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.
Text by Carolyn Ludwig
Photographs by Araldo De Luca