The Monastery of Saint Catherine
Since the early Christian Period, Egypt's south Sinai region has been a great attraction for Christian monks. Monasticism, which means living as a monk, was an escape from the Roman violence that spread in the 4th Century A.D. People fled to remote regions of Egypt, especially the Firan Valley, El-Tur, and Mount Sinai. Those who escaped the Roman persecution took shelter throughout Egypt, especially near water sources
Who Was Saint Catherine?
Saint Catherine lived in Alexandria during the persecution of Christians during the reign of Maximinus in 305-313 A.D. When she converted to Christianity, the Romans tortured her severely, eventually beheading her in 307 A.D.
Five centuries later, a monk saw a vision in which her body was carried by Angels who gently placed her on top of the peak of the highest mountain in Sinai. Because of this remarkable vision, the monks took her relics to the Church of Transfiguration, which was named next to the monastery that was formerly called "The Virgin," ever since then, the monastery's name has been known as The Monastery Of Saint Catherine.
The Monastery Of Saint Catherine
In 342 A.D., Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, built a monastery, including the chapel known as the Virgin Mary, at the Burning Bush site on Mount Sinai. This is where it is believed that Moses received the two tablets from God. In the 6th century A.D., Emperor Justinian ordered the church building known today as the Church of Transfiguration at a nearby site. Justinian also ordered the construction of a high enclosure wall with towers to protect the monastery. He said he provided 200 Roman soldiers to defend it against the attacks of the Bedouins. The monastery lies at the foot of "Moses Mountain" (Mount Sinai), a beautiful site on a high location about 1570 feet above sea level. It has a good climate and plenty of fresh, healthy water. To the west of it is the El-Raha Valley.
Both the church and the monastery were later named for Saint Catherine.
The Most Important Elements Of The Monastery Of Saint Catherine
- The Enclosure Wall and the Gate
- The Great Church
- The Burning Bush Chapel
- The Fatimid Mosque
- The Library
- The Wells
- The Garden
- The Monk Cells
- The Guests' Dwellings
- The Two Mills
- The Grain Stores
The Enclosure Wall:
The monastery is similar to the fortresses of the Middle Ages and was built with an enclosure wall of granite stones, including towers at its corners and inner buildings surrounding it. The height of the wall is between 12m and 15m, while its four sides measure 117m, 80m, 77m, and 76m.
1- The Original Gate:
The original gate is located on the western side but is now blocked! To its left is the gate that is used at present, which was made in 1801.
2- The Main Church:
It was built on the northern side of the monastery. It is a basilica with a central nave and two aisles leading to small chapels. At its eastern end, the central nave ends with the altar, and the aisles end with two rooms. Near the altar on the right is a marble reliquary containing the relics of St. Catherine.
The apse is covered with a beautiful Byzantine mosaic. Before entering, visitors must remove their shoes, imitating Moses' approach to this holy place.
The monastery contains about 2,000 icons, considered one of the world's most important collections. Some of them date back to the 5th and 8th centuries. You can see some of them hanging on the vestibule's walls, which leads to the entrance of the main church.
3- The Mosque
The Mosque was built during the Caliphate of Al-Amer Be Ahkam Allah in 500 A.H (1106 A.D) to be a resting place for the pilgrims who passed by the monastery on their way to Mecca (or Makkah) and is situated on the southwest of the main church. It is a small Mosque, rectangular in shape, and measures 11m long by 7m wide. The walls are built of granite mortared with loam clay and covered with loam clay plaster. The Mosque consists of 3 rituals; the middle is the biggest, with the main mihrab flanked by two others. The floor of the Mosque is covered with hip tiles, but not the original ones! The roof is covered with wood and reed, tiled with hip tiles, standing on circular arches, and supported on two piers.
The minaret is 12m high, ending in a balcony projecting 50cm and bearing a semi-sphere-shaped dome at the top. The minbar (pulpit) is made of cedar wood and decorated with floral decorations in the Fatimid style. It is one of three famous minbars built in this style.
The Mosquemosque contains two silver candlesticks, still preserved in good condition. There is also a chair on which our four lines of the inscription were written in Floral Kufic, mentioning that Prince Anoshteken Al-Amer built the Mosqmosqueue during the reign of the Caliph Al-Amer Be Ahkam Allah in 500 A.H. Islamic time (1106 A.D).
4- The Library
The monastery has one of the most essential religious libraries in the world. It contains many scarce and old manuscripts and decrees of the caliphs and rulers. In recent years, it has received much attention from scholars, including from Alexandria University, and the Congress Library in Washington has microfilmed most of the manuscripts.
5- The Wells
There are many wells inside the monastery. The most important are "the Well of Moses," north of the main church, and "The Burning Bush Well" and "Saint Stephen's Well," which are south of the main church.
6- The Oil Press
This is situated below the Mosque's courtyard and is used for squeezing olives to extract the oil. Its ceiling is roofed by wooden beams and red ties, resting on granite arches. The yard floor is provided with lanterns to lighten the oil press.
7- The Garden
In the front of the monastery, there is a garden, including a cemetery, for the monks, with a "skull house" beside it. The monks used to bury their dead, leave the bodies for a certain period, and then collect their bones and deposit them in the "skull house."
8- The Guests Dwellings (or the Guest House)
Inside the enclosure wall is a small building constructed in 1863 during the reign of Khedive Ishmael. It is a dwelling for visitors and guests of the monastery.