“ Sightseeing Type: Churches / Temples „
St. Catherine's Monastery. Sinai, Eygpt.
St. Catharine's Monastery a designated UNESCO site can be found in Sinai Eygpt at the base of Mount Sinai in a tiny little gorge which appears to be in the middle of nowhere. It is reputed to be the oldest working monastery in the world. It is of significant importance not only for Greek Orthodox Christians but also Islam.
It is primarily a Greek Orthodox Christian monastery but within the walls of the monastery there is a mosque for the passing nomadic Bedouins some of whom still live within the walls helping the monks in their day to day lives.
It is here at the base of Mount Sinai that it is supposed to be where God appeared to Moses in the burning bush with the Ten Commandments and the bush is still there today in one of the little alleyways within the monastery walls.
The monastery is built like a fort with very high walls and a tiny door way which leads into an alley way which leads into the monastery. It has been impregnable throughout its very long history and has never been destroyed. The Prophet Mohammed wrote a decree giving protection to the monks. This hand written note can be found in the monastery archives.
It was originally known as the Monastery of the Blessed Virgin but was later renamed St, Catharine's monastery.
~Who was St. Catharine? ~
She was supposed to have been the daughter of the Governor of Alexandria Costus and was a very learned scholar. It is reported that she told her parents she would only marry someone who exceeded and surpassed her in knowledge and beauty.
She met the Roman emperor Maxentius and argued with him for the error of his ways for his victimising and the persecution of Christians. She was unable to convert him to Christianity but managed to convert his wife the Empress. Maxentius sent many scholars to argue with her but she managed to convert them. Eventually on his orders she was thrown in prison and sentenced to death by the breaking wheel.
The breaking wheel was a particularly nasty way to die as the person was tied to a wheel and their limbs were systematically broken and it could be days before they actually died of dehydration and shock. Sometimes the bones would protrude through the skin and the victim was strung up and gnawed at by birds. Sometimes they would be set on fire and the wheel spun. However according to legend as soon as St.Catharine touched the wheel it broke. So she was beheaded instead. Supposedly an angel carried her body which was taken to Mount Sinai and eventually found there by the monks after several years and her remains are still held in the monastery.
Interestingly the firework the Catherine wheel is reputed to be named after her.
~ What is so special about St. Catharine's Monastery? ~
Not only because of its age and the significance of the burning bush, the tablets of stone and ten commandments but it contains the most precious of manuscripts and volumes in the world dating back centuries. There are over 6,000 pieces which are written mainly in Greek but also in Arabic, Armenian, Coptic and Syriac languages. The collection is nearly as precious as the Vatican library collections. They are priceless and irreplaceable.
None of the manuscripts will ever leave the monastery again because in the 1800's a scholar from Leipzig visited the monastery gained the trust of the monks. He then showed them a letter authorising him to take some of the manuscripts to be copied. He promised to return these to them once they were copied but he took them to St. Petersburg and gave them as a gift to Tsar Alexander II. After the revolution in 1917 they were sold for £100,000 to the British museum where they are currently held.
Inside the monastery there is a myriad of alleyways and small buildings, cobbled streets and small chapels. There is a well which the monks are able to draw water from and lots of little squares. The heat is quite relentless but in the shadows of the buildings there is some relief from the heat. They grow their own vegetables in the grounds and still provide hostels for travellers and pilgrims.
In it's hey day there used to be between 300- 400 monks living in the monastery but today there are only about 20 monks. Once the monks enter the monastery their life is very harsh starting with prayers at 4AM to 7 Am and then evening prayers between 3PM & 5PM. The monks only eat one main meal a day in the evening prior to going to bed.
When the monks die they are buried in the cemetery and once all the soft flesh has gone their bones are exhumed and stored in the small chapel of St. Triphone. There are thousands of skulls and bones all piled up neatly in the chapel. In amongst this pile of bones and skulls there is one skeleton wrapped in cloths wearing a purple skull cap. This is the skeleton of St.Stephanos who died in 580AD whilst at the monastery.
The main Chapel is the Chapel of the Transfiguration and is the largest of the chapels within the monastery walls. It is very ornate with lots of holy Icons and paintings. It is richly covered in gold and silver. There are massive gold candelabras and a very ornate rood screen known as an iconostasis with miniature iconic paintings this in turn is protecting the massive gold mosaic picture of the transfiguration. This chapel is breathtaking in its beauty.
There is a very small chapel beside the burning bush that is unadorned and the monks who enter for prayer may approach and get near as possible to the roots of the burning bush to say prayers. This chapel is out of bounds to the public although you can walk right up to the burning bush and touch it in one of the little alley ways.
There is a small museum housing ancient Icons and church cloth, Chalices and various other religious treasures hundreds of years old. There are gifts to the monks from various Popes, Bishops and various Greek Patriarchs in the museum. There is quite a collection of precious and semi precious stone encrusted bibles. It really is quite beautiful.
Would I recommend a visit?
Absolutely especially if you are staying in the area it is definitely worth a visit. Bus tours are available from Taba and Sharm el sheik but you would have to find out the prices locally as it was included as part of our tour of Eygpt. It really is a beautiful tranquil and very historical place to visit not just because of the burning bush but because of the beautiful architecture, the priceless artwork and artefacts.
The Greek Orthodox monastery of the God-trodden Mount Sinai, located at the spot where Moses spoke with God through the Burning Bush.