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St. Catherine Monastery

The Greek orthodox monastery of St. Catherine

St. Catherine Monastery

St. Catherine's Monastery is an Orthodox monastery on the Sinai peninsula at the foot of Mount Sinai in Egypt. One of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world, St. Catherine's incorporates the burning bush seen by Moses and contains many valuable icons. Above the monastery is Mount Sinai(see separate article), where Moses received the Ten Commandments from God. Because God spoke to Moses in these places, this area is sacred to three world religions: Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

History of St. Catherine's Monastery

In the early 4th century, St. Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, built the Chapel of the Burning Bush at the site where Moses is supposed to have seen the miracle.

The fortified walls were built around the chapel by the Byzantine emperor and great church-builder Justinian (who also commissioned the Hagia Sophia) starting in 527. The Church of the Transfiguration was completed by Justinian's workers in the 560s, around the time of his death.

The monastery's actual name is the Monastery of the Transfiguration, but it later became associated with St. Catherine of Alexandria, a 3rd-century martyr whose head and hand were brought here for safe keeping in the 10th century. St. Catherine's Monastery became a major pilgrimage destination in the Byzantine Era and it still is today.

Mount Sinai is also revered by Muslims as Jebel Musa (Mount Moses), the place where God handed down his Law. In 623, a document signed by the Prophet Muhammad himself, the Actiname(Holy Testament), exempted the Christian monks of St. Catherine's from the usual taxes and military service and commanded that Muslims provide the community with every help.

In recognition of this gesture, the St. Catherine's monks permitted the conversion of a small Crusader chapel within the monastery to a mosque between 1101 and 1106 during the Fatimid Caliphate (909-1171). This was in regular use until Mameluke rule in the later 13th century, when it was neglected until its restoration in the early 20th century. It is still used on special occasions by the local Muslims.

In 2002, the area centering on St. Catherine's Monastery was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO because of Mt. Sinai's importance in three major world religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), the natural environment of the area and St. Catherine's historic architecture and art.

What to See at St. Catherine's Monastery

St. Catherine's Monastery comprises the entire Orthodox Church of Mount Sinai, an autonomous Orthodox Christian church headed by an archbishop, who is also the abbot of the monastery. The archbishop is traditionally consecrated by the Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem.

St. Catherine's Monastery is surrounded on all sides by a massive wall 2.5 m wide and 11m high. This is the wall provided by Emperor Justinian in the 6th century. 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. Until the 20th century, access was through a door high in the outer walls. The entrance is now through a smaller gate (also original) to the left of the main gate.

The holiest part of the monastery is the large living shrub that is said to be a direct descendent of the very burning bush that was seen by Moses. The Chapel of the Burning Bush was built with its altar situated above the roots of the bush and incorporates the 4th-century chapel built by Empress St. Helena. The chapel is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The bust itself was transplanted to permit the construction of the altar and now grows a few meters from the chapel. It is a rare species of the rose family called Rubus Sanctus. The bush is native to Sinai and extremely long-lived, facts that help lend credibility to the site.

The main church of the monastery is the Basilica of the Transfiguration (or Katholikon), which was built of granite by the Byzantine architect Stephanos 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 basilica 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. Next to the main altar is a sarcophagus with the relics of St. Catherine (head and hand).

The ceiling, marble floor and elaborate iconostasis of the basilica date from the 18th century. The icons, mosaics and works of art that decorate the interior span many centuries. The doors of the narthex were added by Crusaders in the 11th century.

The neo-Classical bell tower was built in 1871 by one of the monks, Gregorius. It houses nine bells given by the Tsar of Russia.

A continual supply of fresh water is provided to the monastery by the Well of Moses, which taps an underground spring. According to tradition, this stands on the very spot where Moses met his future wife, Zipporah, after protecting her and her sisters from an aggressive group of local shepherds (Exodus 2:16-21).

The monks' cells are constructed along the inner faces of the defensive walls. The rectangular Old Refectory (also known as the "Crusader's Church") has a Gothic vaulted roof whose arches are decorated with the arms and other symbols of Crusader knights. Murals on the walls date from the Crusader period and the 16th century. The central feature is a long table with fine carvings, brought from Corfu in the 18th century.

The library at St. Catherine's is the oldest in the Christian world and preserves the second largest collection of early codices and manuscripts in the world (outnumbered only by the Vatican Library). Its collection includes more than 3000 manuscripts and more than 5000 early religious books.

The library also has a precious collection of more than 2000 icons of Christ, Mary and the saints, displayed in a special gallery. These represent almost every school of Byzantine iconography from the 6th to the 18th century.

The Fatimid mosque, completed in 1106 on the site of a Crusader chapel, is located to the southwest of the basilica. It is rectangular in plan (7m by 11m) and 7m high, wih a small semi-detached minaret in the north corner. A small courtyard in front forms the roof of the well-restored ancient olive press and mill. The inside of the mosque has a flat wooden roof, circular arches and small high windows. Three shallow mihrabs are arranged in the qibla wall. All the windows were blocked with brick during the restoration of the mid-20th century.

Outside the walls is the Monastery Garden, created over many years by the monks. Soil was brought here from elsehwere and tanks were made to store water for irrigation. It contains fruit trees including olives, apricots and plums and produces a variety of vegetables.

Next to the garden is the Cemetery and Charnel House. When the monks die, they are first buried in the cemetery, then after decay their bones are disinterred and deposited in the Charnel House (a crypt beneath the Chapel of St. Trifonio). The bones of the abbot-archbishops are kept in special niches. The Charnel House has both a practical and a spiritual function: it solves the problems of limited space and rocky ground and reminds the monks of the inevitability of death. Visitors are able to view the great pile of thousands of skulls of past monks.

Many visitors to St. Catherine's Monastery also make the hike (or the camel ride) to the summit of Mount Sinai (2285m), a.k.a. Mount Moses or Mount Horeb. This is identified as the mountain where Moses received the Tablets of the Law from God. The main route to the summit is known as the Path of Moses (Arabic: Sikket Sayidna Musa) and is lined with remains of various chapels


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