St. Catherine's Monastery complex was built around the very place where God appeared to Moses in the Burning Bush, beneath the Mount of the Ten Commandments. In the providence of God, it is also at this site that the holy relics of Saint Catherine of Alexandria are enshrined. St. Catherine's is the oldest continuously inhabited Christian monastery, with a history that can be traced back over seventeen centuries.
Christians came to Mount Sinai in the latter third century, fleeing from the Roman persecutions, even as Moses had come, fleeing from the wrath of Pharaoh. But the latter third and early fourth centuries also witnessed the beginnings of the monastic movement, when monks first began to seek out places in the desert, to pass their lives in prayer and fasting.
The earliest description refers to the Monastery of the Holy Virgin, for the revelation of God at the Burning Bush was seen as a type of the Virgin Mary and the Incarnation. The majestic basilica of today’s Monastery was subsequently built in honor of the Transfiguration of Christ, which reflects the special reverence of the Sinai brotherhood for the holy Prophets Moses and Elias, who both came to this mountain and later spoke with Christ at His Transfiguration. After Saint Catherine's relics were found nearby, the Monastery gradually became known simply as St. Catherine’s, without however losing its earlier dedications.
The architecture of the Sinai monastery is a stone, mortar, and wood record of its existence over seventeen centuries. Fortified walls surrounding the Monastery enclosure were made from massive granite blocks at the command of the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century. The center of this historic ensemble is the aforementioned basilica with its ancient doors and ceiling beams, and famed mosaic of the Transfiguration of Christ in the apse over the holy altar. At the eastern end of the basilica is found the Holy of Holies: the Chapel of the Burning Bush. This is the site of God’s revelation to Moses. Before approaching the immaterial fire of the Bush, Moses was commanded to remove his sandals, and until today, no one may enter the chapel wearing shoes. In the fourth century, the pilgrim nun Egeria wrote, ‘There are many cells of holy men and a church on the spot where the bush stands, and this bush is still alive today and gives forth shoots.’ The bush still flourishes outside the chapel.
To the west of the fortress of Justinian lie the monastery garden, the cemetery, the ossuary, and other supporting structures. On the opposite side of the Monastery, a path leads pilgrims to the peak of Mount Sinai, as well as to the hermitage of Saint Episteme. The area also contains numerous chapels, gardens, and hermitages. Further photos are found in the Gallery.
St. Catherine's Monastery has attracted visitors since ancient times. Many are drawn by its spiritual ideals and to the example of peace for which it stands.
St. Catherine's Monastery and its surrounding area were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002.
The above information was drawn from the website of St. Catherine’s Monastery, which more fully describes the legacy of the Sinai monks’ tradition of faith.
"And it came to pass on the third day in the morning, that there were thunders and lightnings, and a thick cloud upon the mount, and the voice of the trumpet exceeding loud; so that all the people that was in the camp trembled. And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet with God" (Exodus 19:16-17).
Mount Sinai has a special beauty all its own, but above all, it is a sacred mountain. It is a place where God spoke with man. The first revelation was at the foothills of the Holy Mountain, where the Prophet Moses heard the voice of God speaking from the midst of the flames of the Burning Bush, "Moses, Moses, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place where on thou standest is holy ground" (Exodus 3:5). In obedience to God, Moses delivered the children of Israel from bondage to Pharaoh, and brought them to Mount Sinai.
The earliest structures of the Monastery were built at the foot of Mount Sinai for the Christian ascetics who lived at the Burning Bush. From early Christian times to the present day, prayer and spiritual devotion have existed at Mount Sinai. This gives a special aura to the Monastery, and accounts for its significance for pilgrims, secondary in importance only to Jerusalem. Over the centuries, the Sinai Monastery has ministered to countless multitudes of visitors and pilgrims seeking spiritual consolation and the increase of faith. Of course, the legacy of Mount Sinai itself does not constitute a spiritual Ark only for the Christian world--it is important also to both Judaism and Islam.
The Monastery’s spiritual tradition is founded on the earliest Christian ideals which look for union with God, without losing the uniqueness of each person. Accordingly, the Orthodox Christian monastic tradition of Sinai is dedicated to the cultivation of freedom of soul and love through simplicity, and honors every person as created in the image of God. Prayer and spiritual struggle are not aimed solely at the purification of the individual, for they invoke the blessing of peoples everywhere. After all, it was in this desert that God revealed His name to mankind.
The Monastery's tradition was recorded by seventh century Abbot Saint John Climacus in his famous Ladder of Divine Ascent. Considered the most important spiritual manual after the Bible itself, his work lists the steps leading to spiritual perfection. The cloud of Sinai saints is so numerous (over 170) that a special feast day has been established in their commemoration. This takes place throughout the Orthodox world each year on the Wednesday after Holy Pascha. Some of the most well known saints are Neilos, Anastasios, Philotheos, Hesychios, and Gregory of Sinai, all of whom left theological writings illumined by their ascetical experiences. Such works show the way to spiritual sanctification not just to monks, but to all those interested in spiritual endeavor. Gregory of Sinai was the great exponent of noetic prayer to Byzantium, and transmitted this tradition to the Slavic peoples.
Perhaps the greatest contribution of the Sinai monks is the preservation of this body of wisdom as a living tradition, in order to hand it on unblemished to those who follow them. This work is carried out while serving the multitudes drawn to the Monastery by its spiritual ideals and example of peace.
More on the religious tradition of the monastery can be found on the Monastery website. Of special interest are tracts such as The Universality of God's Grace and Its Relationship to Man's Freedom, The Attributes of God, and The Meaning and Nature of the Mysteries. Some of the above information was drawn from the site.
The term “Bedouin” in the Arabic language refers to one who lives out in the open, in the desert. Eutyches, the ninth century Patriarch of Alexandria, writes that when Justinian built the monastery, he settled next to it some two hundred families brought from the Pontos of Anatolia, and from Alexandria, in order to guard, defend, and assist the monks. The modern day Bedouin are considered to be the descendants of those families that converted to Islam in the seventh century, and today form the Sinai Bedouin families that make up the Jebeliya tribe. Its members, to this day, trace their lineage to these soldiers as part of their cultural identity.
The monastery is an integral part of their lives and has always respected their rights. They are peace-loving and hospitable in spite of the widespread poverty in the region. The Bedouin participate in the life of the monastery both through their work, and through involvement in its everyday life.
Instrumental to its unbroken history of peace with its Bedouin neighbors is the Sinai Monastery’s emphasis on personal freedom based on tolerance through non-judgment of others. The Sheikh of the local Jebeliya tribe was quoted in the Egyptian press, saying "The peace that has existed between the monks and the Bedouin people has made Sinai an emblem of peace" that has served pilgrims and visitors of different faiths, languages and cultures.
According to tradition, the founder of Islam, Mohammed, received hospitality from the Sinai monks, and The Koran mentions the Sinai holy sites. In the second year of the Hegira, corresponding to AD 626, a delegation from Sinai requested and later received a letter of protection from Mohammed stamped with his handprint. In AD 1517, Sultan Selim I confirmed the Monastery's exclusive rights, but transferred the original document to Constantinople .
As part of its philanthropic work, in the 1980’s and 90’s, the Monastery built new medical and dental clinics, including donated state of the art laboratory equipment, providing free treatment to anyone seeking help, whether Bedouin, visitor, or monk.