St. Catherine’s Monastery is the oldest consistently-inhabited Christian monastery in the world, with a history dating back seventeen centuries. The monastery is believed to have been built where God appeared to Moses in the Burning Bush, as told in the Old Testament. An additional 170 saints, collectively called the Sinai saints, are honored by the Church. The holy relics of Saint Catherine are also enshrined here.
history Of St. Catherine’s Monastery
This ancient monastery’s foundation dates all the way back to AD 330. The Byzantine empress, Helena, built a chapel around what was believed to be the burning bush from which God spoke to Moses. The monastery and surrounding area were declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. The monastery is named after St Catherine, the legendary martyr of Alexandria, who was tortured and then beheaded for her faith. It’s believed that the device used to torture her (a spiked wheel) spun out of control, killing onlookers. After, it’s said that angels whisked her body away to the highest mountain. This peak, which lies about 6 kilometres south of Mount Sinai, became known as Gebel Katarina. Her body was discovered by monks from the monastery around 300 years later, in a state of near-perfect preservation.
In the 6th century, Emperor Justinian built a fortress around the original chapel to serve as a haven for Christians of the Sinai region. Since then, the monastery receives pilgrims from all over the world. In the past, many endured extreme danger to reach the remote site. However, today a paved access road leads up to the monastery, which has become a popular day trip for tourists.
visiting St. Catherine’s Monastery
If traveling independently, the closest hubs to the monastery are Cairo or Sharm El Sheikh. From Cairo, the monastery is almost 8 hours by bus. St. Catherine International Airport (IATA: SKV, ICAO: HESC) is located about 20 kilometres from the monastery city. It’s also possible to charter a flight from Cairo to this airport, if that’s in your budget!
The monastery is closed on Fridays and Sundays, as well as during important days of the Greek Orthodox Church. On all other days, the monastery is open between 09:00 and 11:30.
what to see at St. Catherine’s Monastery
Inside the walled compound, the ornate 6th-century Church of the Transfiguration has a nave with colossal marble columns and walls covered in gilded icons and paintings. At one end, 17th-century iconoclasts separate the nave from the sanctuary where St Catherine’s remains are interred. This area is off-limits to the public. High above the altar is one of the monastery’s most stunning artistic treasures, the 6th-century mosaic of the Transfiguration. Below the altar is the monastery’s holiest site, the Chapel of the Burning Bush. This area is closed to the public as well. A silver star on the alter marks the site of the burning bush. To the right of the altar is a marble sarcophagus with two silver caskets that house St. Catherine’s skull and left hand.
It’s possible to see what is thought to be an offshoot of the original burning bush in the monastery compound. Thanks to visitors sneaking cuttings of the bush to take home as blessings, the area is now fenced off. Nearby the burning bush is the Well of Moses, a natural believed to grant wedded bliss to all who drink from it.
Above the Well of Moses is the Monastery Museum. Recently restored, it displays many of the monastery’s artistic treasures and spectacular Byzantine-era icons. There are precious chalices, ancient manuscripts, and gold and silver crosses. In the bottom room of the museum is the prize exhibit, the Codex Sinaiticus, the world’s oldest near-complete bible. The monastery’s library is the second largest in the world next to the Vatican and contains a priceless collection of illuminated bibles, ancient manuscripts, and a hand-written copy of the New Testament. All in all, the library houses over 2000 icons, said to be the most in the world, and over 4500 priceless manuscripts. There is always a selection of icons from the collection on display in the basilica.
Outside the main walls is the cemetery and Charnel house. When monks from the monastery die, they are first buried in the cemetery. Once their bodies have decayed, the bones are exhumed and transferred to the Charnel house. Inside the Charnel house, the bones of thousands of deceased monks can be seen, separated into piles for hands, legs, feet, ribs, and skulls. Martyrs and archbishops are in open coffins. Inside the door is the skeleton of Stephanos, dressed in purple robes, a 6th-century guardian of the path to Mount Sinai.
Inside the monastery walls is a gift shop that sells replicas of icons. In the wider monastery grounds are the guest house and courtyard with a cafe (open seasonally).