Saint Catherine Area
Saint Catherine Area
Cultural Egypt Arab States Governorate Of Janub Sina' (south Sinai)

Ascetic monasticism in remote areas prevailed in the early Christian church and resulted in the establishment of monastic communities in remote places. St Catherine's Monastery is one of the earliest of these, and the oldest to have survived intact, having been used for its initial function without interruption since the 6th century. It demonstrates an intimate relationship between natural grandeur and spiritual commitment.

With the destruction of Petra by the Romans, Nabataean influence waned and the survivors became nomads. The Sinaïregion, known to the Romans as Palestina Tertia, became a savage wilderness, and as such attracted early Christian anchorites. Following the departure of the Romans in the second half of the 4th century the general lawlessness eventually drove the monastic communities to seek help. This was supplied by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, who sent teams of architects and masons to build a fort below the rocky eminence identified by the monks as Mount Sinaï, with the dual purpose of protecting the community and securing the road from Aqaba to Suez.

Mount Sinaïis identified by Muslims as Mount Moses (hence its Arabic name, Jebel Musa/Gabbal Moussa), and for them, as for Christians, this is the place where God made a covenant with his people, handing down the Tablets of the Law to Moses.

The main Church of the Transfiguration was built in the 560s, around the time of Justinian's death. Its first dedication was to the Virgin Mary, but this was later to changed to the mid-3rd-century martyr St Catherine, whose head and hand are preserved as relics within the church. The Christian communities of St Catherine's Monastery have always maintained close relations with Islam. In 623 a document signed by the Prophet himself, known as the Actiname (Holy Testament), exempted the monks of St Catherine's from military service and tax and called upon Muslims to give them every help. As a reciprocal gesture the monastic community permitted the conversion of a chapel within the walled enceinte to a mosque during the Fatimid Caliphate (909-1171).

The monastery complex is completely surrounded by a massive wall. It is constructed of massive dressed granite blocks;however, the upper sections were restored on the orders of Napoleon, using smaller, undressed stone blocks. The wall is decorated in places with carved Christian symbols, such as crosses, monograms, etc. The main structure within the enclosure is the Church of the Transfiguration, which is the work of the Byzantine architect Stephanos;it is built from granite, in basilical form, with a broad main nave, two side aisles defined by massive granite columns with capitals composed of Christian symbols, an apse and a narthex. Each of the aisles has three chapels, and there is one on either side of the apse.

Behind the apse is the holiest part of the Monastery, the Chapel of the Burning Bush, which incorporates the 4th-century chapel built by the pious Empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, and dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The neoclassical bell tower is the work of the monk Gregorius and was built in 1871. The rectangular Old Refectory has 16th-century murals on the walls. The most ancient library in the Christian world is considered to be second only to that of the Vatican, in terms of both number and value of its collection.

The Fatimid Mosque, on the site of a small Crusader chapel, was built between 1101 and 1106. It is rectangular in plan, with a small semi-detached minaret in the northern corner and a small courtyard in front, which forms the roof of the well restored ancient olive press and mill. A constant supply of fresh water is provided by the Fountain of Moses, which taps an underground spring. The monks' cells are disposed along the inner faces of the walls. Outside the walls is the triangular monastery garden, created over many years by the monks, who brought soil here and made tanks to store water for irrigation. Adjoining the garden are the cemetery and charnel house.