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Saint Catherine's Monastery


monastic complex in the sinai peninsula begun in the fourth century.

Saint Catherine's monastery sits near the foot of "God-trodden" Mount Sinai (Jabal Musa) in the middle of Egypt's southern Sinai Peninsula. In the mid-200s Christian hermits began to gather around the place where they believed God had spoken to Moses in the burning bush (Exodus 3:26). In 337 Helena, mother of Byzantine Emperor Constantine I, ordered the building of a small church and tower on that spot.

In 551 Emperor Justinian commissioned his favorite architect Stephanus of Ailae to erect high enclosure walls and to build a large church with monks' dwellings and gardens. In the 800s the "monastery of the bush" was renamed after Saint Catherine. The legend was that after her martyrdom in 305 in Alexandria, angels had borne her body to Mt. Sinai; five centuries later the monks discovered the holy relics.

This strong tradition was based on extant inscriptions (the debate about the dating being unresolved) that Muhammad himself protected the complex by an immunity decree. Guided by this tradition, later Muslim rulers in Egypt arranged for a tribe of bedouin mountaineers to protectnot always successfullythe monks from marauding nomads. The Frankish crusading Knights of the Sinai (from 1099 to 1270) and Napoleon (in 1798) also provided protection to the monks.

The monastery's library of more than 4,500 manuscripts (mostly Greek, but also Arabic, Syriac, Egyptian, and Slavonic) and its collections of more than 2,000 icons are uniquely precious. The isolation of the monastery preserved the earliest icons from being smashed by the imperial iconoclastic decrees of Leo III (726) and his successor Constantine V.

Foreign grants and the expertise of foreign scholars have ensured that the icon collections are catalogued, displayed, and safeguarded. Because Jewish, Muslim, and Christian pilgrims and tourists climb Mt. Sinai in ever increasing numbers, daily access to Saint Catherine's is limited to a few morning hours, except for those who stay in a well-managed, modest guest house.


Kamil, Jill. The Monastery of Saint Catherine in Sinai: History and Guide. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 1991.

Paliouras, Athanasios D. The Monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai. Sinai: St. Catherine Press, 1985.

Weitzmann, Kurt. The Monastery of Saint Catherine: Icons. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976.

thomas stransky

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