Saint Catherine's Monastery

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Saint Catherine's Monastery
Saint Catherine Sinai.jpg
The monastery, with Willow Peak (traditionally considered Mount Horeb) in the background
Monastery information
Order Church of Sinai
EstablishedAD 565
Founder(s) Justinian I
Location Saint Catherine, South Sinai Governorate, Egypt
Coordinates 28°33′20″N33°58′34″E / 28.55556°N 33.97611°E / 28.55556; 33.97611 Coordinates: 28°33′20″N33°58′34″E / 28.55556°N 33.97611°E / 28.55556; 33.97611
Official nameSaint Catherine Area
Criteriai, iii, iv, vi
Designated2002 (26th session)
Reference no. 954
State Party Egypt
Region Arab States

Saint Catherine's Monastery (Arabic : دير القدّيسة كاترين; Greek : Μονὴ τῆς Ἁγίας Αἰκατερίνης), officially "Sacred Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai" (Greek : Ιερά Μονή του Θεοβαδίστου Όρους Σινά), lies on the Sinai Peninsula, at the mouth of a gorge at the foot of Mount Sinai, near the town of Saint Catherine, Egypt. The monastery is named after Catherine of Alexandria.


The monastery is controlled by the autonomous Church of Sinai, part of the wider Greek Orthodox Church, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. [1]

Built between 548 and 565, the monastery is one of the oldest working Christian monasteries in the world. [2] The site contains the world's oldest continually operating library, [3] possessing many unique books including the Syriac Sinaiticus and, until 1859, the Codex Sinaiticus. [4] [5]

Christian traditions

According to tradition, Catherine of Alexandria was a Christian martyr sentenced to death on the breaking wheel. When this failed to kill her, she was beheaded. According to tradition, angels took her remains to Mount Sinai. Around the year 800, monks from the Sinai Monastery found her remains.

Although it is commonly known as Saint Catherine's, the monastery's full official name is the Sacred Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai. The patronal feast of the monastery is the Feast of the Transfiguration. The monastery has become a favorite site of pilgrimage.


1899 map of the monastery surroundings
Skt Katharina Klosteret.jpg
2011 photo from the north of the monastery, facing southwards
The monastery is located in the shadow of a group of three mountains – Ras Sufsafeh / "Mount Horeb" (peak c.1km west), Jebel Arrenziyeb (peak c.1km south) and Jebel Musa / "Biblical Mount Sinai" (peak c.2km south)
PikiWiki Israel 8612 Sanatah Kattarina Monastery in the Sinai Desert in.jpg
Saint Catherine's Monastery, 1968
Saint Catherine's monastery, 1852

The oldest record of monastic life at Sinai comes from the travel journal written in Latin by a woman named Egeria about 381–384. [6] She visited many places around the Holy Land and Mount Sinai, where, according to the Old Testament, Moses received the Ten Commandments from God. [7]

The monastery was built by order of Emperor Justinian I (reigned 527–565), enclosing the Chapel of the Burning Bush (also known as "Saint Helen's Chapel") ordered to be built by Empress Consort Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, at the site where Moses is supposed to have seen the burning bush. [8] The living bush on the grounds is purportedly the one seen by Moses. [9] Structurally the monastery's king post truss is the oldest known surviving roof truss in the world. [10] The site is sacred to Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. [11]

A mosque was created by converting an existing chapel during the Fatimid Caliphate (909–1171), which was in regular use until the era of the Mamluk Sultanate in the 13th century and is still in use today on special occasions. During the Ottoman Empire, the mosque was in desolate condition; it was restored in the early 20th century. [12]

During the seventh century, the isolated Christian anchorites of the Sinai were eliminated: only the fortified monastery remained. The monastery is still surrounded by the massive fortifications that have preserved it. Until the twentieth century, access was through a door high in the outer walls. From the time of the First Crusade, the presence of Crusaders in the Sinai until 1270 spurred the interest of European Christians and increased the number of intrepid pilgrims who visited the monastery. The monastery was supported by its dependencies in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Crete, Cyprus and Constantinople.

Ossuary in Saint Catherine's Monastery Ossuary Sinai.jpg
Ossuary in Saint Catherine's Monastery

The monastery, along with several dependencies in the area, constitute the entire Church of Sinai, which is headed by an archbishop, who is also the abbot of the monastery. The exact administrative status of the church within the Eastern Orthodox Church is ambiguous: by some, including the church itself, [13] it is considered autocephalous, [14] [15] by others an autonomous church under the jurisdiction of the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem. [16] The archbishop is traditionally consecrated by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem; in recent centuries he has usually resided in Cairo. During the period of the Crusades which was marked by bitterness between the Orthodox and Catholic churches, the monastery was patronized by both the Byzantine emperors and the rulers of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and their respective courts.

On April 18, 2017, an attack by the Islamic State group at a checkpoint near the Monastery killed one policeman and injured three police officers. [17]

Manuscripts and icons

Ashtiname of Muhammad The Patent of Mohammed.jpg
Ashtiname of Muhammad
6th-century hot wax icon Petersinai.jpg
6th-century hot wax icon

The monastery library preserves the second largest collection of early codices and manuscripts in the world, outnumbered only by the Vatican Library. [18] It contains Greek, Georgian, Arabic, Coptic, Hebrew, Armenian, Aramaic and Caucasian Albanian texts.

In May 1844 and February 1859, Constantin von Tischendorf visited the monastery for research and discovered the Codex Sinaiticus, dating from the 4th Century, at the time the oldest almost completely preserved manuscript of the Bible. The finding from 1859 left the monastery in the 19th century for Russia, in circumstances that had been long disputed. But in 2003 Russian scholars discovered the donation act for the manuscript signed by the Council of Cairo Metochion and Archbishop Callistratus on 13 November 1869. The monastery received 9000 rubles as a gift from Tsar Alexander II of Russia. [19] The Codex was sold by Stalin in 1933 to the British Museum and is now in the British Library, London, where it is on public display. Prior to September 1, 2009, a previously unseen fragment of Codex Sinaiticus was discovered in the monastery's library. [20] [21]

In February 1892, Agnes Smith Lewis identified a palimpsest in St Catherine's library that became known as the Syriac Sinaiticus and is still in the Monastery's possession. Agnes and her sister Margaret Dunlop Gibson returned with a team of scholars that included J. Rendel Harris, to photograph and transcribe the work in its entirety. [22] As the manuscript predates the Codex Sinaiticus, it became crucial in understanding the history of the New Testament.

External video
Moses & Bush Icon Sinai c12th century.jpg
Nuvola apps kaboodle.svg The Icons of Saint Catherine's Monastery, Sinai, Egypt, J. Paul Getty Museum

The Monastery also has a copy of the Ashtiname of Muhammad, in which the Islamic prophet Muhammad is claimed to have bestowed his protection upon the monastery. [23]

The most important manuscripts have since been filmed or digitized, and so are accessible to scholars. With planning assistance from Ligatus, a research center of the University of the Arts London, the library was extensively renovated, reopening at the end of 2017. [24] [25]

Sinai Palimpsests Project

Since 2011, a team of imaging scientists and scholars from the U.S. and Europe has studied the library's collection of palimpsests. [8] [26] The project's original leaders were history professor Claudia Rapp of the University of California, Los Angeles, and Michael Phelps of the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library. [26] Images from the project are freely available for research at the UCLA Online Library. [27]

Palimpsests are notable for having been reused one or more times over the centuries. Since parchment was expensive, monks would erase certain texts with lemon juice and write over them. [3] [28] Though the original texts were once assumed to be lost, [6] the scholars used narrowband multispectral imaging techniques and technologies to reveal features that were difficult to see with the human eye, including ink residues and small grooves in the parchment. [8] [18] Each page took approximately eight minutes to scan completely. [18]

As of June 2018, at least 170 palimpsests were identified, with over 6,800 pages of texts recovered. [18] Many of these newer finds were discovered in a secluded storage area in 1975. [8] Highlights include "108 pages of previously unknown Greek poems and the oldest-known recipe attributed to the Greek physician Hippocrates," as well as insight into dead languages such as Caucasian Albanian and Christian Palestinian Aramaic. [28] [29] These images have subsequently been digitized and distributed online for scholarly use. [1] [6]

Works of art

The complex houses irreplaceable works of art: mosaics, the best collection of early icons in the world, many in encaustic, as well as liturgical objects, chalices and reliquaries, and church buildings. The large icon collection begins with a few dating to the 5th (possibly) and 6th centuries, which are unique survivals; the monastery having been untouched by Byzantine iconoclasm, and never sacked. The oldest icon on an Old Testament theme is also preserved there. A project to catalogue the collections has been ongoing since the 1960s. The monastery was an important centre for the development of the hybrid style of Crusader art, and still retains over 120 icons created in the style, by far the largest collection in existence. Many were evidently created by Latins, probably monks, based in or around the monastery in the 13th century. [30]


Historical images

St CatherinesPanorama.JPG
A panorama of St Catherine's

Saint Catherine's Foundation

The Saint Catherine's Foundation is a UK-based non-profit organization that aims to preserve the monastery. The conservation of its architectural structures, paintings, and books comprise much of the Foundation's purpose. The Saint Catherine's Foundation works with its academic partner, the Ligatus Research Center at the University of the Arts, London, to raise awareness of the monastery's unique cultural significance via lectures, books and articles. [31] Founded on November 2, 2007 at the Royal Geographical Society in London needs new funds for the conservation workshop, digitization studio and full complement of conservation boxes designed to protect the most vulnerable manuscripts of the monastery. About 2000 manuscripts should be stored in boxes.

See also

Related Research Articles

Constantin von Tischendorf 19th-century German theologian

Lobegott Friedrich Constantin (von) Tischendorf was a world-leading biblical scholar in his time. In 1844 he discovered the world's oldest and most complete Bible dating from 325, with the complete New Testament not discovered before. This Bible is called Codex Sinaiticus, after the St. Catherine's Monastery at Mt. Sinai, where Tischendorf discovered it. The codex can be seen either in the British Library in London, or as a digitalised version on the Internet. Textual disputes are resolved when the two oldest books, Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus, agree with each other. Tischendorf was made an Honorary Doctor by Oxford University on 16 March 1865, and an Honorary Doctor by Cambridge University on 9 March 1865 following this find of the century. While a student gaining his academic degree in the 1840s, he earned international recognition when he deciphered the Codex Ephraemi Rescriptus, a 5th-century Greek manuscript of the New Testament.

Codex Sinaiticus Handwritten copy of the Bible in Greek

Codex Sinaiticus or "Sinai Bible" is one of the four great uncial codices, ancient, handwritten copies of a Christian Bible in Greek. The codex is a historical treasure.

Biblical manuscript A handwritten copy of a portion of the text of the Bible

A biblical manuscript is any handwritten copy of a portion of the text of the Bible. Biblical manuscripts vary in size from tiny scrolls containing individual verses of the Jewish scriptures to huge polyglot codices containing both the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) and the New Testament, as well as extracanonical works.

Curetonian Gospels

The Curetonian Gospels, designated by the siglum syrcur, are contained in a manuscript of the four gospels of the New Testament in Old Syriac. Together with the Sinaiticus Palimpsest the Curetonian Gospels form the Old Syriac Version, and are known as the Evangelion Dampharshe in the Syriac Orthodox Church.

Agnes and Margaret Smith sibling duo

Agnes Smith Lewis (1843–1926) and Margaret Dunlop Gibson (1843–1920), nées Agnes and Margaret Smith, were Semitic scholars. Born the twin daughters of John Smith of Irvine, Ayrshire, Scotland, they learned more than 12 languages between them, and became pioneers in their academic work, and benefactors to the Presbyterian Church of England, especially to Westminster College, Cambridge.

Porphyrius Uspensky Russian bishop

Bishop Porphyrius, was a Russian traveller, theologian, orientalist, archaeologist and byzantinologist, founder of the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem and also discovered several ancient codices. In latter year he was auxiliary bishop of Chigirin.

Uncial 083, ε 31 (Soden), is a Greek uncial manuscript of the New Testament, dated paleographically to the 6th/7th century. The codex now is located at the Russian National Library in Saint Petersburg.

Uncial 087 manuscript

Uncial 087, ε 27 (Soden); is a Greek uncial manuscript of the New Testament, dated paleographically to the 6th century. Formerly it was labelled by Θc.

Uncial 0278, is a Greek uncial manuscript of the New Testament. Paleographically it has been assigned to the 9th century.

Uncial 0280, is a Greek uncial manuscript of the New Testament. Paleographically it has been assigned to the 8th century.

Uncial 0281, is a Greek uncial manuscript of the New Testament. Palaeographically it has been assigned to the 7th or 8th century.

Uncial 0282, is a Greek uncial manuscript of the New Testament. Palaeographically it has been assigned to the 6th century.

Uncial 0284, is a Greek uncial manuscript of the New Testament. Paleographically it has been assigned to the 8th century.

Uncial 0285, is a Greek uncial manuscript of the New Testament. Paleographically it has been assigned to the 6th century.

Uncial 0286, is a Greek uncial manuscript of the New Testament. Palaeographically it has been assigned to the 10th or 11th century.

Uncial 0287, is a Greek-Arabic uncial manuscript of the New Testament. Paleographically it has been assigned to the 9th century.

Uncial 0288, is a Greek uncial manuscript of the New Testament. Palaeographically it has been assigned to the 9th century.

Uncial 0289, is a Greek uncial manuscript of the New Testament. Paleographically it has been assigned to the 7th or 8th century.

Great uncial codices

The great uncial codices or four great uncials are the only remaining uncial codices that contain the entire text of the Greek Bible.

Church of Sinai Eastern Orthodox archdiocese

The Church of Sinai is a Greek Orthodox autonomous church whose territory consists of St. Catherine's Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai in Egypt, along with several dependencies. There is a dispute as to whether the church is fully autocephalous or merely autonomous. The church is headed by the Archbishop of Mount Sinai and Raithu, who is traditionally consecrated by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem and also serves as abbot for the monastery. The current hierarch is Archbishop Damian.


  1. 1 2 Georgiou, Aristos (December 20, 2017). "These spectacular ancient texts were lost for centuries, and now they can be viewed online". International Business Times . Archived from the original on July 2, 2018.
  2. Din, Mursi Saad El et al.. Sinai: The Site & The History: Essays. New York: New York University Press, 1998. 80. ISBN   0814722032
  3. 1 2 Gray, Richard (August 9, 2017). "The Invisible Poems Hidden in One of the World's Oldest Libraries". The Atlantic . Archived from the original on July 2, 2018.
  4. Schrope, Mark (June 1, 2015). "Medicine's Hidden Roots in an Ancient Manuscript". The New York Times . Retrieved June 1, 2015.
  5. Jules Leroy; Peter Collin (2004). Monks and Monasteries of the Near East. Gorgias Press. pp. 93–94. ISBN   978-1-59333-276-1.
  6. 1 2 3 Marchant, Jo (December 11, 2017). "Archaeologists Are Only Just Beginning to Reveal the Secrets Hidden in These Ancient Manuscripts". Smithsonian . Retrieved July 2, 2018.
  7. Pilgrimage of Etheria text at
  8. 1 2 3 4 Schrope, Mark (September 6, 2012). "In the Sinai, a global team is revolutionizing the preservation of ancient manuscripts". The Washington Post . ISSN   0190-8286 . Retrieved July 2, 2018.
  9. "Is the Burning Bush Still Burning?". Friends of Mount Sinai Monastery. Retrieved July 2, 2018.
  10. Feilden, Bernard M.. Conservation of historic buildings. 3rd ed. Oxford: Architectural Press, 2003. 51. ISBN   0750658630
  11. "The Monastery". St-Katherine-net. Retrieved 23 October 2014.
  12. "Saint Catherine Area".
  13. The official Website describes the Church as "διοικητικά "αδούλωτος, ασύδοτος, ακαταπάτητος, πάντη και παντός ελευθέρα, αυτοκέφαλος" or "administratively 'free, loose, untresspassable, free from anyone at any time, autocephalous'" (see link below)
  14. Weitzmann, Kurt, in: Galey, John; Sinai and the Monastery of St. Catherine, p. 14, Doubleday, New York (1980) ISBN   0-385-17110-2
  15. Ware, Kallistos (Timothy) (1964). "Part I: History". The Orthodox Church. Penguin Books. Retrieved 2007-07-14. Under Introduction Bishop Kallistos says that Sinai is "autocephalous"; under The twentieth century, Greeks and Arabs he states that "There is some disagreement about whether the monastery should be termed an 'autocephalous' or merely an 'autonomous' Church."
  16. The Orthodox Church of Mount Sinai CNEWA Canada, "A papal agency for humanitarian and pastoral support" Archived May 30, 2010, at the Wayback Machine
  17. "Deadly attack near Egypt's old monastery". BBC News . April 19, 2017. Retrieved July 2, 2018.
  18. 1 2 3 4 Macdonald, Fleur (June 13, 2018). "Hidden writing in ancient manuscripts". BBC News . Archived from the original on July 2, 2018.
  19. The History of the acquisition of the Sinai Bible by the Russian Government in the context of recent findings in Russian archives (english Internetedition). The article from A.V. Zakharova was first published in Montfaucon. Études de paléographie, de codicologie et de diplomatique, Moscow–St.Petersburg, 2007, pp. 209–66) see also Alexander Schick, Tischendorf und die älteste Bibel der Welt. Die Entdeckung des Codex Sinaiticus im Katharinenkloster (Tischendorf and the oldest Bible in the world – The discovery of the Codex Sinaiticus in St. Catherine's Monastery), Muldenhammer 2015, pp. 123–28, 145–55.
  20. "Fragment from world's oldest Bible found hidden in Egyptian monastery". The Independent, 2 Sept, 2009.
  21. "Oldest known Bible to go online". BBC News, 3 August 2005.
  22. Soskice, Janet (2009). "Chapter 14". The Sisters of Sinai: How two lady adventurers discovered the hidden gospels. London: Vintage. ISBN   978-1-4000-3474-1.
  23. Brandie Ratliff, "The monastery of Saint Catherine at Mount Sinai and the Christian communities of the Caliphate." Sinaiticus. The bulletin of the Saint Catherine Foundation (2008) Archived 2015-02-13 at the Wayback Machine .
  24. Retrieved 20 May 2018
  25. "Egypt Reopens Ancient Library at St. Catherine Monastery". Voice of America. Retrieved 2019-11-23.
  26. 1 2 Hsing, Crystal (April 15, 2011). "Scholars use tech tools to reveal texts". Daily Bruin . Retrieved July 2, 2018.
  27. "Sinai Palimpsests Research Site". Archived from the original on 2018-11-03.
  28. 1 2 Farrell, Jeff (August 28, 2017). "Scientists discover languages that haven't been used since the dark ages". The Independent . Archived from the original on July 2, 2018.
  29. Katz, Brigit (September 5, 2017). "Lost Languages Discovered in One of the World's Oldest Continuously Run Libraries". Smithsonian . Retrieved July 2, 2018.
  30. Kurt Weitzmann in The Icon, Evans Brothers Ltd, London (1982), pp. 201–07 (trans. of Le Icone, Montadori 1981), ISBN   0-237-45645-1
  31. "St Catherine Monastery – United Kingdom – Saint Catherine Foundation". St Catherine Monastery – United Kingdom – Saint Catherine Foundation.

Further reading