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Saint Catherine's Monastery

Orthodox Monastery of St Catherine/Katherine

At 1,570 meters (5,150 feet) above sea level, situated in a valley at the bottom of Gebel Musa, The Monastery of Saint Catherine is one of the top destinations for Sinai visitors.


Established between A.D. 527 and 547 by the Byzantine emperor Justinian, the monastery was expanded on different phases. The St. Katherine Monastery has 6 main attractions; The BASILICA, CHAPEL OF THE BURNING BUSH, CHARNEL HOUSE, JUSTINIAN’S WALL, THE LIBRARY and GALLERY OF ICONS, THE MOSQUE. St. Catherine Monastary - Mount Moses is 150 Kms from Sharm El Sheikh. It is important to note that the library of the area contains ancient manuscripts and icons and is considered to be the second in its size after Vatican’s library.

Saint Catherine's Monastery lies on the Sinai Peninsula, at the mouth of a gorge at the foot of Mount Sinai in Saint Catherine/Katherine city in Egypt. The monastery is Orthodox and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. According to the UNESCO, this monastery has been called the oldest working Christian monastery in the world – although the Monastery of Saint Anthony, situated across the Red Sea in the desert south of Cairo, also lays claim to that title. The Orthodox Monastery of St Catherine stands at the foot of Mount Horeb where, the Old Testament records, Moses received the Tablets of the Law. The mountain is known and revered by Muslims as Jebel Musa. The entire area is sacred to three world religions: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. The Monastery, founded in the 6th century, is the oldest Christian monastery still in use for its initial function. Its walls and buildings of great significance to studies of Byzantine architecture and the Monastery houses outstanding collections of early Christian manuscripts and icons. The rugged mountainous landscape, containing numerous archaeological and religious sites and monuments, forms a perfect backdrop to the Monastery.

Among the famous contributors to the construction of the Monastery is Napoleon, as he ordered the restoration of the north side’s wall in the year 1800 under the supervision of Jean-Baptiste Kleber, whose input also includes a corner watchtower, a square tower and a central citadel with two more towers.

According to the Bible, after fifty days of walking through the harsh desert and mountains, the Hebrews reach the open plain of El-Raha, where Moses received the Tablets of the Ten Commandments, the basis of the Jewish and Christian faiths.

Gebel Musa – originally called Mount Horeb – became a primary pilgrimage destination for early Christians, as well as a location for monastic communities, which were growing very fast.
Saint Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai
In A.D. 330, Constantine’s mother Helena put an end to the persecution of Christians by the famous law of A.D. 313, allowing freedom of worship for everyone. Then she ordered the construction of a small church presumably on the very site of the Burning Bush.

From then on, the monastic community in Gebel Musa was growing and developing over the years, and became the object of respect and pilgrimages.

In A.D. 527, Justinian gave instructions to build a real monastery complete with a great basilica and a high enclosing wall that contained the original church of Saint Helena as well, to protect it from the raiding Bedouins of the area.

Between the eighth and ninth century, the monks of the monastery found what was believed to be the body of Saint Catherine, which according to the legend had been carried by angels to the summit of Gebel Katherina, and then disappeared.

So the so-called body of the Saint was placed in a tomb inside the basilica, where it still rests, and thus, from then on the monastery has been known as the Monastery of Saint Catherine.

The Monastery was always protected and has survived various occupations of the area, starting by the Muslims in A.D. 641, who were ordered by Prophet Mohamed (PBUH) never to come near it.

Then came the Crusaders, bringing along even more pilgrims, and turning the Monastery into one of the top ranking destinations for Christians, along with Jerusalem and Rome.

Following the Crusaders came the Ottoman sultans, who have issued yet another protection decree for the monastery.

The monastery’s importance was growing, to the point where subsidiaries were constructed in various locations such as Palestine, Crete, Romania and Russia.

Once you walk in through the northern entrance, you will be greeted with the fountain of Moses on the left, also known as the well of Jethro, according to the Bible, Moses has saved Jethro’s seven daughters from the groping hands of the shepherds, and as a reward, Jethro offered one of his daughters to Moses as a wife. (Exodus, 2, 16 – 22)

This fountain is the main source of fresh water for the monastery.

Once you walk into the basilica you’ll feel like you’ve been transported through time to an ancient church, rich in its decorative ornaments and furnishing. You’ll be truly amazed with the endless number of lamps, the beautifully gilded ceilings, the amazing iconostasis dating as far back as the seventh century, depicting Christ, the Virgin Mary, Saint Catherine, Saint Nicholas, Saint Michael and Saint John Baptist.

And of course there’s the renowned Mosaic of the Transfiguration; an image depicting Jesus Christ standing surrounded by Moses, Elijah and a number of apostles.

Among the most important landmarks of the Monastery are the bell tower, the Chapel of the Burning Bush, the refectory, the mosque, the library, a garden and a cemetery.

It is worthy of mentioning that the Monastery’s library has the second finest collection of manuscripts – a total of about three thousand – after the library of Museums of the Vatican.

Although the Monastery of Saint Catherine is one of the most popular destinations of all of Sinai, it is also unfortunately one of the most disappointing as most of the mentioned sights are not accessible to visitors.

What you will have access to are the church, the fountain of Moses and the Burning Bush.

Another thing, make sure you call up the monastery before you go to know whether they’re open for visits or not, as it’s closed on Fridays and Sundays, and major religious holidays. Visiting hours are from 9 am till noon, so be there early.
The Holy Monastery Church of Saint Catherine’s Monastery in the Mount Sinai
St. Catherines Monastery is one of the oldest monasteries in the world. You may reach to the foot of Mt. Sinai by bus (90 minutes bus ride). Climbing up the 7500 ft (2285 m) mountain in the middle of the night is exhausting but exciting. Take a camel if you want, there are hundreds of Bedouins waiting to take you up - it's only £ 6. It takes about 3 hours to the summit, but the most stunning and beautiful sunrise rewards for everything.

There are Bedouin huts in regular intervals on the way up that provide drinks and shelter for a rest. After climbing down (which appears to be quicker somehow) you should visit St. Catherine's Monastery with the Burning Bush, a beautiful icons in the chapel are really worth it.

Official Website of the Holy Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai: http://www.sinaimonastery.com/

Last Updated on Wednesday 22nd December 2010