St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai

Life is mostly work for me, the exotic sound of “living in Egypt” has long been replaced by a routine that is not exciting, some days is simply exhausting and frustrating just as life anywhere can be, but it can still be inspiring. I don’t take life for granted and I try to find something new, interesting or beautiful in each day, and sometimes work lets a little extra light into my life by giving me chances to travel.

This trip wasn’t far, St Catherine’s is only an hour and a half drive from Nuweiba, but it was a looked for return to somewhere special I had visited 17 years ago during my second trip to Egypt. Then I was not limited to a half day visit as I was this time, and I climbed Gebel Musa (Mt Moses), which sits further into the mountains behind the monastery. This was a night climb to watch the sun rise over the mountains, then walk down to see the monastery when it opens for the day.

What felt like one of the coldest nights of my life remains a strong memory of that visit, with the dark hours spent at the summit shivering in a rented blanket and drinking many cups of tea, because I was unprepared and not dressed for how cold desert nights can be even in summer. But stronger are the memories of how worthwhile the climb and frozen feet were, to experience the exhilarating view at dawn.

Gebel Musa is the mountain where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments and Saint Catherine’s Monastery has been one of great centers of religious pilgrimage for over fifteen centuries.

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The monastery is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the oldest working Christian monasteries in the world. The monastery library preserves the second largest collection of early codices and manuscripts in the world, outnumbered only by the Vatican Library. It includes Greek, Arabic, Armenian, Coptic, Hebrew, Georgian, and Syriac texts. See more on the latest research underway in the library in this article In the Sinai, a global team is revolutionizing the preservation of ancient manuscripts

Tradition says that Catherine of Alexandria, a Christian martyr, was sentenced to death on the wheel. When that did not kill her, she was beheaded. And we think times are tough in Egypt now…. The story continues that angels took her remains to Sinai, and around the year 800, monks from the monastery found her remains. Though it is commonly known as Saint Catherine’s, the full, official name of the monastery is the Sacred and Imperial Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount of Sinai. A relic that is claimed to be a finger of St Catherine is displayed inside the church.

The interior of the church is a highlight of a visit to the monastery as it is home to icons from across many centuries, but interior photographs are not permitted so unfortunately I can’t share that with you. One of the pleasing features of the monastery is that there is a mosque inside its walls, sitting next to the church. It reminds me of visiting the mosque that sits inside the temple of Luxor and the church inside the mosque of Cordoba in Spain. Not every juxtaposition of religious buildings has been peaceful, but the two sitting together at St Catherine’s I like to hope are a sign of what should be possible in Egypt and throughout the world.

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