Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Travel: St Catherine's Monastery, Sinai

Billings Gazette (Elizabeth McNamer)

St. Catherine's Monastery is an Orthodox monastery on the Sinai peninsula at the foot of Mount Sinai in Egypt.

It is one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world.

The Book of Exodus tells the story of the Israelites making a journey under Moses out of Egypt across the Red Sea through the Sinai desert to the Promised Land. It took 40 years.

We are told that Moses ascended a mountain in the desert, where he received the Ten Commandments. Where that mountain is, nobody knows. But massive Mount Horeb dominates the area (its highest peak is called Mount Sinai), and this has long been held to be Moses' mountain.
At its foot, Moses is supposed to have first experienced God in a burning bush.

"God called to him from within the bush, 'Moses! Moses!' And Moses said, 'Here I am.' 'Do not come any closer,' God said.

" 'Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.' Then he said, 'I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.' At this, Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God."

Jews, Christians and Muslims revere Mount Horeb as the place where God handed down the law.

Christian hermits began to gather around this mount in the wilderness in the middle of the third century.

Many of them lived in caves or built small huts and spent their days in prayer and silence. Often, they were attacked and killed by the Bedouin tribes.

When St. Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, journeyed to the Holy Land in the early fourth century, she ordered a chapel to be built there. It soon became a popular place of pilgrimage.

Egeria, a Spanish nun, writes about it in her diary: "There is a fine garden and plenty of water."

In 557, Emperor Justinian built a magnificent church and surrounded it by a large wall to protect the monks. Their cells were built along the inner side of the wall.

When Mohammed came on the scene in the seventh century, the monastery was allowed to go on its course. A document signed by the Prophet Mohammed himself, the Actiname (Holy Testament), exempted the Christian monks of St. Catherine's from the usual taxes and military service and commanded that Muslims provide the community with every help.

The monastery now houses a mosque.

When the Byzantine Emperor Leo ordered all icons destroyed in the seventh century, St. Catherine's was so remote that the icons there survived. The magnificent collection of early icons - more than 2,000 of them - can still be seen there today.

When Napoleon conquered Egypt in 1798, he placed St. Catherine's under his protection.

See the above page for the full story.

No comments: