Ascetic monasticism in remote areas prevailed in the early Christian church and resulted in the establishment of monastic communities in remote places. St Catherine’s Monastery is one of the earliest of these, and the oldest to have survived intact, having been used for its initial function without interruption since the 6th century. In the early 4th century, St. Helena, mother of Constantine I, the Great, built the Chapel of the Burning Bush at the site where Moses is supposed to have seen the Miracle of the Burning Bush. The Orthodox Monastery of St Catherine stands at the foot of Mount Horeb where, the Old Testament records, Moses received the Tablets of the Law (Ten Commandments). The mountain is known and revered by Muslims as Jebel Musa. The entire area is sacred to three world religions: Christianity, Islam and Judaism. , St Catherine’s Monastery founded in the 6th century is the oldest Christian monastery still in use for its initial function.
The monastery is associated with St. Catherine of Alexandria, who was a Christian Martyr. Originally sentenced to die on the wheel, she didn’t die and was beheaded instead. According to legend, St. Catherine’s body was carried to the site of the monastery by angels. A Sinai monk once had a vision of her body at the top of a nearby mountain named Mount Catherine which is the highest summit in Sinai, where her remains were discovered. It’s said that monks found her remains in 800 AD.
The architecture of St Catherine’s Monastery, the artistic treasures that it houses, and its domestic integration into a rugged landscape combine to make it an outstanding example of human creative genius. It demonstrates an intimate relationship between natural grandeur and spiritual commitment. Its walls and buildings of great significance to studies of Byzantine architecture and the Monastery houses outstanding collections of early Christian manuscripts and icons. The rugged mountainous landscape, containing numerous archaeological and religious sites and monuments, forms a perfect backdrop to the Monastery. St. Catherine’s is also a formidable fortification, with granite walls 40 to 200 feet tall, surrounded by gardens and cypresses. Prior to probably the 20th century, the only entrance to St. Catherine’s was a small door 30 feet high, where provisions and people where lifted with a system of pulleys, and where food was often lowered to nomads. It is a impressive natural setting for priceless works of art, including a wonderful Byzantine mosaic dating back to the 6th century, Arab mosaics, Greek and Russian icons, Western oil paintings, paintings on wax, fine sacerdotal ornaments, marbles, enamels, chalices, reliquaries, including one donated by Czar Alexander II in the 19th century, and another by Empress Catherine of Russia in the 17th century. But of perhaps even greater significance is that it has the second largest collection of illuminated manuscripts after Vatican. The collection consists of some 3,500 volumes in Greek, Coptic, Arabic, Armenian, Hebrew, Slavic, Syriac, Georgian and other languages. In 1844, A German Scholar visiting the library discovered and then arguably stole The Codex Sinaiticus, an extremely important 4th century version of the Bible that now rests in the British Museum in London. The Monastery even has a small 10th or 11th century Fatimid Mosque which was probably built to appease the Islamic authorities of the time. There is also a small chapel “The Chapel of St. Triphone”, also known as ”The Skull House”, which houses the skulls of deceased monks.