A testament to Europe’s devotion to Saint Catherine is the repository of precious gifts from kings and emperors which arrived to grace the Monastery basilica over successive centuries. Many of these can also be seen today in the Monastery treasury, and include liturgical objects, precious metalwork, intricate tapestries and embroideries, and antique wood carvings--a record of the living history preserved by this unique community beyond the powers of the written word.
Of course great treasures like the Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest Bible in the world, as well as decorated manuscripts and priceless Byzantine icons, arrived at the Monastery in its earliest centuries, largely from Constantinople, although scholars consider it likely that some of the most valued works were produced within the Monastery. These include a series of icons noted for their golden nimbuses which appear to rotate in response to ambient light, an effect whose technique has eluded modern iconographers.
The Codex Sinaiticus dates from the first half of the fourth century, from the reign of Emperor Constantine, The circumstances of its arrival in Sinai are unknown, although thought to have occurred in a later period (Priestmonk Justin, The Library of Sinai: A Treasure for Sharing). Codex Sinaiticus contains the whole of the biblical scriptures, from Genesis to the Book of Revelation, as well as the Shepherd of Hermas and the Epistle of Barnabas, which were all bound into one massive volume. Parts of the Codex are currently located in three other institutions with the largest segment at the British Library.
The Sinai collections include over 3,300 other ancient manuscripts as well, eliciting the great interest of scholars today. A world class museum was designed by the directors of the Metropolitan Museum to showcase selected manuscripts and other artifacts to all Monastery visitors. The extensive library developed out of a need for copies of texts for the services, says Father Justin, and to inspire and guide the monks in their dedication. A number of factors contributed to its large size: the long, unbroken history of the Monastery, the diligence of the monks both to create and acquire manuscripts, and the dry and stable climate which aids their preservation. Additionally, due to the Monastery’s location on the edge of the Byzantine empire, the collections were saved from the ravages of iconoclasm, as a result of which most of the ancient icons in existence are at Saint Catherine’s Monastery.
Dr. de Jong, Director of the Netherlands-Flemish Institute (NVIC) in Cairo, says, "The incredible intellectual richness and wealth that has accumulated there over the centuries show that, despite its remoteness, the Monastery is rightly seen as occupying a central place in the international community."
Antiquities Gallery (click Image)
In 1997, a number of ancient icons of the collection were allowed to travel for the first time in history for the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Glory of Byzantium exhibition. A similar showing took place in 2004, followed by an acclaimed 2006 exhibit at the Getty Museum dedicated solely to the Sinai icons (here is a link to a good NY Times article on the exhibit) . The Archbishop of Sinai, Damianos I, decided to allow this unprecedented risk to these priceless world treasures in order to enable those who might never be able to travel to Sinai to experience their mystical beauty.