the seventh century, living in a nearby cave.
Administered by the Greek Orthodox Church, the site holds the relics of Catherine of Alexandria who was tortured (Catherine wheel!) and beheaded for her Christian belief. The official name of the complex is Sacred Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai. Pilgrims and scholars from the world's three great monotheistic religions have come here even before Byzantine Empress Helena established a church in 330 A.D. Emperor Justinian fortified the site in the sixth century to protect the monks and the Church of the Transfiguration from roaming attackers and looters.
Our guide is Amr who came all the way from Cairo on a bus to serve us; he is an archaeology graduate of the American University in Cairo. The inevitable security guy in a suit sits in front of me. Amr gives statistics: of Egypt's ninety-three million population, twenty million are (Coptic) Christians. Sadly for me, Amr says there will be no time for camel riding; he saw me heading for the animals waiting patiently on the road.
|St Catherine icon; Wikipedia.com|
Saint Catherines library has the world's second most outstanding (after the Vatican) collection of ancient religious manuscripts. The Codex Sinaiticus was discovered here: the oldest, most completely preserved manuscript of the Bible. It's a relief to know that the most important documents have been filmed or digitized. Over two thousand priceless icons of antiquity in the monastery's holdings are no less distinguished. We did not have special access to the library or the icon gallery.
|Ladder of Divine Ascent; Wikipedia.com|
|In the Church of the Transfiguration; Wikipedia.com|
Photography is not allowed in the Church of the Transfiguration (by that time I had experienced yet another camera battery fail). We passed through the magnificent original carved cedar doors to the interior. The mosaics and art are overwhelming. St Catherine's reliquary is beside the main altar. Later, outside, we observed Jethro's well, the burning bush, the bell tower (a gift from the Russian Orthodox Church), and a small twelfth century mosque.
|The Burning Bush thrives in its greenery|
The essential tranquility of the surroundings induces awed respect despite the occasional crowding as one group of tourists follows another. Everything is so well kept. Former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was notably fond of this place. He wished to be buried at St Catherines but state formality dictated otherwise. Today, a few dozen monks are in residence. For centuries the local Muslim Bedouin have been a loyal workforce, especially in the gardens. Their ancestors date back to the days before Islam.
Some die-hards prefer to begin their visit at midnight in order to climb Mount Sinai ― it takes that long in the dark to reach the top. Their "reward" is an unparalleled sunrise, dreaming of Moses in the face of God.
Saint Catherines Monastery has been well-preserved from potential damage due to its protection in historically troubled times, protection ranging from emperors to the prophet Mohammed to Napoleon. Cataloguing the collection began in the 1960s and continues. The Saint Catherine Foundation supports necessary, ongoing conservation of the precious manuscripts and artifacts. In view of the mindless destruction and desecration occurring today in the Middle East, I have fears for its safety.
Note: Usage rights for external photographs shown here extend to non-commercial reuse.
© 2015 Brenda Dougall Merriman