Saint Catherine’s Monastery lies on the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, at the mouth of a gorge at the foot of Mount Sinai.
Although it is commonly known as Saint Catherine’s, the monastery’s full official name is the Sacred Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai.
Built between 548 and 565, the monastery is one of the oldest working Christian monasteries in the world.
The monastery was built by order of the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian I at the site where Moses is supposed to have seen the burning bush.
The architecture of St Catherine’s Monastery, the artistic treasures that it houses, and its domestic integration into a rugged landscape combine to make it an outstanding example of human creative genius.
St. Catherine’s Monastery is surrounded on all sides by a massive wall 2.5 meters (8,2 feet) wide and 11 meters (36 feet) high. It is made of huge dressed granite blocks except for the upper sections, which were restored on orders of Napoleon using smaller, undressed stone blocks. Christian symbols, such as crosses and monograms, are carved on the wall in various places.
The monastery has never been destroyed in all its history, and thus it can be said to have preserved intact the distinctive qualities of its Greek and Roman heritage.
Members of other Christian confessions have honoured the monastery, coming as pilgrims to this holy place. But from its beginnings, the Christian inhabitants of Sinai belonged to the Greek speaking world, and it has remained so to this day.
According to tradition, Catherine of Alexandria was a Christian martyr sentenced to death on the wheel. When this failed to kill her, she was beheaded. According to tradition, angels took her remains to Mount Sinai. Around the year 800, monks from the Sinai Monastery found her remains.
The main church of the monastery is the Church of St. Catherine , which was built of granite by the Byzantine architect Stephen of Aila at the same time as the defensive walls. The church structure, the roof, and the carved cedar doors at the entrance are all originals from 527 AD.
Inside, the church has a broad main nave, two side aisles, an apse and a narthex. The nave is bordered by massive granite columns with capitals decorated with Christian symbols. Each aisle has three chapels and there is a chapel on each side of the apse.
The iconostasis dates to 1612 and was made in the Monastery’s dependency of Crete at the time of Archbishop Lavrentios.
During the first half of the 4th century AD, the Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine, ordered the Chapel of the Burning Bush to be built on the site where Moses saw it’s namesake. The chapel, which was dedicated to the Virgin Mary, is now considered the holiest part of the monastery.
The Bush flourishes several meters farther from he chapel where it was transplanted in order to build the Altar upon its roots. It is said that this is the only bush of its kind growing in the entire Sinai Peninsula, and that every attempt to transplant a branch of it to another place has been unsuccessful.
Built in 1871, the bell tower contains nine bells of different sizes that were a gift of the Czars of Russia. The tower itself was built by a monastery monk named Gregorius.
There is a small chapel called the Chapel of St. Tryphon which serves as an ossuary for the skulls of deceased monastics.
Saint Catherine’s Monastery contains the world’s oldest continually operating library, possessing many unique books. The monastery library preserves the second largest collection of early codices and manuscripts in the world, outnumbered only by the Vatican Library. The collection consists of some 3,500 volumes in Greek, Coptic, Arabic, Armenian, Hebrew, Slavic, Syriac, Georgian and other languages.
The complex houses irreplaceable works of art: mosaics, the best collection of early icons in the world, many in encaustic, as well as liturgical objects, chalices and reliquaries.
The large icon collection begins with a few dating to the 5th (possibly) and 6th centuries, which are unique survivals, the monastery having been untouched by Byzantine iconoclasm, and never sacked.
The oldest icon on an Old Testament theme is also preserved there.
The Christ Pantocrator of St. Catherine’s Monastery is one of the oldest Byzantine religious icons, dating from the sixth century CE. It is the earliest known version of the pantocrator style that still survives today, and is regarded by historians and scholars to be one of the most important and recognizable works in the study of Byzantine art as well as Orthodox Christianity.
The monastery has been honoured by rulers throughout its history. These include the Empress Helena, the Emperor Justinian, Mohammed the Founder of Islam, Sultan Selim I, the Empress Catherine of Russia, and Napoleon Bonaparte.
The monastery is controlled by the autocephalous Church of Sinai, part of the wider Eastern Orthodox Church, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A small town with hotels and swimming pools, called Saint Katherine City, has grown around the monastery.