The Monastery Of St. Catherine
The South Sinai mountain complex, with its granite mountains and arid landscape, consists also of narrow valleys and small oases that are of great religious and historical significance.
These sites are associated with the forty-year sojourn of the Children of Israel, and with the ascetic struggles of the hermits of Sinai, from the dawn of the monastic movement to more recent years.
The Holy Monastery of Sinai is located at the foot of Mount Horeb, the Mount of the Decalogue. The valley opposite the monastery is the traditional site where the Children of Israel camped. The modern village of Katrine is located here today.
The monastery complex built around the site of the Burning Bush and the Well of Jethro developed across the centuries. The monastery catholicon is surrounded by nine chapels and a bell tower.
There are a further twelve chapels within the monastery complex. Adjacent to the Tower of Saint Helen is the residence of the Archbishop and the Chapel of the Life-giving Spring. To the west are accommodations for pilgrims, and to the north are administrative offices.
To the east are the old bakery and the refectory, and a range of cells. The south wing, completed in 1951, houses the library, the icon storage room, a seminar room, and other workshops and cells.
To the west of the fortress of Justinian lie the monastery garden, the cemetery, the ossuary, and other supporting structures. From here, the path begins that leads pilgrims to the peak of Mount Sinai, as well as to the peak of Mount Saint Catherine, and the hermitage of Saints Galakteon and Episteme. The area also contains numerous chapels, gardens, and hermitages.
The fortified walls surrounding the monastery enclosure were constructed in the 6th century at the command of the Emperor Justinian.
The architect was Stephanus of Aila, which is modern-day Eilat. The walls provided the monks with protection from hostile forces that would cross the area and enshrined within the church built at the site of the Burning Bush.
The height of the fortress wall varies from between ten and twenty meters, while its thickness varies from between two and three metres. The north wall of the monastery was badly damaged in 1798, and repaired by French soldiers at the time of Napoleon Bonaparte.
The Entrance Of The Monastery (Western Wall)
On the west wall, one can still see the original entranceway, which was walled up many centuries ago. Above the entranceway is a covered window which allowed those inside the fortress to repel anyone trying to break down the door.
Above the original entranceway, a verse from the Psalms is carved in stone, and now only legible in the best light, “This is the gate of the Lord, into which the righteous shall enter.” For centuries, the only entrance into the monastery was through a protected tunnel, or to be drawn up in a basket let down on the north side.
The present entrance on the west wall dates from around the year 1862 and consists of three steel-clad doors, the inner door at a right angle to the other two. More recently, a second door was cut into the north wall, to allow visitors to enter directly into the church area during those times when it is open to the public.
Justinian’s fortress was built to include the earliest structures built by the hermits of Sinai. The steep incline of the site presented great challenges to the earliest engineers, who had to level an extensive area for the construction of the basilica.
The Sinai monastery lacks the large central courtyard that would have been traditional even at that time. The building materials are local and simple – granite, humble timbers, reeds, earthworks – and in keeping with the ascetic nature of the place.
Roofs are flat as a rule, and windows are small. The basilica stands out in this complex, constructed as it is of hewn granite stones, and containing within the famous mosaic of the Transfiguration, numerous icons, and other treasures of the monastery.
The monastery catholicon is surrounded by nine chapels and a bell tower. There are a further twelve chapels within the monastery complex.
Adjacent to the Tower of Saint Helen is the residence of the Archbishop, the offices of the Secretary, the Synaxis, where members of the community gather to discuss various matters pertaining to the monastery, and the Chapel of the Life-giving Spring.
To the west are accommodations for pilgrims, and to the north are administrative offices. To the east are the old bakery and the refectory, and a range of cells.
The south wing, completed in 1951, was constructed to house the monastery library, conservation workshops and icon storage rooms, as well as to provide more recent monastic cells.
The Sinai monastery was constructed on the ground that has a steep incline. For this reason, there is no open central courtyard, and the cells of the monks are scattered throughout the fabric of the building complex.
The oldest cells are in an area to the south of the basilica. A range of cells along the east wall date from the fourteenth century, while yet another range of cells along the west wall date from the sixteenth century.
They are constructed of humble building materials, using any piece of wood, which was always scarce in the Sinai desert, and often using mud for walls and roofs.
Yet these humble materials are very insulated, retaining warmth in the winter, and resisting the heat of the sun in the summer. The newest cells are those along the south wall.
Other Outlying Buildings
The other areas within the fortress walls serve the needs of the monastery in various capacities. In the past, supplies were transported to the monastery with great difficulty and reached the monastery infrequently.
For that reason, many storerooms were needed to keep wheat, oil, and other foodstuffs. The early kitchen area is located in the northeast corner of the monastery, where two old mills are still in place.
To the northwest is the office of the Economos, who was responsible for the supplies of the monastery. Pilgrims are given hospitality in this area following the Liturgy on Sundays and feast days. Other offices are ranged along the western wall.
An area to the west of the basilica was used in ancient times to crush olives and extract olive oil. The circular area with its great stone wheel and the olive press are still in place.
Catholicon Of The Transfiguration
The great basilica of the Transfiguration was begun in AD 542 and completed nine years later. It incorporated the site of the original Chapel of the Burning Bush. The Catholicon is a three-aisled basilica that faces exactly east.
It has a narthex at the western end and a spacious apse at the east. The large four-leaved doorway at the entrance to the nave has been preserved from the 6th century. On these is carved the same verse from the Psalms that is carved over the entrance into the monastery, “This is the gate of the Lord, into which the righteous shall enter.”
The ceiling beams are also intact from that time. In the eighteenth century, the carved ceiling beams were painted and gilded, and panels were added between the beams to hide the rafters. These now hide important inscriptions that were originally visible.
The one reads, “For the salvation of our most august Emperor Justinian,” while the other reads, “For the memory and repose of our departed Empress Theodora. ” These allow precise dating of the basilica to within a few years, for we know that Empress Theodora died in AD 548, and the building is described by Procopius, writing about the year 556.
The outer doors to the narthex date from Fatimid times, and are made of many geometrical sections connected by tongue-and-groove joinery. On them, one can see names and coats of arms carved by pilgrims during Crusader times. The one door is carved with representations of Old Testament theophanies that were beheld by Abraham and Isaac, Elias, Moses, and Zachariah. On the facing door is a carving of the Transfiguration.
The aisles of the basilica are demarcated by twelve granite pillars, each pillar one great monolith, and each surmounted by a large capital. The carving on each capital is different. One can make out the cross with Alpha and Omega, lambs, date palms, and other ornaments. The columns, capitals, and walls were originally hewn granite, and austere.
In the eighteenth century, the rough granite was plastered over, and the capitals painted green, to give them more the appearance of marble. On each of the twelve columns is an icon depicting all the saints whose memory is celebrated in each of the twelve months of the year.
The front right column supports the icon for September, the front left column the icon for October, and so each month back and forth across the basilica to August, on the back left column. There is a metal cross let into the front of each column, and behind each cross are relics of several of the saints whose memory is celebrated that month.
The floor of the Basilica
There are nine chapels flanking the great basilica, three across each side, and three across the eastern end. The chapels on the north are dedicated to Saint Marina, Saint Helen, and Saint Antipas.
Those on the south are dedicated to Saints Cosmas and Damian, Saint Symeon the Stylite, and Saint Anne. The chapel to the east of the basilica is dedicated to the Burning Bush. To the left is the chapel of the Apostle James, the first bishop of Jerusalem, and to the right, the chapel dedicated to the Forty Martyrs of Sinai and Raitho.
The templon was made in Crete in the seventeenth century and transferred to the monastery in sections. It is surmounted by a life-sized Crucifixion that extends to the very ceiling.
The icons on the iconostasion were painted by Jeremias Palladas in the later eighteenth century. The inlaid marble floor dates from 1715 and is the work of Nasrala, a Christian artisan from Damascus. The entire basilica is adorned with a multitude of candelabra and silver lamps, given by sovereigns and pilgrims throughout the history of the monastery.
The Bell Tower
The present bell tower was constructed in 1871, but it rests on a sixth-century foundation that seems to have been constructed with a tower in mind. The bell tower was constructed at the expense of the monastery Skevophylakion, Archimandrite Gregorius.
It was built by artisans who came from the Greek island of Tinos and is constructed in a style that is prevalent on that island. Nine bells are housed in the tower, given by the Emperor Alexander II of Russia. The tower also houses the monastery semantra, one made of maple, and the other of iron. These are struck on feast days. Their use predates the use of bells.
The Holy Bush
The Chapel of the Holy Bush is the most ancient shrine in the monastery, and it was around this site that the first community of Sinai anchorites gathered. The bush was mentioned by Egeria, who came to Sinai in 383-384 AC.
The chapel is standing at the eastern end of the great basilica. Pilgrims enter this holiest place without shoes, in keeping with God’s command to Moses.
According to the Fathers of the Church, the bush that burned without being consumed by the flames was a type and prefiguration of the All-holy Theotokos, who bore within her the fire of the Godhead without being consumed and remained Virgin after Christ’s birth.
The feast of the Annunciation is celebrated here, and the first hymn of Vespers on that feast makes a specific reference to the Burning Bush. Members of the community are tonsured here as well. The Divine Liturgy is celebrated in the Chapel of the Burning Bush on Saturdays.
The chapel is distinctive in not having an iconostasion separating the holy table from the rest of the chapel. The holy table is supported by four columns, allowing pilgrims to kneel and venerate. The apse above the holy table is decorated with a mosaic of rich materials but simple design.
The walls are decorated with Iznik blue and white tiles and covered with a multitude of beautiful icons.
Well Of Moses
North of the catholicon there is preserved to this day the well at which Moses met the seven daughters of Jethro, as it is recorded in the scriptures (Exodus 2:15-22). The water is used by the community to this day, by means of a pump.
When the original refectory was transformed into a mosque in the 11th century, a new refectory was built, to the east of the basilica, adjoining the ancient kitchen area in the northeast corner of the monastery.
The arches of this structure were constructed from limestone blocks, and the lower reaches are covered with coats of arms and inscriptions in Latin, French, and German, the record of pilgrims who came from the West during the time of the Crusades and in the centuries subsequent to that time. Quite a number of these have been identified by modern scholars.
On the eastern wall are thirteenth-century depictions of the Prophet Elias being fed by a raven, and of Saints Anthony and Paul breaking bread that had been supplied by an angel. In the apse is a depiction of the Hospitality of Abraham, painted in 1577, and above, a fresco of the Second Coming of Christ, painted in 1573.
This is often depicted in monastery refectories, to remind the monks of the transience of this life, and the need to prepare for the life to come, which is eternal. The room is dominated by an immense walnut table decorated with elaborate carving.
This seems to be a table of the fifteenth century, that was sent to the monastery from the island of Zakynthos in the eighteenth century. The eleventh-century refectory has recently been restored and is again in daily use by members of the community. It was dedicated on the feast of Saint Catherine in the year 2004.
The mosque is located inside the monastery, just to the west of the catholicon. The structure was modified in the 11th century. Originally it had served as the monastery refectory (from the 6th century).
It is composed of three parts, with access between the three areas by means of large arched openings. In the course of recent renovations, under the plaster, there were found crosses carved into the crowns of the arches.
The minaret is located opposite the monastery bell tower.
The area adjoining the fortress walls includes the monastery garden, which to this day is used to grow fruits and vegetables for the sustenance of the monks.
The cultivation of such an extensive garden in this arid and hostile climate is a witness to the dedication and labour of the monks. Water drawn up from the ground is held in cisterns, from where it is distributed to the trees and plants.
The Chapel of Saint Tryphon
The garden is dominated by the Chapel of Saint Tryphon, patron saint of gardens. The Chapel occupies the upper storey of the structure standing in the midst of the monastery garden. It was constructed in 1888 and is distinguished by its simplicity and neoclassical profile.
The masonry is crowned by a horizontal cornice and parapet, while the western and eastern ends are adorned by decorative gables in the form of inverted keels. Saint Tryphon is the patron saint of gardens, and on his feast day every year, February 1, a priest blesses holy water and reads the Prayer of Saint Tryphon, which invokes the protection and blessing of God upon the garden for the coming year.
The Ossuary occupies the ground floor beneath the Chapel of Saint Tryphon. Outside are the six graves of the cemetery, where monks are buried in the ground in their monastic habit, and a simple cross marks each grave.
When a member of the community passes away, the bones that have been in the cemetery the longest are taken up to clear the grave for another burial. When bones have been disinterred from the cemetery, they are placed in the ossuary in an orderly manner.
Memorial services are regularly held in the ossuary, commemorating those who have gone before to their rest. It is edifying to recall that our life here has its appointed end. It is also important to remember that these are the bones of those who have fallen asleep, and who lie here awaiting the Resurrection and the Second Coming of Christ.
A wooden case preserves the body of the Righteous Stephanus, whose body has not decomposed, and who is still seated within the case.
This ascetic once lived at the gate below the entrance to the summit of Mount Sinai, and heard confessions, so that those who made the ascent would be cleansed, and spiritually prepared to ascend to the holy summit. He is mentioned by Saint John Climacus. His memory is celebrated on the feast of All Saints of Sinai.
The Kyrillou Complex
Outside the monastery entrance is a building referred to as the Kyrillou. This was constructed in 1859 at the time of Archbishop Cyril Byzantios, and hence its designation as the Kyrillou.
This is a simple classicist edifice made of hewn limestone blocks. It serves as a residence for women visitors to the monastery, and in particular, to visiting nuns, allowing them to attend services inside the monastery.
The Medical Clinic
The remoteness of Sinai meant that those who fell ill there could not simply leave the area. From earliest times, there were facilities for the care of the sick, and a number of the chapels in the area are dedicated to the saints who are invoked in times of illness, such as Saint Panteleimon, Saint Antipas, and Saints Cosmas and Damian.
In the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great of Rome sent an offering of blankets for use in the monastery’s care of the sick. In more recent times, a clinic existed inside the monastery, and Bedouin resorted to the clinic when in need of medical help.
A few years ago, an expanded clinic was established just outside the walls of the monastery. This contains an excellent dental clinic and an adjoining area for medical diagnoses and simple treatments.
A number of doctors from Greece and from other countries come to the Sinai to devote several weeks of their time at the clinic, in their respect for the monastery, and in their concern for the medical needs of the local Bedouin.
The monastery clinic now works in conjunction with a clinic in the nearby village, where Bedouin and visitors can receive first aid. The monastery and the village both have pharmacies where medications are kept on hand.
In more recent times, additional buildings have been constructed to house various monastery workshops, rooms for workers, and a Guest House where pilgrims and visitors can be accommodated.
To the east of the monastery are additional rooms for workers, and two areas of ruins that have only recently been excavated. They are still being studied, but seem to have served as quarters for the soldiers who were sent to build the monastery in the sixth century, and who were commanded to remain at the monastery with their families as its guardians and protectors.