Ever since the early Christian Period Egypt's south Sinai region has been a great attraction for the Christian monks. Monasticism, which means living as a monk, was an escape from the Roman violence which 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 fled the Roman persecution took shelter throughout Egypt, especially in areas 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 carried her relics to the Church of Transfiguration, which it was named then, next to the monastery that was formerly called "The Virgin", and ever since then, the name of the monastery 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 building of the church known today as the Church of Transfiguration at a nearby site. Justinian also ordered the building of a high enclosure wall, with towers to protect the monastery, and it is said that he provided it with 200 Roman soldiers to protect it against the attacks of the Bedouins. The monastery lies at the foot of "Moses Mountain" (Mount Sinai), which is a beautiful site, on a high location about 1570 feet above sea level. It has a good climate and plenty of fresh well 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
- 1-The Enclosure Wall and the Gate
- 2-The Great Church
- 3-The Burning Bush Chapel
- 4-The Fatimid Mosque
- 5-The Library
- 6- The Wells
- 7- The Oil Press
- 8-The Garden
- 9- The Monks Cells
- 10- The Guests' Dwellings
- 11- The Two Mills
- 12- The Grain Stores
- 13- 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 4 sides measure 117m, 80m, 77m, and 76m.
1- The Original Gate:
The original gate is actually located on the western side, but it 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 and consists of a central nave and two aisles that lead to small chapels. The central nave ends with the altar at its eastern side, and the aisles end with 2 rooms. Near to the altar on the right, there is a reliquary of marble, which contains the relics of St. Catherine.
A wonderful Byzantine mosaic covers the apse. The visitors to this church must take off their shoes outside before they enter, imitating Moses when he approached this Holy place.
The monastery contains about 2,000 icons, which is considered one of the most important collections of icons in the world. Some of them date back to the 5th and 8th centuries. You can see some of them hanging on the walls of the vestibule, 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 riwaqs; the middle one being the biggest, with the main mihrab flanked by 2 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 2 piers.
The minaret is 12m in height, ending with a balcony projecting 50cm and bearing a semi-ball-shaped dome at the top. The minbar (pulpit) is made of cedar wood decorated with floral decorations of a Fatimid style, which is one of the 3 famous minbars built in this style.
The Mosque contains 2 silver candlesticks, still preserved in good condition. There is also a chair on which 4 lines of the inscription were written in Floral Kufic mentioning that the Prince Anoshteken Al-Amer built the Mosque 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 important religious libraries in the world, containing a great number of very rare and old manuscripts. This library also has a large number of decrees of the Caliphs and the rulers. In recent years it has received a lot of attention from many scholars, as 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 is "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 floor of the yard 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, there is a small building that was constructed in 1863 during the reign of Khedive Ishmael. It is dedicated to being a dwelling for visitors and guests of the monastery.