The Greek Orthodox monastery of the God-trodden Mount Sinai lies at the very place where God appeared to Prophet Moses in the Burning Bush, beneath the Mount of the Decalogue. In the providence of God, it is at this site also that the holy relics of Saint Catherine are enshrined.
- Location of Saint Catherine’s Monastery
- Spiritual Inheritance
- History of Monastery of Saint Catherine
- Old Testament
- The Beginnings of Sinai Monasticism
- Saint Catherine, Patron Saint of the Holy Monastery of Sinai
- Saint Catherine’s Reliquary
- Napoleon Bonaparte
- Ancient Prerogatives
- Pilgrims and Visitors to Saint Catherine’s Monastery
- Sinai Monastery Today
Location of Saint Catherine’s Monastery
Saint Catherine’s Monastery is the oldest continuously inhabited Christian monastery, with a history that we can trace back over seventeen centuries. The monastery predates the divisions of the Christian world, its origins extending to late antiquity.
However, from its beginnings, the Christian inhabitants of Sinai belonged to the Greek-speaking world. Furthermore, it has remained so to this day. The monastery has never witnessed the destruction in all its history. Furthermore 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.
The earliest description refers to the Monastery of the Holy Virgin, for God’s revelation at the Burning Bush was seen as a type of the Virgin Mary and the Incarnation. It remains its name today, though the monastery has not lost its earlier dedications. The hermitage is also primarily dedicated to Moses and Elias’s holy prophets. They came to this mountain and spoke with Christ at the Transfiguration. More recently, it gained its name as Saint Catherine’s Monastery. Thus.
More than one hundred and seventy Sinai saints are honoured by the church. In addition to Saint Catherine, these include Saint John Climacus, abbot of Sinai and author of The Ladder of Divine Ascent. They also have the ascetic fathers Hesychios and Philotheus, two saints named Anastasius, Gregory of Sinai (who transplanted the Hesychast traditions to the Slavic peoples) Symeon Pentaglossos (who translated relics of Saint Catherine to Rouen. They thereby helped establish the veneration of Saint Catherine in the West.
The monastery can be considered a veritable Ark for its spiritual treasures. These include the manuscripts and early printed books preserved in the Sinai library, celebrated throughout the world for the antiquity and importance of its volumes. It also consists of the monastery icons, including the essential collection of pre-iconoclastic panel icons and icons of the most extraordinary beauty and significance dating from the Comnene dynasty.
The monastery has been honoured by rulers throughout its history. These include Empress Helena, Emperor Justinian, Mohammed the Founder of Islam, Sultan Selim I, the Empress Catherine of Russia, and Napoleon Bonaparte. Contemporary heads of state have continued to show their interest in the monastery. The Holy Monastery of Sinai is famous worldwide for its spiritual and cultural radiance. It has been revered not only by Christians but also by Moslems and Jews. UNESCO has recently listed it as a World Heritage Site for its cultural and scenic significance.
From earliest times until the present day, the monks of Sinai maintain a dedication both to prayer and the support of pilgrims and visitors. They live at peace with the native Bedouin. They retain the ancient spiritual heritage of Sinai. This inheritance extends from giving the Law through the whole of the Old and New Testaments to the multitude of saints whose memory has been enshrined at Sinai. Above all, it extends to the All-holy Theotokos, the holy prophets Moses and Elias, and Saint Catherine.
History of Monastery of Saint Catherine
Moses in the Land of Midian
At the age of forty, Moses fled into the wilderness to escape the wrath of Pharaoh. He came to the land of Midian. Here he met Jethro, the priest of the Highest God, and married his daughter Zipporah. They had two sons. Moses called his firstborn son Gershom, saying, “I have been a stranger in a strange land” (Exodus 2:22), and his second son he named Eliezer, which means “God is my help”. He said, “the God of my father was mine help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh” (Exodus 18:4). It was here that God appeared to him in the Burning Bush, and here that he received the Ten Commandments and the whole of the Law. North of the catholicon, there exists the well at which Moses met the seven daughters of Jethro, as recorded in the scriptures (Exodus 2:15-22).
The Route of the Exodus
In their trek towards the Promised Land, the Children of Israel crossed the Sinai about the thirteenth century BC. Although scholars much discussed the exact route they followed, the traditional way extends through the Red Sea and then south to Ras Sudr (or Sadr), where Moses turned the bitter waters into sweet. Following the valley of Wadi Hebron, they passed to Rephidim, where they defeated the Amalekites. And from thence to Horeb, the Mount of the Law. Subsequently, they came to Elim, located at Raitho, the seventy palm trees and twelve springs of water.
The Prophet Aaron
When God commanded him to return to Egypt and free the Children of Israel, Moses had his brother Aaron as his helper and support. Aaron was anointed to be the first High Priest when it was his rod that miraculously “budded. And also, he brought forth buds, and bloomed blossoms, and yielded almonds” (Numbers 17:8). Today, there is a chapel dedicated to the Prophet Aaron at the entrance to the valley where the Holy Monastery of Sinai exists.
The Beginnings of Sinai Monasticism
The history of Sinai Monasticism begins in the 3rd century. The first monastics came to the Sinai in their yearning to draw nigh to God amid profound silence, isolation, prayer, and holiness. They had the same mystical longing that attracted monastics to the deserts of Scetis, the Wadi Natrun, or the deserts in the Judaean wilderness. Centred at the site of the Burning Bush, the early anchorites settled throughout the south Sinai. Visitors can see the traces of their chapels and cells to this day.
The early monastics suffered constant privations, and martyrdom crowned some monks. Many monks lived in solitude during the days of the week and gathered at a central chapel on the Lord’s day for common prayer and the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. Historians estimated the number of monastics reached some six hundred who were living in the region of Sinai by the seventh century.
Emperor Constantine ended the persecution of the Christians. Emperor Constantine saw the sign of the Cross in the heavens at the decisive moment when he was marching towards Rome. Therefore, he desired to find a church at the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ site that would be the most splendid church in all the empire. Further, Constantine appointed his mother Helen as Augusta and unlimited access to the imperial treasury. Moreover, he requested to adorn the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with precious marbles and coffer and gild the ceiling. Further, the Augusta Helen went to Jerusalem in the year AD 327. The Sinai monks appealed to her for the construction of a church at the site of the Burning Bush.
Historians sometimes refer to this chapel as the Chapel of Saint Helen. It dated to AD 330. A tower, constructed at that same time, still survives within the complex of the monastery. It is the site of the Chapel of the Life-giving Spring.
The command of Emperor Justinian (who reigned from 527-565 AD) aided the flourishing of Sinai monasticism greatly. Emperor Justinian ordered the construction of a great basilica at the site of the Burning Bush and high surrounding walls. The emperor also commanded soldiers to build the basilica and fortress, reside in the area, and protect the monastery.
Two inscriptions dating from that time are carved into the beams of the basilica. The one said, “For the salvation of our most august emperor Justinian”. The other says, “For the memory and repose of our departed Empress Theodora”. The empress Theodora died in 548, and the basilica is first mentioned by Procopius, writing about the year 556. It allows dating of the basilica to within a few years. Today, the fathers of Sinai commemorate Justinian and Theodora’s sovereign at every Liturgy as the founders of the holy monastery.
Arabs and the Holy Monastery of Sinai
The Arab conquest of Egypt dates to AD 641. The Holy Monastery of Sinai endured this change of rulership, attributed to the Letter of Protection. The remaining Christian inhabitants of Sinai either converted to Islam or left the peninsula. In subsequent history, the number of monks at Sinai declined so that in the ninth century, the brotherhood numbered no more than thirty. However, at this time of isolation and hardship, the monks were happy by the recovery of Saint Catherine’s relics and their transportation to the monastery. At this same time, monks from Syria and Georgia came to Sinai, seeking refuge and bringing with them precious manuscripts.
During the eleventh century, in the years of Caliph Al-Hakim, the Sinai fathers endured many hardships. The construction of the mosque and minaret within the monastery walls dated from this time. The positive side was that the mosque’s construction aided the monastery in overcoming the difficulties of those hard times. The peaceful relations between the monastery community and the local bedouins confirms it.
The Monastery of Saint Catherine during the Second Christian Millennium
The second millennium of the monastery’s history is well-known for its recognition throughout the Christian and Muslim worlds. The monastery received the support of numerous rulers, both Christian and Muslim. The monastery became the goal of pilgrims from all over the Christian world. Also, it founded innumerable dependencies in the Middle East and Europe. At the same time, the peaceful way of life of the monks won the respect of the Muslim world. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, when Egypt became part of the Ottoman Empire, the monastery once again found itself united politically with the ancient Orthodox patriarchates, as it had been in early Christian times. The patriarchs confirmed the prerogatives that the monastery had received in earlier eras, recognising its autonomy.
Saint Catherine, Patron Saint of the Holy Monastery of Sinai
Saint Catherine was born in Alexandria towards the end of the third century. She obtained education in philosophy, rhetoric, poetry, music, mathematics, astronomy, and medicine. Also, she was famous for her beauty, aristocratic birth, and comprehensive learning. Rejecting all marriage offers, Catherine converted to Christianity through a Christian hermit who lived in the outlying deserts and took Christ as the true Bridegroom of her soul. During the persecutions of Maxentius in the early fourth century, she confessed her faith in Christ and condemned the worship of idols. The emperor appointed fifty rhetoricians to argue with her. Still, her presentation of Christianity was brilliant.
Saint Catherine resisted all the emperor’s promises, threatenings, and tortures, and he, at last, beheaded her. Moreover, her condemnation of the pagan religion was so devastating that it converted them to Christ. Christians celebrated her memory on November 25.
Following her martyrdom, angels bore her body to the peak of Mount Saint Catherine. Then, they rested there until monks translated them to the catholicon of the Holy Monastery of Sinai. Here they continue to emit a sweet fragrance, and many miracles are wrought today. The numerous pilgrims to the monastery resulted in the gradual change of name from the Holy Monastery of Sinai to that of Saint Catherine’s Monastery. The veneration of Saint Catherine spread throughout the West. Especially after the translation of relics of Saint Catherine to Rouen by Symeon Pentaglosses in the early eleventh century.
Saint Catherine’s Reliquary
The marble chest containing the relics of Saint Catherine lies at the south side of the sanctuary in the catholicon of the holy monastery. It is the construction of Procopius, the stonecutter, who took nine years to complete the shrine in honour of Saint Catherine. This shrine replaced the earlier marble chest, preserved today in the monastery’s treasury. Inside there are two precious reliquaries, given by the Russian Empire for this purpose, the one enshrining the precious head of the martyr and her left hand.
Monks bring the relics of Saint Catherine out for the veneration of the faithful on special occasions. At this time, they give each pilgrim a silver ring, bearing the monogram of the saint in honour of the rings that Saint Catherine received from Christ. Pilgrims preserve these rings as a blessing from the saint.
According to the tradition preserved at Sinai, Mohammed knew and visited the monastery and the Sinai fathers. The Qoran makes mention of the Sinai holy sites.
The Patent of Mohammed Granted to the Holy Monastery of Sinai
In the second year of the Hegira, corresponding to AD 623, a delegation from Sinai requested a letter of protection from Mohammed. He granted and authorised it when he placed his hand upon the document. The Letter of Protection is the Ahtiname, from the Arabic words Ahd, which means “obligation,” and name, which means “document, testament”. The document has been instrumental in the protection of the monastery and as a means of ensuring peaceful and cooperative relations between Christians and Muslims. The continuous existence of the sanctuary during fourteen centuries of Islamic rule is a sign of the respect and the principles of peace this Letter of Protection gives; and the cooperation that it enshrines.
In AD 1517, Sultan Selim I confirmed the monastery’s prerogatives but took the original letter of protection for safekeeping to the royal treasury in Constantinople. At the same time, he gave the monastery certified copies of this document, each depicting the handprint of Mohammed in token of his having touched the original.
Napoleon Bonaparte conquered Egypt in 1797 and placed the monastery under his protection, granting the sanctuary a document bearing his signature. He also ordered the renovation of the fortress north wall, damaged by floods in 1798. The second half of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries proved more difficult for the monastery. The collapse of empires and the emergence of modern states resulted in the loss of most of the Sinai dependencies.
The long history of Sinai, extending as it does over eighteen centuries, is evidence of the monastery’s esteem, held by a succession of states and rulers. Each sustained the monastery in one way or another. It is particularly evident in support of the monastery, given by Empress Helen in the 4th century and Emperor Justinian in the 6th. Emperor Justinian was responsible for constructing the great basilica and surrounding fortress wall. In addition, he granted the Abbot of Sinai a document so-called ‘Neara’, giving him particular honour. Patriarchal decrees confirm these honours, which respect the autonomy of the Holy Monastery of Sinai.
Pilgrims and Visitors to Saint Catherine’s Monastery
Egeria visited Sinai around the year 380. He described the valley with its garden and a church next to the bush amid the park. The monks of the area ministered to the pilgrims, escorting them to the various sites, reading the scriptural accounts connected with each, and offering the pilgrims vegetables from their gardens. Many pilgrim accounts concerning the Sinai still survive. These accounts are of the most significant importance in reconstructing the area’s history. Earlier visitors came as pilgrims, eager to pray at the various shrines. Later visitors have often come out of scholarly interests or curiosity.
The accounts of pilgrims and visitors are augmented by artists’ paintings, engravings, and lithographs. They made significant photographs of the area and its inhabitants in the nineteenth century.
Sinai Monastery Today
The Holy Monastery of the God-trodden Mount Sinai, situated in the South Sinai region, protects the Sinaitic pilgrimage sites. In parallel with this, the Sinai fathers are committed to maintaining the history of Sinai. They are also faithful to the values of the great religious tradition of the monastery with its equally important Helleno-Roman cultural heritage.
The holy canons of the Ecumenical Councils regulate, in its operation, the Holy Monastery of Sinai, along with all of the South Sinai area, connected with the Archdiocese of Sinai, Pharan, and Raitho. Spiritually, it ranks among the complex of Orthodox Churches.
Per various decisions, taken on different occasions by the local synods and the Orthodox Patriarchs concerning the Holy Monastery of the God-trodden Mount Sinai, it became notable for the unique privilege in Orthodox Christianity. It obtained this privilege by being administratively governed through its abbot. He is the same person as the Archbishop of Sinai, of being unsubdued, immune, untrampled by anyone, and free from all and everyone.
Furthermore, it is Autocephalous,” as it is not subject to any Patriarch or Synod. His Eminence, the Archbishop of Sinai, enjoys a broader spiritual relationship with the Patriarch of Jerusalem. The latter consecrated the Archbishop of Sinai. Whenever the archbishop celebrates within his episcopal jurisdiction, he commemorates the name of the Patriarch of Jerusalem. Thus, the Basic Canons regulated the general operation of the Sinaitic brotherhood. It is democratically governed by its Abbot and Archbishop of Sinai, Pharan, Raitho, the Holy Council of the Fathers, and the assembly of the entire brotherhood, which is convened from time to time.
As a spiritual institution, the Holy Sinai Monastery has been sanctioned by time in a spirit of confidence and honesty. Its dealings with the various administrations of the Sinai region have consistently confirmed the traditional order and tradition of the monastery. This monastery has progressively emphasised these concepts in its eighteen-century long lifespan.
The monastery equally collaborates with the regional administration representatives and the archaeological service of the Sinai Peninsula. Also, it cooperates with the Egyptian authorities and the Greek state in perfect harmony. It tends to solve any problems that might eventually arise at a mid-high level. At the same time, as it enjoys special protection from them, it includes them among its Great Benefactors.
UNESCO Heritage Site
Saint Catherine’s monastery is always the leader in matters of common interest of the area that concern local, cultural, or ecological policies. Also, it is the first in any questions related to the living conditions of the Bedouin that live in the said region. In addition, it, naturally, is connected with the UNESCO general guidelines for protecting the whole area.