Mount Sinai and the Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt

Mount Sinai and the Saint Catherine’s Monastery are two tourist attractions that provide a unique and immersive experience that combines breathtaking landscapes, religious devotion, and cultural exploration for visitors from around the world. Located in the center of Egypt‘s Sinai Peninsula, these landmarks captivate visitors with their rich legends and awe-inspiring attractions.

Mount Sinai, revered by multiple religious traditions, is believed to be the biblical site where Moses received the Ten Commandments from God. The mountain’s towering peaks, rugged terrain, religious sites, and breathtaking vistas create an atmosphere of wonder and reverence, drawing pilgrims and adventure seekers alike.

Adjacent to Mount Sinai lies Saint Catherine’s Monastery, an ancient religious complex steeped in history and mystery. Constructed in the 6th century, this fortified monastery holds a significant place in Christianity as the repository of sacred relics and the site where the miraculous Burning Bush once stood.

This article delves into the legends surrounding Mount Sinai and Saint Catherine’s Monastery, offering insights into the spiritual significance attributed to these sites. We will also explore the remarkable attractions found within the monastery, such as the ancient library, the museum, the Chapel of the Burning Bush, and the venerated relics of Saint Catherine.

Join us on this journey of discovery as we unravel the mysteries and unveil the wonders of Mount Sinai and Saint Catherine’s Monastery.

Mount Sinai

Summit of Mount Sinai in Egypt, seen from the south - digital painting
Summit of Mount Sinai in Egypt, seen from the south – digital painting

Mount Sinai, also known as Jabal Musa, is a prominent mountain located on the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. With a height of 2,285 meters (7,497 feet), it is surrounded by other towering peaks in the region. Considered one of the possible sites of the biblical Mount Sinai, this mountain holds great religious significance in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, as it is believed to be the place where Moses received the Ten Commandments according to the Torah, Bible, and Quran.

The rocks of Mount Sinai were formed during the later stages of the Arabian-Nubian Shield’s evolution. They exhibit a ring complex, consisting of alkaline granites that intruded into various rock types, including volcanic materials. The granites range in composition from syenogranite to alkali feldspar granite, while the volcanic rocks consist of subaerial flows, eruptions, and subvolcanic porphyry. The exposed rocks suggest different depths of formation.

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Although there is no archaeological evidence definitively linking the mountain to Moses’ visits over 3,000 years ago, it has been widely regarded as the holy mountain described in the scriptures. Moses is said to have ascended Mount Sinai multiple times, notably when God spoke to him from the Burning Bush and later when he received the Ten Commandments.

The belief in Mount Sinai’s sacred status dates back to the 3rd century, when Christian hermits began inhabiting caves on its slopes. The construction of Saint Catherine’s Monastery at the northern base of the mountain further solidified its significance.

Today, Mount Sinai attracts pilgrims and visitors from around the world who seek to experience the spiritual aura and connect with the religious history associated with this iconic mountain.

Mount Sinai in the Bible and other ancient sources

Moses Receives the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai - oil on canvas
Moses Receives the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai – oil on canvas

Mount Sinai holds great significance in the Bible as the location where Moses received the instructions and teachings of the Ten Commandments from God. Described in the Book of Exodus, Mount Sinai is depicted as a majestic and awe-inspiring mountain enveloped in a cloud, filled with smoke, and illuminated by lightning-flashes and thunderous roars. The biblical account attributes these extraordinary phenomena to the presence of God on the mountain.

According to the narrative, Moses ascended Mount Sinai and spent 40 days and nights in communion with God, receiving the two sets of stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments. However, he broke the first set upon witnessing the Israelites’ idolatrous behavior upon his descent from the mountain.

The biblical description of God’s descent onto the mountain raises some interpretive questions. While some argue that God spoke to the Israelites from Heaven, others suggest that the heavens were lowered and spread over Sinai, or that a hole was torn in the heavens, separating Sinai from the earth. These interpretations propose that the references to fire and clouds could be metaphors for the volcanic activity or a storm that accompanied the revelation.

Sinai is mentioned by name multiple times in the Torah and once in the New Testament. A hypothesis suggests that the name “Sinai” is used by the Jahwist and Priestly sources, while “Horeb” is used by the Elohist and Deuteronomist sources. Horeb is associated with the meaning “glowing/heat,” possibly referring to the sun, while Sinai may have derived from the name of the moon deity Sin in ancient Mesopotamian religion.

The connection between Sinai and the burning bush encountered by Moses at Mount Horeb is discussed by Hebrew Bible scholar Jon D. Levenson. He suggests that the similarity between “Sinai” and “seneh” (bush) may not be coincidental, proposing that the Sinai deity might have been associated with a tree symbol.

Rabbinic tradition provides alternative names for the mountain, such as Har HaElohim (the mountain of God) and Har Bashan (the mountain of Bashan). In Islamic sources, the mountain is referred to as Tūr Sīnāʾ or Tūr Sīnīn, meaning “The mount of Sinai”.

Mount Sinai’s significance in religious and historical contexts continues to inspire awe and contemplation. Its association with the divine revelation of the Ten Commandments underscores its importance as a sacred site deeply rooted in the biblical narrative and the faith traditions that emerged from it.

The Camel Trail and the Steps of Penitence

The journey to the summit of Mount Sinai offers two distinct routes, each with its own unique features and challenges. Whether you choose the longer and more gradual Siket El Bashait, also known as the Camel Trail, or the steep and direct Siket Sayidna Musa, also known as the Steps of Penitence, the ascent promises breathtaking views and a profound sense of spirituality.

Starting from the car park of Saint Catherine’s Monastery, both routes require the companionship of a local Bedouin guide, ensuring a safe and authentic experience. The original path, the Steps of Penitence, dates back to the 6th century and is a testament to the devotion and perseverance of those who carved 3,750 steps by hand into the ravine behind the monastery. Though demanding and uneven, this trail rewards the physically fit with awe-inspiring vistas that make the extra effort worthwhile.

For a more gradual ascent, the Camel Trail provides a longer but less strenuous option. Developed in the 19th century, this route allows for a comfortable two-hour hike on foot. Alternatively, visitors can opt to ride a camel from the trailhead until it meets the Steps of Penitence, where a final 750 steps lead to the summit. Whichever path you choose, the journey to the summit of Mount Sinai is an unforgettable pilgrimage.

Chapel of the Holy Trinity on Mount Sinai

The Chapel of the Holy Trinity, located atop Mount Sinai, holds great significance in religious history. In 363, a small chapel was constructed on the peak, described by the fourth-century pilgrim Etheria as a place of grace despite its modest size. Emperor Justinian later rebuilt the chapel in the 6th century, giving rise to its various names such as the Chapel of Moses, Chapel of St. Michael the Archangel, and Chapel of the Latins.

In 1934, the chapel underwent another reconstruction and was renamed the Church of the Holy Trinity. Completed in 1935 using materials from earlier structures, it features interior paintings added in 1937, and frescoes depicting the life of Moses.

Pink granite from Justinian’s original church was used in its construction, some pieces bearing a circular cross. The Chapel of the Holy Trinity stands at the eastern end of the historic complex. The Greek Orthodox Church, which also oversees Saint Catherine’s Monastery at the mountain’s base, currently manages the church.

Although typically closed to the public, the chapel serves as a frequent location for the Divine Liturgy, often conducted by visiting Orthodox clergy and pilgrims. Excavations are underway outside the chapel, with plans for a limited restoration to showcase the original extent of the 6th-century basilica. This holy site is believed to encompass the rock from which God fashioned the tablets bearing the Ten Commandments.

The Mount Sinai Mosque

Adjacent to the Church of the Holy Trinity atop Mount Sinai, stands a small square mosque that holds its own historical significance. This mosque is believed to be the successor of an earlier mosque, possibly built between 1101 and 1130 during the Fatimid era. However, according to local Jabaliya Bedouin tradition, its origins trace back even further to the time of Caliph ‘Umar, spanning from 634 to 644.

Situated within the complex of structures on the summit of Sinai, the mosque has been mentioned in accounts from the 11th century. Its construction was intertwined with the outer perimeter of the sixth-century basilica, utilizing stones sourced from the church itself. The mosque’s design is characterized by simplicity, featuring a square layout that complements its surroundings.

Beneath the mosque lies a cave, with its walls adorned with ancient inscriptions. This adds an additional layer of intrigue to the site, offering glimpses into the past through the remnants of written words etched into the stone.

The mosque on Mount Sinai serves as a testament to the rich religious and cultural heritage of the region. Alongside the nearby Church of the Holy Trinity, it forms part of a spiritual complex that attracts visitors from around the world, seeking to connect with the historical and sacred significance of this revered mountaintop.

The Caves of Moses

Nestled at the summit of Mount Sinai, two remarkable caves hold deep significance in connection to the revered Prophet Moses. These sacred sites offer glimpses into the profound moments of his spiritual journey.

The first cave, situated south of the present chapel, commemorates Moses’ arduous forty-day and forty-night fast atop the peak. Accessible through a small staircase, its east-facing entrance leads to a cave that extends approximately two meters. At the mouth of the cave, visitors can behold inscriptions from the first Christian millennium, inscribed in Greek and Armenian, speaking to the enduring devotion of ancient pilgrims.

To the north of the current chapel, the second cave takes the form of a natural cleft in the rock. This sacred space holds significance as the place where Moses sought refuge, hidden by the divine, and encountered the awe-inspiring glory of God.

Saint Catherine’s Monastery

Saint Catherine's Monastery - digital art
Saint Catherine’s Monastery – digital art

Saint Catherine’s Monastery is an Eastern Orthodox Christian monastery located at the foot of Mount Sinai in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Built between 548 and 565, it is the world’s oldest continuously inhabited Christian monastery.

Emperor Justinian I ordered its construction, enclosing the area believed to be the burning bush seen by Moses. The monastery gained significance as the purported resting place of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, becoming a pilgrimage site and later renamed in her honor.

Administered by the autonomous Church of Sinai, a part of the Greek Orthodox Church, Saint Catherine’s Monastery was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002 for its cultural importance in Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.

It houses the Church of the Transfiguration, and the world’s oldest continually operating library, featuring unique and rare works such as the Codex Sinaiticus and the Syriac Sinaiticus. The monastery is also renowned for its extensive collection of early Christian icons, including the earliest depiction of Jesus as Christ Pantocrator.

Moses and the Burning Bush from the Bible

The burning bush event is a recorded occurrence in the Jewish Torah and the biblical Old Testament. It took place on Mount Horeb, where a bush was engulfed in flames but remained unconsumed. This phenomenon led to its name, the burning bush. During this event, Yahweh appointed Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and into Canaan.

In the narrative, an angel of the Lord appeared in the bush, and God called out to Moses, who was tending to Jethro’s flocks nearby. Moses was instructed to remove his sandals as the ground was deemed holy. The voice from the bush, later revealed to be Yahweh, identified himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The text portrays Yahweh as instructing Moses to confront the Egyptians and inform the Israelite elders of their liberation. Yahweh planned to lead them to the land of Canaan, described as a region flowing with milk and honey.

When Moses asked for God’s name to relay to the Israelites, the voice from the bush revealed it as Yahweh. The name Yahweh is derived from the Hebrew word hayah, meaning “I shall be whatever I shall be” or “I am that I am.”

According to the narrative, Yahweh instructed Moses on his mission and performed miracles to demonstrate Moses’s authority. These miracles included transforming Moses’s staff into a snake, making his hand temporarily leprous, and turning water into blood. Moses was instructed to use a staff provided by Yahweh for performing miracles, while some scholars believe this instruction represents a different version from an earlier description where Moses used his own staff.

Despite witnessing these signs, Moses hesitated to accept the role due to a perceived lack of eloquence. He argued that someone else should be sent instead. In response, Yahweh rebuked Moses for questioning his choice, but eventually agreed to send Aaron as Moses’s spokesperson, as Aaron was already on his way to meet Moses. This marked the first mention of Aaron in the Torah, described as Moses’s mouthpiece.

Christian hermits initially believed Mount Serbal to be the biblical Mount Sinai but later shifted their belief to Mount Saint Catherine in the 4th century. Saint Catherine’s Monastery was built at the foot of this mountain, and the alleged site of the burning bush was identified there.

The original bush, a bramble known as Rubus sanctus, was transplanted to the monastery’s courtyard. A chapel dedicated to the Annunciation was constructed over the original spot, marked by a silver star indicating the bush’s roots. The monks at Saint Catherine’s Monastery maintain that this bush is the original seen by Moses and require visitors to remove their shoes when entering the chapel, in accordance with the biblical account.

Saint Catherine of Alexandria

Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Caravaggio
Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Caravaggio

Catherine of Alexandria, a popular early Christian martyr and one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, is the patron saint of philosophers and scholars, believed to provide protection from sudden death. She was martyred in the early fourth century by Emperor Maxentius.

Although her historicity is uncertain, according to tradition, Catherine was a princess and renowned scholar who embraced Christianity at a young age, converting many to the faith. Despite imprisonment, she converted the emperor’s wife and soldiers. Catherine’s defiance and intellectual prowess overcame the most eminent scholars summoned by Maxentius.

During her torture, she affirmed her dedication to Jesus Christ and was sentenced to death. Remarkably, the spiked wheel intended for her execution shattered upon her touch, leading to her beheading.

In the 9th or 10th century, angels transported Catherine’s relics to Mount Sinai. Later, the incorrupt relics were discovered through revelation and transferred with great honor to the church of the Sinai monastery built by Emperor Justinian the Great in the 6th century. Even today, the venerated head and left hand of the Great Martyr Catherine are presented for devout reverence by the Fathers of the Holy Monastery.

The Church of the Transfiguration

The Church of the Transfiguration, located within the walls of Saint Catherine’s Monastery, was built by the architect Stephanus of Aila. Its foundations were laid in 542 AD, and after nine years of work, the construction was completed.

The church is a granite building, designed in a basilica style with three interior sections (the narthex, nave, and altar) separated by massive columns, and it has a wooden roof. The capitals of the nave columns are intricately carved in Corinthian style. Each column bears an icon representing the saints of a particular month, while above them, inside a small sealed granite shrine adorned with the sign of the cross, rest the holy relics of those same saints.

The basilica has five lateral chapels, and the western end is flanked by towers. The older church of Saint Rug was incorporated into the building.

The church has undergone few changes since its founder’s time. The walls, columns, wooden roof, mosaic, and inscriptions date back to the time of Emperor Justinian. Its grand west portal is still closed by a 1,400-year-old cedar wood door, which functions perfectly, retaining its original nails and hinges.

The wooden roof of the nave, also from the 6th century, is supported by beams that bear inscriptions mentioning “our most venerable emperor” Justinian and “the late empress” Theodora.

Its apse is adorned with a colossal mosaic commissioned by Emperor Justinian, depicting Jesus Christ during His Transfiguration, accompanied by the two prophets and the three disciples who witnessed the event. The holy relics of Saint Catherine are located in the sanctuary. As the focal point of monastery life, the Church of the Transfiguration is where the Holy Liturgy is most frequently celebrated.

The Church of the Transfiguration stands as a testament to the skill and artistry of its builders, preserving its original features and carrying the legacy of centuries of worship within its walls.

 The Fortress of the Monastery

The fortified walls surrounding the monastery enclosure were built in the 6th century under Emperor Justinian’s command. It was built to provide protection for the monks and the church at the site of the Burning Bush. The fortress walls vary in height from ten to twenty meters and in thickness from two to three meters. The north wall was damaged in 1798 but repaired by French soldiers during Napoleon Bonaparte’s time.

The original entranceway, now walled up, is visible on the west wall. Above it, a covered window allowed defenders to repel intruders. Carved in stone above the entranceway is a verse from the Psalms, “This is the gate of the Lord, into which the righteous shall enter.”

The only access to the monastery for centuries was through a protected tunnel or being drawn up in a basket from the north side. The current entrance on the west wall, dating back to 1862, consists of three steel-clad doors, with the inner door at a right angle to the other two. A second door was later added to the north wall for direct access to the church during public hours.

Justinian’s fortress incorporated the earliest structures of the Sinai hermits. Despite the challenging terrain, the basilica was constructed on a leveled area using local materials such as granite, humble timbers, reeds, and earthworks. The basilica stands out with its hewn granite stones, housing the renowned mosaic of the Transfiguration, numerous icons, and other monastery treasures. Surrounding the catholicon are nine chapels and a bell tower, with an additional twelve chapels throughout the complex.

Monastery facilities include the residence of the Archbishop, offices, meeting spaces, the Chapel of the Life-giving Spring, pilgrim accommodations to the west, administrative offices to the north, and the old bakery, refectory, and cells to the east. The south wing, completed in 1951, houses the monastery library, conservation workshops, icon storage rooms, and newer monastic cells.

Due to the steep incline of the ground, there is no central courtyard, and the monks’ cells are scattered throughout the building complex. The oldest cells are located south of the basilica, while cells along the east and west walls date back to the 14th and 16th centuries, respectively. These cells are constructed using scarce materials, including wood and mud for walls and roofs. The newest cells are found along the south wall.

Various areas within the fortress walls serve the monastery’s needs. Storerooms were crucial due to the difficulty of transporting supplies to the monastery. The kitchen area, located in the northeast corner, features two old mills, and the Economos’ office, responsible for monastery supplies, is in the northwest. Pilgrims are welcomed in this area after Sunday liturgies and feast days.

The Library of Saint Catherine’s Monastery

Saint Catherine’s Monastery houses the oldest continuously operating library in the world, established between 548 and 565. It boasts the second largest collection of early codices and manuscripts globally, surpassed only by the Vatican Library.

The library contains an array of manuscripts and books in various languages, including Greek, Christian Palestinian Aramaic, Syriac, Georgian, Arabic, Ethiopic/Ge‘ez, Latin, Armenian, Church Slavonic, and Caucasian Albanian. Among its treasures are rare Hebrew and Coptic books.

The collection also includes around 8,000 early printed books, predominantly in Greek, encompassing significant editions of religious texts, classical works, and Orthodox service books. Notable items are the first editions of Homer, Plato, and Aristophanes, as well as works by Aldus Manutius, who pioneered Greek printing.

In the 19th century, notable discoveries were made at the monastery. Constantin von Tischendorf found the Codex Sinaiticus, an almost complete 4th-century manuscript of the Bible, and Agnes S. Lewis discovered the Syriac Sinaiticus, an early palimpsest manuscript of the Gospel. The monastery also possesses a copy of the Ashtiname of Muhammad, which grants protection to the monastery as bestowed by the Islamic prophet Muhammad.

Efforts have been made to preserve and make the manuscripts accessible. The library underwent extensive renovations and digitization with the assistance of Ligatus, a research center of the University of the Arts London. The collection of palimpsests has been a focus of study, with imaging scientists and scholars working to photograph, digitize, and decipher these reused manuscripts.

The library holds more than 160 palimpsests, with over 6,800 pages of recovered texts. These include Greek poems, an ancient recipe attributed to Hippocrates, additional folios of the Old Syriac Gospels, and previously unknown writings such as the Dormition of Mary and the martyrdom of Patriklos of Caesarea Maritima. The palimpsests provide valuable insights into languages like Caucasian Albanian and Christian Palestinian Aramaic.

The Monastery Museum

Orthodox icons inside the Saint Catherine's Monastery Museum
Orthodox icons inside the Saint Catherine’s Monastery Museum

Saint Catherine’s Monastery Museum houses numerous icons and religious artifacts, many of which are the oldest relics of Orthodoxy. Out of the monastery’s 2,000 icons, only 150 are on display, with many dating back to the 6th to 10th centuries. These include icons from Syria, Georgia, Byzantium, and even Coptic icons.

Saint Catherine’s Monastery possesses a significant number of encaustic icons. Encaustic technique uses hot wax and vegetable pigments. Today, due to demanding conditions, it is no longer employed. It was used only until the 7th century AD when it was replaced by tempera painting. The most famous icons preserved in Saint Catherine’s Monastery in the encaustic technique include Christ Pantocrator, the Virgin Mary with the Child on the throne, the Sacrifice of Isaac, St. Apostle Peter, and the Ascension of the Lord.

Icons painted between the 7th and 9th centuries, that can be admired here, are part of a local iconographic tradition found in monasteries in the East, particularly in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Cappadocia.

What is specific to these icons is that they come from a period when the Arab conquest greatly hindered the connection between the Eastern regions and the predominantly Greek Christian centers. These icons employ a popular realism that expresses the local tradition of Coptic art and Syrian churches.

Nevertheless, it must be noted that these rare icons were some of the main sources that contributed to defining Christian iconographic art in subsequent centuries. The most representative icon in this group depicts the Nativity of the Lord.

Here are also icons painted between the 9th and 12th centuries. Two characteristics define the development of icons in this period. First, these icons illustrate the continuation of pre-iconoclastic icon painting during the period after the iconoclast persecution.

Second, the icons show a turn towards the classical concept of art reflected in the delicacy of the drawings and the beauty of the forms. Many of these icons come from the imperial workshops in Byzantium. The icons from this period depict the Savior Jesus Christ, the Holy Archangels, Holy Hierarchs, and Monastics.

The Monastery of St. Catherine possesses a large collection of icons from the era of the Comnenus dynasty (1080-1200). The characteristics of these icons include a well-balanced sense of composition, strong expression of the faces, harmony of color schemes, a tendency towards dematerialization combined with a refined sense of nobility.

The most famous among these icons depicts seven scenes depicting the life of Saint Eustratius. The subjects encountered in these panels are usually Deisis, scenes of Imperial Feasts, scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary, and miracles of the Saints. The icons belonging to this group possess a high artistic value that marks the traces of an ancient tradition in icon painting.

The painting of menologia originated from the miniature illustrations of manuscripts and, in particular, from those of the 11th and 12th centuries. These icons depict the saints celebrated each day of the ecclesiastical year, forming another important category of icons in the monastery’s collection.

The icons come in a variety of forms, including twelve large icons composed of full-length portraits of the saints from each month, two large diptych icons encompassing all the saints of the ecclesiastical year, and more. The subjects of these icons are mainly inspired by the menologia of Saint Symeon Metaphrastes (11th century) originating from Constantinople.

The icon collection of the Monastery of St. Catherine includes a large group specific to the monastery, with most works dating from the 12th to 15th centuries. These consist of portraits of important personalities associated with the monastery: monks, abbots, and patriarchs.

Also within this group of icons are exceptionally beautiful representations of the Prophet Moses, St. Catherine, St. John Climacus, and others. Many of these icons were certainly painted in the monastery, varying in style, technique, and quality.

In addition to their spiritual value, the importance of these icons lies in the fact that they represent a source of information about the history and art of the monastery, as well as the activities of the monks who lived in this monastic community.

The collection of the Monastery of St. Catherine also includes a considerable number of icons dating from the 13th century and the period between the 14th and 15th centuries, known as the “Paleologus era.”

This represented a period of emergence of new artistic directions that first appeared in the 13th century, paving the way for the art of the so-called Paleologan Renaissance. These works gave rise to the art of the post-Byzantine period, enriching the iconographic cycles while remaining open to influences from Renaissance painting in Western Europe.

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