One of the most important cultural and historical monuments of Sinai is the Monastery of St. Catherine. It is located in the center of the peninsula at an altitude of about 1585 meters above sea level. From the village of el-Milga, you can reach the monastery after about two kilometers.
There, at the foot of Gebel Musa (2285 meters) and overlooked by the peak of Gebel Katarina (2642 meters), it has found its place in a deep valley depression.
The history of the monastery
The Greek Orthodox monastery, considered one of the oldest monasteries of Christianity, owes its name to Saint Catherine. However, the martyr from Alexandria, who died in the fourth century, has been the patroness of St. Catherine’s Monastery only since the Middle Ages.
This was previously dedicated to Mary, the mother of Jesus. According to legend, the bones of St. Catherine mysteriously appeared on the mountain of the same name. For the monks, this was reason enough for a name change.
The place where St. Catherine’s Monastery was built is almost legendary and of great importance for Jews and Christians. Exactly at this place, God showed himself to Moses in the form of a burning thorn bush. A broom bush, which is considered to be an offshoot of the legendary thorn bush, can still be seen inside the monastery walls. And on nearby Mount Moses (Gebel Musa), Mount Sinai, Moses received the tablets containing the Ten Commandments. Numerous pilgrims still make the journey today to climb to the top of the mountain and feel something of the special atmosphere.
As early as the beginning of the fourth century, the first hermits settled on this spot. Then in 324, Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, had a chapel built.
To protect the Sinai Passage and the monks from Bedouin raids, Emperor Justinian built a basilica in 537 and surrounded the monastery buildings with a fortress-like wall. St. Catherine’s Monastery acquired its present form in the period between 540 and 560. The monastery has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2002.
The buildings and gardens of the monastery cover an area of one hundred hectares. Worth seeing are the monastery library and the collection of about two thousand icons, which date back to the sixth century and contain numerous representations of St. Catherine.
The monastery library is considered one of the oldest in Christendom, surpassed only by that of the Vatican. Among the attractions of the library is the Codex Sinaiticus, an almost completely preserved Bible manuscript discovered by the German theologian Constantine von Tischendorf. In the treasuries of the museums are stored numerous stretcher crosses and richly decorated reliquaries and manuscripts unique in the world.
The monastery today
Today, about twenty monks live in the monastery, although few of them are from Egypt. Between 50,000 and 100,00 visitors visit the monastery and the museums annually. Parts of the monastery can be visited in the morning from 9.30 to 12.00, except on Fridays, Sundays, and Greek Orthodox holidays. Attention should be paid to proper dress – photography is not allowed.
Due to its location and importance, St. Catherine’s Monastery is worth a trip and is also easy to reach from the Red Sea vacation region. If you do not want to organize the visit yourself, you can book one of the numerous excursion offers.
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