The very image of the walled monasteries pictured in luxurious medieval tapestries, Saint Catherine's rests at the foot of Mount Sinai, nestled in a valley between jagged granite mountains. The monastery-cum-fortress was commissioned by the Byzantine emperor Justinian in AD 530 to protect those of Greek Orthodox faith. It also served as a strategic post on a bandit-ridden caravan route connecting Africa to Asia.
About 12 Greek Orthodox monks live and work here; the
archbishop, who resides in Cairo, visits at Easter and other important holidays. Outside and around the monastery live the Christian Bedouins of the Jabaliyeh tribe, who have long served the monks by working in the gardens and orchards.
Buildings within the monastery have been erected and expanded upon throughout the centuries. The most important of these are the basilica, the Chapel of the Burning Bush, the monks' quarters, the Skull House, and the library, with its treasury of rare books that includes a 4th-century translation of the Hebrew Bible commissioned by Constantine the Great (the library is closed to the public). All buildings are enclosed by the fortress wall, which ranges in height and thickness as it adapts to the shape of the encompassing mountains.
Stepping through the modern-day north-side entrance, you see the fountain of Moses to your left. It serves as the main source of fresh water. To the right, a minaret of a mosque was built in the 10th century in order to protect the church from the Fatimid Caliph's order to destroy all churches and monasteries. After passing the fountain, step through to the basilica, also known as the Church of the Transfiguration, in which the apse is adorned with an ancient mosaic of the Transfiguration of Jesus. Chandeliers and decorated ostrich eggs hang from the ceiling, and gilded icons from Crete decorate the walls. Take your time in here—there are treasured works of art all around. The basilica doors date to the 6th century.
The Chapel of the Burning Bush, behind the basilica, is the most sacred of the buildings in the monastery. Unfortunately, it's not always open to the public. Dating from the 4th century AD, the chapel is the oldest part of the church, and its walls are covered with icons, of which the monastery itself has 2,000. (You can see yet more icons in the hall next to the library; the rest are kept in secured rooms, closed to the public.) Outside the chapel, you can see the bush where it is believed that God spoke to Moses. Many attempts to transplant branches of the bush have failed.
The Skull House is a chamber to which the bones of deceased monks are transferred from the cemetery after five years of interment. (The burial plot is very small and must be constantly reused.) The skulls number around 1,500 and are lined up in neat rows.
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