A scared site for Christians and Muslims, the Monastery of Saint Catherine was built by Emperor Justinian I in 527. The site was associated with Saint Catherine of Alexandria. Tradition says that her relics were transported to the monastery by angels. These relics were purportedly carried around the year 800. At the Arab conquest of Egypt, Prophet Muhammad gave the monastery a document guaranteeing protection. The Fatimid also built a mosque inside the monastery, so that the Muslim Bedouins would abstain from attacking the monastery; yet, the mosque was never used. For purposes of protection, the monastery was surrounded by massive walls and fortifications. These walls of 2.5 m wide and 11m high were provided by Emperor Justinian in the 6th century. The walls are made of huge dressed granite blocks except for the upper sections, which are built of sandstone. Until the 20th century, access into the monastery was through a door high in the outer walls. Today, the entrance is through a smaller gate to the left of the main gate. The complex of the monastery includes an Orthodox Church, a library, a mosque as well as a museum. Also comprised inside it is a well called the ‘Well of Moses’ that provides fresh water coming from an underground spring. Outside the monastery, there is a garden, cultivated by the monks side by side with a cemetery and a charnel house, where the bones of the monks are deposited.
– The Library of the Monastery of Saint Catherine
The library of the Monastery of St. Catherine preserves the second largest collection of early codices and priceless manuscripts in the world, outnumbered only by the Vatican Library. In fact, the library has over 3000 Greek, Coptic, Arabic, Armenian, Hebrew, Georgian, and Syrian manuscripts and over 5000 valuable early religious books. The Codex Sinaiticus– which is a manuscript that contains the Christian Bible in Greek, including the oldest complete copy of the New Testament– was preserved in the monastery until the 19th century, when it was moved to Russia, then to the British Library. In addition, the library contains a big collection of more than 2000 valuable Christian icons in a special gallery.
– The Chapel of the Burning Bush
The most sacred place in the monastery is the Chapel of the Burning Bush. It was built by Helena, the mother of Constantine I, at the site where Moses is supposed to have seen the ‘Burning Bush’. Although it belongs to a rare species of the rose family called Rubus Sanctus, the bush is native to Sinai and extremely long-lived. Dedicated to Virgin Mary, the chapel was built with its altar situated above the roots of the bush.
– The Church of the Monastery of Saint Catherine
Built in the 6th century, the church is the Basilica of the Transfiguration (or Katholikon). The Basilica consists of a wide central nave, two side aisles, an apse and a narthex. The nave is bordered by massive granite columns with capitals decorated with Christian symbols. Next to the main altar is a sarcophagus which contains the relics of St. Catherine. The aisles on both sides contain 3 chapels each, and the apse contains one chapel. The iconstasis, the floor and the ceiling date back to the 18th century. Also found are icons and mosaics which are considered marvelous masterpieces of art. The church has a neo-Classical bell tower that was built in 1871. The bell contained there is a gift from the Tsar of Russia.
– The Fatimid Mosque in Saint Catherine Monastery
The Fatimid Mosque which lies within the walls of the Monastery of St. Catherine was built in 1106 over a Crusader Chapel with the purpose to convince the Bedouins to abstain from attacking the monastery. But, the mosque was never used. Small as it was, the mosque comprises a small courtyard with a wooden roof.