St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt is one of Christianity’s greatest ancient treasures. Officially known as The Sacred and Imperial Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount of Sinai, it is home to one of the oldest Christian churches still in use: the Chapel of the Burning Bush. It is also home to one of Christianity’s most venerable library collections. Located at the base of Mount Sinai, believed to be the same Mount Sinai where Moses received the Ten Commandments from God, the Chapel of the Burning Bush has been venerated by Christians, Jews and Muslims for over a thousand years. Because of this, and because of its out-of-the-way location in the southern Sinai Peninsula, the chapel and monastery have largely escaped the tribulations that have so frequently ravaged the other holy sites of the Middle East. St. Catherine’s Monastery is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Mount Sinai made its first appearance in Biblical history when Moses found his way there following an arduous trek through the wilderness from Egypt. At the end of his famous forty-day journey, Moses made the acquaintance of the local Bedouins and settled among them as a shepherd. A few years later, Moses chased a stray sheep up the mountain, only to come across a certain fabled Burning Bush. This was followed by the most famous divine audience in history, where God personally ordered Moses to return to Egypt and lead the nation of Israel to freedom. What ensued was the most spectacular series of events and miracles to appear in the Old Testament.
After Moses secured the freedom of the children of Israel, he led them back to Mount Sinai, where they made a great encampment at the base of the mountain. Unfortunately, while Moses spent forty days on the mountain receiving God’s law, the short-memoried Israelites got impatient and began to break the commandments. The Lord’s ensuing wrath left them cursed to wander in the desert a further forty years. After their departure from the Sinai wilderness sometime around the 15th century BCE, the holy mountain was all but abandoned by the Israelites and left once again to the Bedouins and their flocks. It would be nearly two thousand years before a new interest was taken in finding and visiting Mount Sinai.
Early in the 4th century, the Byzantine Christians began taking an active interest in the holy sites of the Old Testament as well as the New Testament. Exploratory efforts sponsored by Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor, identified Mount Sinai, possibly based on the traditions of the Bedouin nomads who still lived in the area. After identifying the mountain’s location, she ordered a chapel to be constructed in honor of the miracle of the Burning Bush. Over the next few centuries, a large monastic compound grew up around the original chapel. Emperor Justinian I ordered extensive additions to be made in the 6th century, and much of the monastery dates from that time.
During the rise of the Muslim Caliphate in the 7th century, the area of Mount Sinai was conquered by the armies of the Umayyads and came under Islamic influence. However, a special dispensation, attributed by some to Mohammad himself, permitted the Orthodox Church to remain in possession of St. Catherine’s Monastery, an agreement which has been more or less honored down to the present day. In the years since, the site has been pretty much left alone. Mount Sinai and its environs appear much today as they have for over a thousand years. The isolated location, combined with the inhospitabile land, has left the area largely uninhabited and pristine. Although the area is becoming increasingly popular with religious travelers, it is still off the beaten path, and offers one of the world’s most unique pilgrimage experiences.
St. Catherine’s Monastery is one of Christendom’s biggest open secrets. Parts of the complex date back to the early 4th century and are still in use, making St. Catherine’s older than either the Church of the Holy Sepulcher or the Church of the Nativity. Because the site has gone undisturbed for nearly seventeen centuries, the monastery now preserves one of the greatest collections of early Christian writings and art in the world, supposedly second only to that possessed by the Vatican. Also located on the premises of the monastery is the Tomb of St. Catherine and the Garden of the Burning Bush, home to a questionable descendent of the shrub of Biblical fame.
At 7,498 feet, Mount Sinai dominates the surrounding plain. The terrain on the mountain is extraordinarily rugged, with virtually no vegetation except for the occasional patch of scrub-grass. The summit is reached by the famous Steps of Repentance, 3,750 stone-carved stairs that meander past a series of shrines and memorials, mostly related to the Exodus. The climb begins at St. Catherine’s Monastery and runs past the Springs of Moses and Elijah. Towards the top of the mountain are two structures: the Chapel of the Holy Trinity and a small mosque. The latter is located on the site of cave believed to have been used by Moses during his forty days on the mountain.
Mount Sinai is quite isolated, being more than two hundred miles away from the major tourism centers of Israel and Egypt, and more than thirty miles away from Sharm el-Sheikh, the closest major city. Road accessibility is poor, and a visit to the mountain and monstery usually requires a full two days with travel, generally necessitating an overnight stay at the monastery or camping on the mountain. The monastery is usually open Mondays through Thursdays and on Saturdays from 9:00am-noon. Admission is free. Web: www.sinaimonastery.com (official website)
El-Raha, the plain at the base of Mount Sinai, contains a number of places of interest related to the Moses saga. It is believed to be the location where the Israelites made camp after crossing the Sinai wilderness. A Byzantine shrine, the Chapel of the Golden Calf, marks the spot where the famed idol once stood. A small memorial marks the Tomb of Aaron, one of two possible burial places of Moses’ brother.