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 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 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 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 from the nave is an iconostasis with large depictions of Jesus, Mary, John the Baptist, and St. Catherine surrounded by smaller icons and intricately carved gilded wood. Behind the 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.
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.
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.
Icon of 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.
In another icon, receives the Tablets of the 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.
The most important manuscript in the library of the monastery is the 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.
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 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.
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.
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.

Text by Carolyn Ludwig

Photographs by Araldo De Luca