St. Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai Desert
At the foot of the mountain where Moses is said to have received the Ten
Commandments, lies the monastery. Early Christian hermits, searching seclusion
from worldly affairs, were living in the are of the holy mountain since the early
times of Christendom.
After her visit to the impressive site of the Burning Bush, Empress Helena, the
mother of Constantine the Great, decided in 330 AD to let a chapel be built at the
site. She dedicated it to the Virgin Mary.
Mt. Moses, also Mt. Horeb or Mount Sinai and known with its Arabic name Gebel
Mussa, is honored by the three great monotheistic religions. The path of Moses,
Sikket Sayydna Mussa, starts in a gentle slope and gets steep on the last bit
where it ends at the valley of Elijah. It is believed that God appeared in fire to the
prophet. The two chapels are dedicated to Elijah. The final steep climb leads over
rocky steps to the summit. Just below the summit in a natural hollow in the granite
the imprint of a camel’s foot can be made out. Bedouin tradition has it, that here is
the place where Prophet Muhammad started his night journey to heaven. The
magnificent view from the summit is worthwhile the effort of a 3 hour long climb to
the top of Mt. Moses.
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The Chapel of the Burning Bush is the sacred part of the monastery.
Once it contained the Burning Bush, which is replaced outside of the
chapel and fenced behind a stone wall. Every Saturday the monks hold
their liturgy in the chapel. Anyone entering has to remove his shoes as
written in the bible: “…put off thy shoes from off thy feet for the place
whereon thou standeth is holy ground...” (Exodus 3:5)
Codex Sinaiticus, (oldest known Bible). This bible is a copy, the
original is on display at the British Museum in London.
Saint Catherine's has been a centre of Christian worship and thought for
over 1600 years, containing one of the world's most ancient and important
libraries. Its 2000 manuscripts in Greek, 700 in Arabic, 300 in Syriac, 100 in
Georgian and Armenian, 40 in Slovonic and 1 Latin recall sixteen centuries
of Christianity. Unfortunately the Codex Sinaiticus - a bible dating back to
the 4th century - was taken from the monastery in 1844 by
K.von Tischendorf, a German scholar who sold it to the Tsar of Russia.
At a later date, the manuscript found its way to the display cases of the
British Museum in London who acquired it from the Soviet government in
1933. A letter from the scholar dated September 1859 promising to return
the manuscript after the completion of his studies hangs on the wall of the
library of the monastery, without comment.
View of the Monastery, Detail of the Wall-painting
Charnel House of the Monastery where corpses and bones of past monks are stored
Over the centuries, thousands of monks have lived and died within the walls
of St. Catherine Monastery. Because the monastery's small cemetery is not
enough to accommodate their remains, the monks are later re-exhumed and
their bones placed in the crypt beneath the Chapel of St. Trifonio, a place also
known as the Charnel House. There is probably no better way to grasp the
enduring legacy of the monks than to visit the crypt and see the piled host of
skulls staring back through the eons in silence.