Historic Monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai


Panoramic view of the Saint Catherine monastery. Credit: patano / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0

Saint Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai in the city of Saint Catherine, Egypt, is one of the most important Christian monasteries in the world.

Not only is it one of the oldest functioning Christian monasteries, it is also home to a library which holds the second largest collection of ancient codices and manuscripts in the world, only outnumbered by the Vatican Library.

The monastery, which is Orthodox, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is sacred to the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

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It was founded in 565 by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, with the oldest record of monastic life in the Sinai region dating from 381-384.

Along with the Monastery of Saint Anthony, located across the Red Sea in the desert south of Cairo, the Monastery of Saint Catherine is one of the oldest in the world.

Today, the official name of the monastery is the “Royal Autonomous Sacred Monastery of Saint Catherine of Mount Sinai, Sacred and Trodden by God”.

It is controlled by the Autonomous Church of Sinai, which is part of the wider Greek Orthodox Church. It contains the oldest library in the world in continuous operation.

Saint Catherine’s Monastery is surrounded by a massive granite wall – 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) thick and 11 meters (36 feet) high. It has managed to ward off its enemies as it has never been invaded or destroyed for nearly 15 centuries, a miracle in an often war-torn Middle East.

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A Spanish woman named Egeria, who traveled to the Holy Land and Mount Sinai around 381-384, had recorded the existence of monastic life in the Mount Sinai area.

Saint Catherine’s Monastery was built by order of Emperor Justinian I, who reigned from 527 to 565).

It contains the Burning Bush Chapel, itself built by order of Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine the Great, in the very spot where Moses is believed to have seen the Burning Bush.

There is a living bush on the grounds of the monastery, allegedly with roots from the same bush that Moses saw.

The name derives from Catherine of Alexandria, a Christian martyr who was first sentenced to death on the wheel, according to legend.

However, when the horrific torture failed to kill her, she was beheaded. It was said that during his execution, a liquid resembling milk flowed down his neck instead of blood.

According to tradition, the angels took his remains to Mount Sinai. Around the year 800, monks from the Sinai monastery found his remains.

In the 7th century, the monastery was in a serious crisis, mainly due to the Arab conquest of the region. According to a source, by 808 the number of monks in the monastery had been reduced to thirty and Christian life in the Sinai region had disappeared.

Saint Catherine Monastery
Muhammad’s Ashtiname granting protection to St. Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai. Public domain

However, the monastery itself has not disappeared. According to tradition, the Fathers of the Monastery asked for the protection of Muhammad himself, who considered Christians to be brothers in the faith.

Muhammad accepted the monastery’s request for immunity and signed the document known as Muhammad’s Ashtiname, ordering his followers to protect Saint Catherine’s monks.

The library of Saint Catherine’s monastery

The monastery library keeps a veritable treasure of ancient codices and manuscripts, a collection which is the second largest after the Vatican library.

It contains Greek, Arabic, Armenian, Hebrew, Georgian, Syriac and Udi texts of immeasurable value. There is evidence that manuscripts were produced in Sinai in the 7th century.

The first Sinai manuscripts were practical texts, intended either for use in religious services or to inspire the monks who lived in the area.

The writing materials for the manuscripts were brought to Sinai with great difficulty. The deterioration of the texts by use was limited by the dry and stable climate, and the extreme isolation of the monastery protected it from destruction.

Manuscripts in 11 languages ​​adorn the shelves of the library, the texts being predominantly Greek. Important collections in Arabic, Syriac, Aramaic, Palestinian Christian, Georgian and Slavic are also kept in the library of Saint Catherine’s Monastery.

The Sinai Scrolls are essential for studying the scriptures. There are also manuscripts of classical Greek texts, especially important medical books.

Some of the Sinai Scrolls are splendid works of art in themselves, with golden letters and brilliant illuminations, created in Constantinople in the 10th, 11th and 12th centuries, when the city was at its peak as the center of the culture and Christian faith. .

Saint Catherine Monastery
Syriac Sinaiticus. Part of Matthew’s gospel written in Syriac around the 4th century. Public domain

The most important among the manuscripts is the 1,600-year-old Codex Sinaiticus, which contains the Christian Bible in Greek, including the oldest complete copy of the New Testament.

Another invaluable manuscript is the Codex Syriacus, an ancient copy of the Gospels in the Syriac language, also from the 4th century.

The Palimpsests of Sinai

The oldest manuscripts were written on parchments made from stretched and smoothed animal skins, which is a highly specialized and expensive craft.

If a scribe needed to write a text, but there was no scroll available, he could take a manuscript considered less important and erase the text, writing the new text over the old one.

This type of double writing work is called a palimpsest. Since Sinai was quite isolated from the 7th to 11th centuries, reusing parchment was often the only way to create a new manuscript.

However, faint traces of the original texts have often survived under later texts. In many cases, the original text is of greater interest to researchers today. So far 160 palimpsests have been found in the library of St. Catherine’s Monastery.

In recent years, a technique called multispectral imagery makes the underlying script on parchment clear and readable.

This is a complex process that involves taking images in red, green and blue light and then merging them with computer software to create high quality color images. Such technology is only one means by which we can continue to marvel at the many treasures of Mount Sinai Monastery.

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