St. Catherine's Monastery (Sinai)

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St. Catherine's Monastery, Sinai, Egypt

St. Catherine's Monastery is a monastery on the Sinai peninsula, at the foot of Mount Sinai, in Egypt. It was built at the site where Moses is believed to have seen the Burning Bush, which is alive and on the grounds. Though it is commonly known as Saint Catherine's, the actual name of the monastery is the Monastery of the Transfiguration. It is sometimes also known as the Monastery of the Burning Bush. It is the oldest Christian monastery in the world.


Originally founded by the Emperor St. Justinian the Great in 527, the monastery has weathered numerous changes in the history of the region, including the invasion of Islam, whose founder Mohammed himself guaranteed protection for the monastery. (The monastery still has possession of a written document from Mohammed to prove it.)

The Pantokrator of Sinai (7th c.)

In the 9th century, the site was associated with St. Catherine of Alexandria (whose relics were miraculously transported there) and it became a favourite site for pilgrimages. Numerous ancient manuscripts have been preserved in the library, which is second only to the manuscript library of the Vatican. The collection consists of some 3,500 volumes in Greek, Coptic, Arabic, Armenian, Hebrew, Slavic, Syriac, Georgian and other languages.

A number of ancient icons are also on the grounds, including the famous Pantokrator of Sinai (7th c.), pictured at left, and the Ladder of Divine Ascent (12th c.), an iconic representation of the book by that name by St. John Climacus.


The monastic church dates from the reign of St. Justinian. Its architect, Stephen of Aila, built a three-aisled, wood-roofed, basalt basilica, with carved capitals on the nave columns which are derived from the Corinthian order. The variation in the capitals there seem to be a deliberate choice, rather than the result of using columns from other buildings (which can be seen in other structures). The basilica has five side chapels, and towers flank the west end of the church. The sacred bush is left growing in the open beyond the east end of the building.

The monastery church has seen little essential change since the time of its imperial founder. Its great western portal is still closed by the original 1400 year old wooden door, which still functions perfectly on its first pins and hinges. The wood roof of the nave, also of 6th century construction, rests on beams that bear inscriptions honoring Justinian and his famous wife Theodora. These inscriptions had been reported by travelers as far back as the 18th century, but not until a 1958 expedition was a careful study made of them in relation to the church structure. The inscriptions mention "our most pious Emperor" Justinian and his "late Empress" Theodora. Theodora died in 548 and Justinian in 565, so that the church was completed between those years.

There are the remnants of a 10th or 11th century Fatimid mosque within the walls of the monastery, probably built to appease Muslim authorities of the time. Recent excavations within the mosque's walls have yielded evidence that the building predates its use as a mosque, however, as architectural and ornamental crosses and other Christian symbols have been found within.

There is also a small chapel called the Chapel of St. Tryphon which serves as an ossuary for the skulls of deceased monastics.

The Church of Sinai

The monastery, the nearby monastery at Raithu, and a handful of dependencies comprise the entire Church of Sinai, an autonomous Orthodox church headed by an archbishop, who is also the abbot of St. Catherine's. The archbishop is traditionally consecrated by the Patriarch of the Church of Jerusalem, though he is not the patriarch's subject.


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