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Saint Catherine's Monastery: A Visitor's Guide
The isolated hermitage of Saint Catherine's Monastery sits snug between the craggy peaks of the Sinai High Mountain Range.
One of the world's oldest working monasteries, Saint Catherine's has been a vortex for both pilgrims and adventurous travelers for centuries.
Its fame and mystique comes from its location at the foot of Mount Sinai, the site of the Old Testament's story of the Ten Commandments, and so is revered by Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike.
Saint Catherine's Monastery
The monastery is also home to the "burning bush" and hosts one of the most renowned collections of religious icons in the world, a selection of which is on display to visitors in The Sacred Sacristy monastery museum.
Today, travelers and pilgrims in Egypt are still drawn to the barren, mountainous core of the Sinai Peninsula to both visit the monastery and hike to the summit of Mount Sinai.
Saint Catherine's Monastery sits a few kilometers away from the small settlement of Al-Milga, which has a couple of hotels and budget hostels, as well as some simple restaurants. For keen hikers who want to explore the Sinai's desert mountains, this village is a good base.
Most visitors, though, arrive as part of an organized day tour from the South Sinai resorts of Sharm el-Sheikh (209 kilometers southeast) and Dahab (132 kilometers east).
Use our visitor's guide to Saint Catherine's Monastery to find out more about the monastery itself and the historic and natural tourist attractions in the surrounding area.
Note: Some businesses may be temporarily closed due to recent global health and safety issues.
St. Catherine’s Monastery (SINAI)
ST. CATHERINE’S MONASTERY, at the foot of Gebel Musa in the Sinai desert, was built in the sixth century by the Byzantine emperor Justinian (527-565). It is one of the earliest remote Christian monasteries, and the oldest still used for its original purpose.
Anchorites had settled at the foot of the mountain by the fourth century on the site of what they believed was the original Burning Bush, which convinced them that they had found the Biblical Mount Sinai. The monks built a church next to the bush, and a tower to which they could retreat when nomadic raiders attacked. The monastery was built around these structures. It has retained its Eastern Orthodox culture and doctrine since it was founded.
The monastery became associated with St. Catherine of Alexandria in the ninth century. Legend has it that after her death, St. Catherine’s remains were transported by angels to the top of Mount Sinai (or, according to the monks of Sinai, to the adjacent Gebel Katarina), where they were found in around 800. Her cult eventually spread throughout Europe, bringing fame, wealth, and pilgrims to the monastery. By the twelfth century, the monks had moved her relics to the church, and the monastery had taken her name.
Today the monastery’s chief treasures are its library and collection of icons. The monastery is home to over two thousand icons, said to constitute the largest and oldest collection in the world. The library at St. Catherine’s houses more than 5,000 ancient manuscripts and scrolls in at least twelve languages, and over 5,000 early printed books.
The Church of St. Catherine remains the most important building in the monastery. Two rows of granite columns separate the nave and side aisles and nine chapels encircle the basilica, which is hung with silver chandeliers and gilded icons. A beautiful mosaic depicting the Transfiguration of Christ graces the apse. Separating the apse from the nave is an eighteenth-century iconostasis with large depictions of Jesus, Mary, John the Baptist, and St. Catherine surrounded by smaller icons and intricately carved gilded wood. Behind the apse is the Chapel of the Burning Bush, decorated with Damascene tiles and silver ornaments, and bearing a silver plaque to show the bush’s original location. On the other side of the wall, outside the chapel, is a living shrub that the monks say is the Burning Bush itself, transplanted in the tenth century after the chapel was built over it.
The fortified monastery and church was built by Byzantine emperor Justinian in ad 537. Not until the tenth century was the monastery dedicated to the virgin martyr St. Catherine. Chapels, dedicated to various saints, line the sides of the basilica. The first chapel on the left is dedicated to St. Marina. Icon of Moses and the Burning Bush is painted on the basilica’s iconostasis. It depicts Moses watering his flock and seeing the Burning Bush on the top of the mountain he receives the Tablets of the Law. The body of St. Catherine is taken to the top of the mountain by two angels. In another icon, Moses receives the Tablets of the Law on the peak of Mount Sinai, while below he kneels before the Burning Bush, inside which the Virgin and Child appear. St. Catherine witnesses the scene from the side. The most important manuscript in the library of the monastery is the Codex Syriacus. Outside the basilica in the area behind the Chapel of the Burning Bush is a bush surrounded by a high stone wall. It is believed to be the site where Moses stood. An impressive example of Greek church architecture, the Basilica of St. Catherine was built in the sixth century. The eighteenth-cen tury iconostasis separates the sanctuary and apse. St. Catherine’s relics are stored in a marble reliquary in the basilica. The interior of the Chapel of the Burning Bush is covered in bright blue-and-white tiles and decorated with precious icons and sacred ornaments in silver. The precise spot where the bush is believed to have stood is indicated by a silver plaque.
It is situated near the town of Saint Catherine and at the foot of Mount Sinai. Named after Catherine of Alexandria, the Monastery is part of the Greek Orthodox Church and is controlled by the Church of Sinai. It is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and holds the world&rsquos oldest constantly operating library.
The history of its founding can be traced back to AD .330 when empress Helena of Byzantine had a chapel built for local hermits.
The structure was constructed beside what was believed to be the Burning Bush, where Moses received the Ten Commandments from God.
The site was built between AD. 548 and AD. 565 and is one of the oldest working Christian monasteries.
It is named after St Catherine, a Christian martyr who was sentenced to death on the breaking wheel. The tradition says her body was transported to the peaks of Mount Saint Catherine by angels. Monks from the Sinai Monastery found her remains around the year 800.
Emperor Justinian I, during the 6 th century, ordered a fortress to be built around the original chapel, along with a basilica and a monastery. This was to offer secure homes for the monastic communities and the Christians living in southern Sinai.
An existing chapel was converted into a mosque during the Fatimid Caliphate, around 909. It was frequently used until the era of Mamluk Sultanate in the 13 th century. Today, it is only used on special occasions.
The monastery to this day is surrounded by the immense fortifications that preserve the location. Up until the 20 th century, the only access was through a door high up in the outer walls.
According to the traditions conserved, Mohammed knew about it and visited the monastery and the Sinai Fathers. The Quran has mentions the holy Sinai sites. In AD 623, a delegation from the province requested a letter of protection from Mohammed. He authorized and granted it.
The Letter of Protection is known as the Ahtiname, it derives from the Arabic word &ldquoahd&rdquo and &ldquoname&rdquo. The document has been an imperative item in the protection of the holy land. In 1517, Sultan Selim I took the original letter and put it in the royal treasury in Constantinople for safekeeping. He provided the monastery certified copies of the document.
In 1797, Napoleon Bonaparte conquered Egypt. He placed St Catherine&rsquos under his protection and granted the spot a certification with his signature. He funded the renovations for the northern walls of the fortress, which had been damaged by the 1798 floods.
Over the years, many people from throughout the world have come to the place as pilgrims. Today, an access road has been built to make the journey easier, as previously the journey used to be hazardous. It has become a popular day trip location from Sharm El Sheikh and Dahab.
Interesting facts about Saint Catherine’s Monastery
Saint Catherine’s Monastery lies on the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, at the mouth of a gorge at the foot of Mount Sinai.
Although it is commonly known as Saint Catherine’s, the monastery’s full official name is the Sacred Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai.
Built between 548 and 565, the monastery is one of the oldest working Christian monasteries in the world.
The monastery was built by order of the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I at the site where Moses is supposed to have seen the burning bush.
The architecture of St Catherine’s Monastery, the artistic treasures that it houses, and its domestic integration into a rugged landscape combine to make it an outstanding example of human creative genius.
St. Catherine’s Monastery is surrounded on all sides by a massive wall 2.5 meters (8,2 feet) wide and 11 meters (36 feet) high. It is made of huge dressed granite blocks except for the upper sections, which were restored on orders of Napoleon using smaller, undressed stone blocks. Christian symbols, such as crosses and monograms, are carved on the wall in various places.
The monastery has never been destroyed in all its history, and thus it can be said to have preserved intact the distinctive qualities of its Greek and Roman heritage.
Members of other Christian confessions have honoured the monastery, coming as pilgrims to this holy place. But from its beginnings, the Christian inhabitants of Sinai belonged to the Greek speaking world, and it has remained so to this day.
According to tradition, Catherine of Alexandria was a Christian martyr sentenced to death on the wheel. When this failed to kill her, she was beheaded. According to tradition, angels took her remains to Mount Sinai. Around the year 800, monks from the Sinai Monastery found her remains.
The main church of the monastery is the Church of St. Catherine , which was built of granite by the Byzantine architect Stephen of Aila at the same time as the defensive walls. The church structure, the roof, and the carved cedar doors at the entrance are all originals from 527 AD.
Inside, the church has a broad main nave, two side aisles, an apse and a narthex. The nave is bordered by massive granite columns with capitals decorated with Christian symbols. Each aisle has three chapels and there is a chapel on each side of the apse.
The iconostasis dates to 1612 and was made in the Monastery’s dependency of Crete at the time of Archbishop Lavrentios.
During the first half of the 4th century AD, the Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine, ordered the Chapel of the Burning Bush to be built on the site where Moses saw it’s namesake. The chapel, which was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, is now considered the holiest part of the monastery.
The Bush flourishes several meters farther from he chapel where it was transplanted in order to build the Altar upon its roots. It is said that this is the only bush of its kind growing in the entire Sinai Peninsula, and that every attempt to transplant a branch of it to another place has been unsuccessful.
Built in 1871, the bell tower contains nine bells of different sizes that were a gift of the Czars of Russia. The tower itself was built by a monastery monk named Gregorius.
There is a small chapel called the Chapel of St. Tryphon which serves as an ossuary for the skulls of deceased monastics.
Saint Catherine’s Monastery contains the world’s oldest continually operating library, possessing many unique books. The monastery library preserves the second largest collection of early codices and manuscripts in the world, outnumbered only by the Vatican Library. The collection consists of some 3,500 volumes in Greek, Coptic, Arabic, Armenian, Hebrew, Slavic, Syriac, Georgian and other languages.
The complex houses irreplaceable works of art: mosaics, the best collection of early icons in the world, many in encaustic, as well as liturgical objects, chalices and reliquaries.
The large icon collection begins with a few dating to the 5th (possibly) and 6th centuries, which are unique survivals, the monastery having been untouched by Byzantine iconoclasm, and never sacked.
The oldest icon on an Old Testament theme is also preserved there.
The Christ Pantocrator of St. Catherine’s Monastery is one of the oldest Byzantine religious icons, dating from the sixth century CE. It is the earliest known version of the pantocrator style that still survives today, and is regarded by historians and scholars to be one of the most important and recognizable works in the study of Byzantine art as well as Orthodox Christianity.
The monastery has been honoured by rulers throughout its history. These include the Empress Helena, the Emperor Justinian, Mohammed the Founder of Islam, Sultan Selim I, the Empress Catherine of Russia, and Napoleon Bonaparte.
The monastery is controlled by the autocephalous Church of Sinai, part of the wider Eastern Orthodox Church, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A small town with hotels and swimming pools, called Saint Katherine City, has grown around the monastery.
Security Concerns Close the Monastery of Saint Catherine
Despite the perseverance of the past, recent political instability in Egypt has had a terrible impact on the monastery. In 2013, the monastery was ordered to shut down due to the deteriorating security situation in the country. As the monastery is a popular tourist attraction, tourism has become the main source of income for surrounding communities. With the closure of the monastery, the livelihood of these communities has also been drastically affected.
The skull and bone “monastery” in Sinai desert
The EU sponsor a monastery where a skeleton has been dressed up in priestly garments and declared “holy”.
St. Stephanos is said to have died in 580 AD whilst at the Monastery. His skeleton is kept and dressed up in priestly garments.
The European Union (EU, The Greek Orthodox Church and Egypt is involved in restoration of Saint Catherine’s Monastery, who are located on the southern parts of the Sinai peninsula. Hundreds of skulls are also stored up inside this monastery, in the Charnel House.
This is what a website has recorded:
“Restoration and Protection of Monuments and Environment at Saint Catherine’s Monastery and the Summit of Jebel Musa” was a 45 months duration project that initiated on August of 2007. The planned activities included the implementation of a number of studies, works and supplies that will be the basis for the creation of the ‘Wadi el Deir Archaeological Park’. This is both a general conservation plan, based on the surveys and studies prepared within the framework of the SSRDP 540 project”
Here are some more pictures:
The bones have been collected and kept for display behind the dressed up skeleton. Martyrs slaughtered and denied a grave by their butchers. The skeleton has problems standing on its own, but are well dressed like a priest.
The rest of mankind that were not killed by these plagues still did not repent of the work of their hands they did not stop worshiping demons, and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood—idols that cannot see or hear or walk.
Some of the skulls have been given a more prominent place than the other. The priests have not used barbed wires, but this kind of open grave yards reminds me about the Holocaust. The monastery in the Sinai is restored with money from the European Union. The Orthodox Greek archbishop of the Sinai gets funds from the EU. Surly, the very highway to Hell. A new way of organizing the priestly office in Sinai. Just keep some hundred skulls as a part of the furniture.
The Egyptians will lose heart, and I will bring their plans to nothing they will consult the idols and the spirits of the dead, the mediums and the spiritists.
Of all religious madness you might encounter, this will probably be listed among the top 10.
To dress a skeleton in priestly garments, seems to be a disease in the Roman Catholic Church. In Bologna the remains of “St. Catherine” is dressed up like a nun.
The Greek Orthodox Church seems to be of the same kind.
A skeleton in Bologna in Italy dressed up as a nun.
To keep hundreds of skulls for display in an priestly office, can only be permitted by vile and blasphemous persons.
What a shocking display of filth and perversion, claimed by many to be a part of the Christian family on Earth.
Who were these people, and who have they beheaded?
They were the witness who bore testimony of Jesus in the first centuries after the Messiah ascended into Heaven.
They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?”
They were martyred by antichrists in the religious communities in the Middle East.
True Messianic faith spread like wildfire in the Middle East and in North Africa before 500 A.D.
But after the antichrists raised an Arab named Muhammad, true Christians in this part of the World were massacred and the Messianic culture destroyed.
The skulls of the true saints and martyrs are kept for adoration by the criminal butchers up to this day.
It is difficult to use strong enough words to warn against this kind of religious movements. The best way of guide people, is to use the words of the Messiah him self. He explains that there will be cursed people misusing his name, on the way to the eternal fire of Hell.
St. Catherine's Monastery possesses some of the earliest icons in existence, including this 6th-century hot wax icon.
The oldest record of monastic life at Sinai comes from the travel journal written in Latin by a woman named Egeria about 381-384. She visited many places around the Holy Land and Mount Sinai, where, according to the Hebrew Bible, Moses received the Ten Commandments from God. Ώ]
The monastery was built by order of Emperor Justinian I between 527 and 565, enclosing the Chapel of the Burning Bush ordered to be built by Helena, the mother of Constantine I, at the site where Moses is supposed to have seen the burning bush the living bush on the grounds is purportedly the original. It is also referred to as "St. Helen's Chapel." The site is sacred to Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Though it is commonly known as Saint Catherine's, the full, official name of the monastery is, The Sacred and Imperial Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount of Sinai, and the patronal feast of the monastery is the Transfiguration. The site was associated with Saint Catherine of Alexandria (whose relics were purported to have been miraculously transported there by angels) and it became a favorite site of pilgrimage.
Saint Catherine's monastery, photographed by Leavitt Hunt, first American to photograph the Middle East, 1852, George Eastman House
Catherine of Alexandria was a Christian martyr initially sentenced to death on the wheel. However, when this failed to kill her, she was beheaded. According to tradition, angels took her remains to Mount Sinai. Around the year 800, monks from the Sinai Monastery found her remains.
The monastery possesses an important historical document, the Achtiname, in which Muhammad is claimed to have bestowed his protection upon the monastery.
In 628 C.E. Prophet Muhammad (s) granted a Charter of Privileges to the monks of St. Catherine Monastery in Mt. Sinai. It consisted of several clauses covering all aspects of human rights including such topics as the protection of Christians, freedom of worship and movement, freedom to appoint their own judges and to own and maintain their property, exemption from military service, and the right to protection in war.
An English translation of that document is presented below.
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 world).
A Fatimid mosque was built within the walls of the monastery, but it has never been used since it is not correctly oriented towards Mecca.
During the seventh century, the isolated Christian anchorites of the Sinai were eliminated: only the fortified monastery remained. The monastery is still surrounded by the massive fortifications that have preserved it. Until the twentieth century, access was through a door high in the outer walls. From the time of the First Crusade, the presence of Crusaders in the Sinai until 1270 spurred the interest of European Christians and increased the number of intrepid pilgrims who visited the monastery. The monastery was supported by its dependencies in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Crete, Cyprus and Constantinople.
The monastery is depicted as a scene on the back panel of the Modena Triptych by El Greco.
The Order today
After His Excellency Dr. Gerard Shanks, third Vicar Grand Master of the Order, passed away on November 2000, there was no activities in Quebec for almost 2 years. Dr. André St-Jean took the interim, in Quebec until the foundation of a group, by Major Jacques Labrecque after his nomination as Prior, on March 17, 2002, called the Priory of Quebec. Major Labrecque was installed in his function by Archbishop Herma Mikhail, 4th Vicar Grand Master of the Order in the US, freshly installed Grand Master after the death of Mr. Shanks).
Since 2003, the Priory expended by the adhesion, of many civilians and militaries personalities whom gave a new boost to the Order in Canada. In 2006, Major Labrecque was nominated Grand Prior of the Grand Priory of Canada by Archbishop Mikhail.
His Eminence the Most Reverend Mikhail is an Archbishop of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (Sobornopravna) in the United States and directed the Order from November 2000 until February 21, 2009. He named Dr. Brett Gordon as 5th Vicar Grand Master, (after he was forced to resign because of his health) and Mr. Gordon stayed in place until January 30, 2011. Dr. Gordon then resigned for personal reasons. Arcbishop Mikhail took the interim and on June 7, 2011 designated Major Jacques Labrecque, Duke of Blandford as 6th Vicar Grand Master of the Order. Major Labrecque then holds a plurality of offices: Vicar Grand Master of the Order at the international level, Grand Prior of Canada and Prior of Quebec
Hey NPR: ISIS threats to St. Catherine's Monastery in Sinai are not just about tourist dollars
It is my sincere hope that there were no Eastern Orthodox Christians hurt in automobile accidents last week if they went into shock and swerved off the road after hearing the following National Public Radio mini-story on the radio. My fellow Orthodox believers: If you have hot coffee in hand as you read this post -- Put. It. Down.
The headline captures the tone: "Gunmen Attack Popular Religious Tourism Site In Sinai." What's the problem with that?
Well, we're talking about St. Catherine's Monastery, which is way, way, way more important -- in terms of history, art and significance to world Christianity -- than its role as a "tourism site."
Imagine the reaction among religious Jews if NPR had referred, after a similar attack, to the Western "wailing" Wall of the temple in Jerusalem as a "popular tourism site." I mean, it is a place visited by tourists, but that does not even hint at the site's significance to those who consider it a holy place. This is pushing things, but is Mecca a "popular tourism site"?
OK, forget religion for a moment. There are solid reasons that St. Catherine's has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We are talking about what many believe is the world's oldest library.
What about the monastery's priceless, irreplaceable sacred art? Click here to check out the Metropolitan Museum of Art tribute to St, Catherine's and the icons venerated there by the monks. And here is the excellent guide to the collection maintained by Princeton University. For starters, we are talking about the home of Christ of Sinai, which is the oldest known icon of the image known as Christ Pantocrator. You can make a case that this is the world's most important, the most beloved, Christian icon.
So what did NPR say in this mini-report? Here's the top of what is stored online:
Now, to be fair, it's possible that this NPR emphasis on the tourism angle -- as opposed to information about faith and world culture -- was drawn straight out of the hard-news report served up by the Associated Press. The lede does talk about the "famed" monastery, but later there is this:
Believe it or not, that's the sum total of the story's information about the religious and cultural significance of St. Catherine's and the area surrounding it (as in the mountain at the center of that whole Moses and the burning bush thing). Other than that, the story is only interested in politics and details about recent terrorist attacks (which are important).
As for me, I would have mentioned that the leaders of the monastery also have -- passed down through the centuries -- a letter written by the Prophet Muhammad guaranteeing their safety. People argue about the authenticity, but it's a document that no one would want to see shredded or burned (other than ISIS leaders, of course).
Now, Reuters did do a story -- circulated by Religion News Service -- that kind of hints at the larger context of this attack. The Reuters team did manage to mention:
I think it's safe to say that the Egyptian government appears to understand the importance of St. Catherine's Monastery, and not just for the tourists who manage to make it that far out into the desert. We are talking about a site that is so remote that a visitor in 1946 reported that the monks had not heard that World War II had taken place.
The bottom line: Remember how journalists realized the importance of the monasteries and sacred libraries of the Nineveh Plain weeks or months AFTER they had been utterly destroyed by ISIS?