THE SANTA KATHARINA MONASTERY
AND ITS SURROUNDINGS.
The south central area of the Sinai peninsula consists of a granite and basalt massif we call the high mountain range. The valleys are at an elevation of 1500 m, the highest top being Djebel Katharina, 2645 m. It is in the valley of Wadi El Dir, at the foot of Mount Moses, (2285 m) that the Greek Orthodox monastery of Santa Katharina blends in nicely with its surroundings.
In 325 Helena, mother of Justinius I, build a chapel over the site of the burning bush. It was this chapel that became a century later the cornerstone of the monastery. The bush, Rubus Sanctus or holy raspberry, was in the eyes of the monks the most important place in the entire region, much more so then Mount Moses or Sinai, where God gave the commandments to mankind. The bush was later moved outside of the chapel, although the monks claim the roots are still there under the altar of the chapel.
On the 2285 m high summit of Mount Moses (Sinai) you find a chapel as well as a small mosque. It is clearly one of the most important pilgrim destinations for Christians in Egypt. Usually one climbs at night in order enjoy a beautiful sunrise with stunning views over southern Sinai.
The monastery of Santa Katharina is one of the few where you can find a mosque within its walls, even right next the bell tower of the church. There are a few interesting stories, say legends, about how this mosque came to be build there. But it is thought that the mosque was build in order to provide a praying space for the Djabaliya Bedouin, doing a lot of the daily chores.
These Bedouins originated in Europe, came with the Romans in order to build the monastery, and were at that time Christians. After the Arab conquest, they converted gradually to Islam, but still provided the monks with the manual labor in exchange for protection.
A lot of the building is done by the Bedouins, together with the monks. In addition of daily maintenance, cooking and cleaning, they take care of the gardens. These are mainly orchards, called boustan in Arabic. The favorable climatic conditions and the relative abundance of water make it possible to grow almond trees, pomegranates and olives. The result is that you find here a kind of paradise on earth, especially if you arrive from the arid interior of the Sinai desert.
Visits of the monastery are limited to the morning from 9 till 12.The monastery is closed on Fridays and Sundays and orthodox holy days. One is allowed to visit the church and the site of the burning bush, but the inner little “ streets ”, the library and refectory are closed.
As it was in earlier times as well. In order to visit, one needed to present letters of credential, and would be hoisted into the monastery with an elevator. The monastery is famous for a number of reasons. Tischendorf discovered the Codex Sinaiticus, (a story in itself), and many icons some as old as the 6 th century have been preserved. The mosaic of the transfiguration behind the iconostasis in the church is certainly another masterpiece.