Located in the foothills of Egypt’s Sinai Mountains against the backdrop of its craggy peaks, St. Catherine’s rather imposing fortified monastery tends to belie its more benevolent reputation.
Known for being the oldest active Eastern Orthodox monastery in the world, St. Catherine’s vaunted history dates back 17 centuries, to around AD 330. The monastery was dedicated to the legendary martyr Catherine of Alexandria, who, upon her death, was reported to have been escorted by angels to the highest mountain in the Sinai. The peak, known as Gebel Katarina (Catherine’s Peak), is where monks would discover her body nearly 300 years later, almost perfectly preserved.
The chapel was commissioned by the Byzantine empress, Helena, to commemorate the site believed to be where Moses heard God out of the burning bush. Later, in the 6th century, the Emperor Justinian would build the legendary fortress around the chapel to act as a place of sanctuary and refuge for Christian pilgrims in the Sinai. Today, the monastery welcomes pilgrims the world over. And while St. Catherine’s is open to the public, it is not the easiest to access. The closest city is Cairo, which is almost 8 hours by bus. The prevailing opinion is to join a tour group with an expert guide to avoid the hassle.
Once inside the monastery walls, visitors can walk through the breathtaking Church of the Transfiguration where the remains of St. Catherine are interred. The church is filled with an extraordinary cache of Byzantine artwork, and of note is the mosaic of the Transfiguration located high above the altar. Below the altar is the monastery’s most sacred site, the Chapel of the Burning Bush. While it is closed to public viewing, visitors can see a silver star on the altar, which indicates the site of the burning bush.
Walk through the monastery compound, and you can see a fenced-off area with what looks to be a large bush growing out of the top. Many visitors claim it is part of the overgrowth of the original Burning Bush, but it remains a mystery. Nearby is the Well of Moses, where newlywed couples are believed to receive wedded bliss upon drinking from it.
The newly renovated monastery museum features much of its Byzantine-era artwork, including gilded icons, ancient manuscripts, and gold and silver crosses and chalices. The lower level of the museum houses the world’s oldest known, nearly complete Bible, the Codex Sinaiticus.
The monastery’s renowned library is one of the world’s largest next to the Vatican, and it houses over 4,500 priceless manuscripts as well as over 2,000 icons, more than enough to put on display in the Basilica.
Venture outside the monastery walls, and visitors will encounter the cemetery and the charnel house. Deceased monks are initially buried in the cemetery, and then have their skeletal remains exhumed and transferred to the charnel. Inside are the remains of thousands of monks, while deceased archbishops and martyrs are displayed in open coffins.
Visitors can also enjoy the monastery gift shop, where they can purchase replicas of the icons on display. There is also a guest house and a courtyard café.