Mount Sinai and Saint Catherine’s Monastery have been the inspiration of Christian, Jewish, and Moslem pilgrimage for over 1,300 years. The Monastery is the oldest continuously used religious retreat on earth.
Perhaps the most sacred mountain in the Middle East is Mount Sinai in north-eastern Egypt. At the foot of the peak is the Greek Orthodox Monastery of Saint Catherine. Thousands of years preceding the monastery, according to the Bible, Moses and the Israelites wandered the Sinai desert for 40 years before settling in the Holy Land. It is atop Mount Sinai where Moses saw God in a burning bush, then received the Tablets of the Law containing the Ten Commandments, the most humane law being “Thou shalt not kill.” Here the Israelites gathered with Moses to receive their laws directly from God, who “gave him the two tablets of the Tokens.” Moses claimed the finger of God reached down from heaven and transcribed the two tablets. These tablets form a Covenant, which is the supreme cornerstone of Jewish history. The Covenant is based on the first five books of Jewish scriptures, called the Torah (in Greek, Pentateuch) — which is often translated “Law” but originally meant instruction by divine revelation. Mount Sinai is one of the few sites in North Africa revered almost equally by Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike. The prophet Mohammed once visited the Saint Catherine Monastery and blessed it, promising that Muslims would cherish it for all time.
The monastery was founded by Empress Helena, the mother of Constantine the Great, but was completed two centuries later by Emperor Justinian’s architects in the sixth century CE . Continuing a Middle Age tradition, Saint Catherine’s Monastery is the residence of a dozen Greek Orthodox monks. The monks live in complete silence and are hospitable only to males. Saint Catherine’s Monastery houses a terrific collection of Byzantine art, along with the world’s second largest collection of illuminated manuscripts. The books and icons in Saint Catherine’s Monastery represent the oldest single collection in the Western world. Most of the treasures, books, and artwork can only be viewed by the monks and invited scholars. Saint Catherine monks claim to maintain a descendent of the original burning bush in a back courtyard.
The 7,497-foot (2,250-m) peak is an impressive site in the desolate Sinai Peninsula. Hiking to the summit of Mount Sinai is not difficult and takes most people about four hours of steady hill climbing. Most pilgrims opt to take the Steps of Repentance route, 3,000 steps carved into the rock face by a worshipful and very single-minded monk. A few visitors choose to spend the night atop the peak, but most wake at 2 a.m. in or near the monastery to reach the summit by daybreak. There are food and drink vendors at the top, as well as a little Greek Orthodox chapel. Several features mentioned in the Bible can be seen on the summit, including a small “cleft in the mountain” where Moses sheltered from the total glory of God.
Getting to Mount Sinai and Saint Catherine’s Monastery
Located in the rugged south of the Sinai Peninsula, Mount Sinai and Saint Catherine’s Monastery are about 150 miles (240 km) north of the main Red Sea port city Sharm El Sheik. Also called Horeb or Jebel Musa, Mount Sinai rises from the lunar-like desert among nine other lofty peaks. Buses and taxis ply the routes daily from almost all Sinai cites, including: Dahab, Sharm El Sheik, Suez, and Taba on the border of Israel.