Saint Catherine's Monastery has had a special significance for the world community, not only in present times, but ever since its earliest beginnings. Over the centuries, the Sinai brotherhood has been entwined with broader society in many ways, whether spiritual, cultural, socio-economic, or academic. The many different facets of this illustrious history continue to draw persons of differing interests and background to discover inspiration for their own lives in its unique heritage.
Saint Catherine's Monastery: From Yesterday to Today
Most are drawn by the Monastery's location on Mount Sinai, or Horeb, which was retained in local memory as the site of the miraculous events of the Book of Exodus, where the holy Prophet Moses encountered God at the Burning Bush and then received the Ten Commandments. The Sacred and Imperial Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount of Sinai, as St. Catherine’s is officially named, also houses the world’s greatest collection of Byzantine icons, as well as a famous collection of ancient manuscripts second only to that of the Vatican.
For the student of religion or spiritual seeker, the Sinai Monastery stands at the apex of revelation where the New and Old Testaments meet, for the brilliant radiance of Moses’ countenance upon his descent from Sinai prefigures the way of divine Grace to come in the New Testament.
As seen through the prism of Sinai’s ancient spiritual tradition, the ultimate significance of the events of Exodus emerges in the New Testament era. Given their own experiences of the purified soul’s participation in God, the Fathers of the early Church were able to discern essential aspects of Christian theology in Moses' experiences of God, first at the Burning Bush and then on the Holy Summit of Sinai. Thus, the tradition of the Law and Prophets of the Old Testament revealed on Sinai finds its fulfillment in the way of love taught by Christ, the journey whose stages are clearly set out in Saint John Climacus of Sinai’s Ladder of Divine Ascent and reflected in the life of the Great-martyr Catherine of Alexandria, whose relics are preserved in the Holy Monastery.
Saint John Climacus, the Monastery’s sixth/seventh century abbot and revered “second Moses,” also experienced the vision of God--but in the formative period of the New Testament era. Thus, instead of the Law, he brought down from on high a spiritual manual, the Ladder of Divine Ascent. This famous work delineates the Orthodox Christian path to the soul’s union with God through its pursuit of authentic love. The book is considered by many as the most important spiritual work after the Bible and, to this day, serves as a guide to those both within and without monastic life.
Many also journey to Sinai to venerate the popular Saint Catherine of Alexandria, the fourth century All-wise Great-martyr and Bride of Christ whose relics were discovered atop the highest peak of the Sinai range. Saint Catherine was a brilliant and well-educated young aristocrat noted for her great beauty and discernment. Inspired by her incisive exposition of the veracity of Christian faith versus idolatry and the radiance of her sanctity, many present at her martyrdom were moved to embrace Christ and ensuing martyrdom themselves. Along with many other holy martyrs from the Sinai Monastery, the Saint exemplifies another important dimension of traditional Christianity: the defense of the faith up to the point of willingness to sacrifice one's life for the truth, without violence to others. And the many intriguing facets of the Saint’s life, like flowers, soften the stark facts of her martyrdom and add luminous color to the arid desert setting of Sinai’s granite universe.
Saint Catherine’s application of education to the service of God resonates in yet another way with the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai, the Monastery’s vast collection of manuscripts, and Saint John Climacus' expert exposition of the spiritual ascent to union with God. While the ascent ultimately depends on illumination from God in response to nothing more than one’s struggle to fulfill the commandments in humility of soul, learning and knowledge do not contradict and indeed inform divine ascent, if rightly applied. And as seen in the example of St. Catherine, they also serve as a means of demonstrating the path to the uninitiated by exposing the falsity of worldly preconceptions.
Finally, the Monastery's tradition of peace with those of other faiths, as well as its charity to pilgrims and the surrounding community, demonstrate love in action, the natural outcome of the pursuit of God. This is another dimension to the light of revelation, whose luminescence is reflected in the tradition of the Sinai Monastery as in a mirror, and continues to profit contemporary civilization in many ways.
Small monastic communities formed as early as the third century around the Burning Bush. As Sinai priestmonk Father Justin says, the monks "were coming to the edge of the inhabitable world. It was such a harsh desert, people came here for the silence and because this had been the place sanctified by the revelations of God."
The Emperor Constantine ended the persecution of the Christians. Having seen the sign of the Cross in the heavens at the decisive moment when he was marching towards Rome, he desired to found a church at the place of the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ that would be the most splendid church in all the empire. He appointed his mother Helen as Augusta, and gave her unlimited access to the imperial treasury, requesting that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre be adorned with precious marbles, and its ceiling coffered and gilded. The Augusta Helen went to Jerusalem in the year AD 327, and the monks of Sinai appealed to her for the construction of a church at the site of the Burning Bush. This chapel is sometimes referred to as the Chapel of Saint Helen, and is dated to the year AD 330.
From the fourth century on, the area became a destination for pilgrims, as seen in the well-known travel account of the Spanish nun Egeria. However, there were also attacks by nomadic tribes, including the massacre of the Holy fathers slain at Mount Sinai and at Raitho, the closest port of entry by sea to the Sinai monastic enclaves. In the fifth century, the first local Church authority, the Bishopric of Pharan was established, and in the sixth, at the request of the monks, Byzantine Emperor Justinian built a magnificent basilica for the Sinai monks, dedicated to the Transfiguration of Christ, surrounded by granite walls strong enough to withstand nomadic raids.
“Like a vision of Heaven in the wilderness of Moses,” the basilica’s rare Transfiguration mosaic reflects the magnitude of the divine promise revealed to mankind on Sinai.
The revelation of the mystery begun in the Old Testament when Christ mystically appeared to Moses in the Burning Bush is completed in the New. This of course takes place at the Transfiguration, when the blinding Light of Christ’s divinity is suddenly revealed to His apostles Peter, James, and John. As Moses radiated with light after his experience on Sinai, the light of the Son of man is disclosed to all humanity whose nature He assumed – for “God became man that man might become god.” Thus it is through the Transfiguration, whose golden mosaic fills the main apse of Sinai’s sixth century basilica, that the meeting of Old and New Testaments takes place in the radiance of divine vision.
Having “died ten thousand times for God’s decrees” in surpassing their fears to serve the Lord, Moses and Prophet Elias, who stand on either side of Christ in the mosaic, had each encountered the Word of God on Sinai before He took on flesh. “For it is Christ who gave the Law … naturally invisible yet perceived in light,” wrote Saint Gregory of Sinai. Therefore Moses exults with unspeakable joy, Gregory says, to see the glory of Christ revealed openly at His Transfiguration.
A chapel dedicated to the Holy Trinity marks the ground where Moses received the Ten Commandments on the summit of the Holy Mountain. At some distance below, another contains the cave where God revealed His presence to Elias in a gentle breeze. With renewed splendor in the basilica far below, the luminous prophets yet reflect the light of divine encounter, following a monumental restoration of the mosaic conducted between 2005 and 2010 in collaboration with the Monastery fathers by Rome’s Center for Archaeological Conservation. (For a video on the restoration, please see this link.)
During the sumptuous monastic services, as a Sinai monk Saint Gregory would have had ample opportunity to contemplate the plan of the celebrated mosaic, as reflected in his Discourse on the Transfiguration. Moses and Elias appear, one from the grave, the other as from heaven, he emphasizes, in order to clarify that Christ is not one of their number, as some had surmised. Instead He is the God of the Law and Prophets they symbolize, the source and fulfillment of every prophetic word. Therefore, their sudden appearance proves Christ to command the “power of both death and life,” for while Moses had undergone death, Elias was wondrously swept up as to heaven in a fiery chariot. Like Moses, Prophet Elias sought to see God on the heights of Sinai, and for pilgrims contemplating such longing during a morning’s attempt on the same craggy pinnacles, the connection is not lost: the one who strives mightily to see God will do so, in this life as well as the next.
Saint Catherine was no more than twenty years old when she challenged the emperor Maximinus amidst a celebration of pagan sacrifices taking place throughout the city of Alexandria. Calling upon her wide knowledge of rhetoric and classical philosophy, the Saint denounced the worship of idols and the destruction caused to the populace by the propagation of such ignorance of the living God. Catherine decisively outwitted the numerous orators summoned to debate her, citing examples such as the prophecy of a pagan prophetess Sybil who foretold the coming of a Savior. Those enlightened by her arguments and display of sanctity included the emperor’s own wife, his guard of 200 soldiers, and her former opponents in the debate. Granting her request for their concealment, angels removed Saint Catherine’s relics to what is now known as Mount St. Catherine, a half day trek from the Monastery. Upon their discovery there by the monks shortly after the construction of the present day fortress, the holy relics were enshrined in the sanctuary of their Justinian basilica, where they have continued to emit a miraculous fragrance ever since.
Saint Catherine’s renown quickly spread through Europe when miracles of healing occurred upon her relics being taken to Rouen, France by monks in the eleventh century. To this day, schools, hospitals, churches, and other institutions throughout Europe carry the Saint’s name as a testament to this devotion.
Many aspects of Catherine’s life and martyrdom have captivated the souls of the devout. Not least amongst these is that she chose martyrdom voluntarily, discounting every advantage that great beauty, wealth, education and noble privilege could provide, fully aware of what her stand for the truth would cost. Related to this, the account of how Saint Catherine became the bride of Christ inspired a cult within the Western church, in which various other saints named Catherine were ascribed the same title of honor. This was inspired by the vision in which Saint Catherine of Alexandria saw the infant Christ in His Mother’s arms. Praising the Saint’s newfound beauty of soul following her recent baptism into Christianity, the Infant placed a ring on her finger, betrothing her to Himself as His eternal bride. The Saint awoke from the vision to find the ring still on her finger.
In commemoration of the miracle, pilgrims to St. Catherine’s Monastery still receive a silver ring bearing the Saint’s monogram, taken from the reliquary containing her relics, which they wear ever after as a perpetual blessing of Sinai pilgrimage. In a unique departure from tradition, whereas the Byzantine style invariably places Saint John the Forerunner next to Christ on the main iconostasis of every church, in Saint Catherine’s Monastery the friend of the Bridegroom gives way to His bride; the Holy Forerunner moves to the other side of the icon screen, and Saint Catherine takes his place next to Christ.
Saint John wrote the Ladder of Divine Ascent at the request of the Abbot of nearby Raitho, who compared him to the Prophet Moses: "To the supernatural and angelic father of fathers…..we appeal to your superlative virtue to describe…what you, like Moses of old on that same mountain, have seen in the vision of God, and to send us a book like the divinely written tablets, for the instruction of the New Israel…."
Saint Anastasios of Sinai further links Saint John, the Sinai Monastery, and Prophet Moses in an anecdote recounted in his Tales of the Sinai Fathers. On the day he became abbot, about 600 pilgrims came to visit the Monastery. A man dressed in Jewish garb was noted working to assist the guests, giving orders to cooks and stewards. After the visitors dispersed, the monks searched everywhere but failed to find the mysterious helper. Saint John said, "Leave him be – our lord Moses has done nothing strange by serving in this place which belongs to him!"
As Metropolitan Kallistos Ware pointed out in his introduction to the Ladder, Saint John's aim is "not to… impose a formal code of ascetic rules, but to evoke in his readers an experience similar to his own." And he does so with "a rhythmic prose often not far removed from poetry," as well as with humor and compassion. Saint John provides deft insight into the nature of spiritual struggle, the roots of the vices, and how one can strive to overcome them through the help of divine Grace – timeless wisdom, as applicable in today’s society as when it was recorded in the sixth/seventh century. A visit to the primordial wilderness of the cave where Saint John spent 40 years impresses one with a sense of just how enduring this wisdom of the desert is.
Above all, the lives of saints like John of the Ladder prove that beyond all obstacles, humankind can achieve the authentic love personified by Christ. Far from the distractions of worldly concerns, the Sinai tradition shows how this is accomplished by following the way of grace introduced in the New Testament, the same that was foreshadowed by the Law and Prophets of the Old.
Spiritual lights like the recently canonized Father Paisios, who was a Sinai hermit in the 1960’s before returning to Greece’s Mount Athos, continue to relay the living tradition of Sinai’s wilderness spirituality to the world. Father Paisios was deeply influenced by the time he spent in Sinai and always wished to return, having been forced to leave his high mountain hermitage due to lifetime pulmonary problems. The Sinai brotherhood was building a new cell for Father Paisios shortly before his final illness, when he had planned to return to Sinai in hopes of sustaining the milder climate of its lower environs.
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."
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.
As pilgrims continued to visit Sinai from the fourth century, large numbers would arrive by camel caravan through several established pilgrimage routes. After the Muslim conquest in the seventh century, some decline in pilgrimage numbers occurred, though this varied according to the ruler in power. Pilgrimage increased again after the Crusades (the Crusaders did not control the area, but facilitated access) and as the popularity of Saint Catherine grew in Europe. Following the Protestant Reformation, pilgrimage from Europe declined until more recent times.
Given the Monastery's remote location, travel was not easy. Access was limited to camel caravan until well into the 20th century. As one travel journalist who visited in the 1930’s recounted in his memoir, it was necessary for anyone who journeyed to St. Catherine’s by car to travel in two cars, in case the first broke down in the desert. In the 1950s, though, the Egyptian government paved roads to oil fields and mines in the western Sinai and also developed a dirt track to the Monastery, which allowed travel via taxi from Cairo. A paved road to the Monastery was finally completed in the 1980’s, and tourism soon increased to monumental proportions.
With the world’s encroachment on their isolation and the consequent loss of their solitude, the monks now faced a double burden. They worked to accommodate tourist needs without sacrificing their spiritual responsibility to preserve the Sinai way of life as a living tradition.
The Monastery fathers also engage in many forms of philanthropic work, continuing until today their ancient custom of providing medical care to the surrounding population. This began in the Monastery’s first centuries when the early monks operated a hospital. In the 1980s and 90s the Monastery fathers built new medical and dental clinics, including donated state of the art laboratory equipment from Greece, providing free treatment to anyone seeking help, whether Bedouin, tourist, pilgrim or monk.
The Bedouin tribe living near St. Catherine’s traces its descent to families sent by the Emperor Justinian to defend the Monastery. With great dignity the Jebeliya (from the Arabic “jebel” for “mountain”) tribesmen have maintained their centuries-old tradition of co-operation with the Monastery fathers throughout all the ensuing centuries. Monks today recount how the Bedouin sprang to the Monastery’s assistance on their own initiative during the 2011 Egyptian revolution when the police force was suddenly inactivated. Likewise, the monks have shared their material resources with the Bedouin throughout the centuries, doing whatever they can to relieve the profound poverty of the region.
Largely under Muslim rule since the seventh century, the Monastery worked hard and successfully to promote peaceful and cooperative relations between Christians and Muslims. Before his ascendancy to leadership in Arabia, the monks received the founder of Islam, Mohammed, with their traditional hospitality, as was their custom in caring for all pilgrims. Subsequently, having apparently understood that the newly emerging state harbored ambitions that extended beyond the Arabian Peninsula, they acted preemptively by requesting a letter of protection (Dr. Alexandros Kyrou, Salem State Univ). For his part, Mohammed was sufficiently impressed by his experience at the Monastery that in 628, before concluding treaties with various tribes in the region, he granted the Monastery the requested letter, called the Achtiname. This forbids attacks on the Monastery, exempts it from taxes, and grants privileges not only to the monks, but also to other Christians. The charter was renewed under subsequent rulers, and during Ottoman rule, the Pasha of Egypt annually reaffirmed its protection. The Monastery has also maintained excellent relations with the Egyptian authorities in modern times, as well as with the Israeli authorities during their administration of the Sinai from 1967 to 1982.
With the rise of radical Islam and in the wake of the Egyptian revolution, the 21st century has brought new challenges to Sinai’s singular history, placing great pressures on the ancient Monastery to maintain the unique way of life whose example provides an unparalleled paradigm of multicultural exchange and tolerance to the world. While newcomers have tried to incite the Bedouin to extreme actions and some are trying to displace the Monastery from its ancient site, the neighboring tribes have maintained their loyalty to the Sinai monks, refusing to impinge upon a relationship of mutual cooperation whose antecedents predate the written history of the region.
For their part, living according to their Christian ideals, the monks do not proselytize, but simply witness to their faith through their continuing efforts to hand on the spiritual tradition they received unblemished to those who come after them. As a result, the Sinai brotherhood continues to enjoy enormous respect throughout Egypt and the world.