Saint Catherine Monastery

Saint Catherine Monastery


Location: Map


Description of the Monastery of Saint Catherine

The Greek Orthodox Monastery of Saint Catherine on Mount Sinai located in the South Sinai Governorate of Egypt. It famous for being the oldest active Christian monastery. Monastery of Saint Catherine was constructed here in 527 on a site that was inhabited by Christian refuges who fled persecutions from the pagan emperors. According to a legend this is a site where Moses spoke to God that appeared to him in a form of a burning bush mentioned in the Book of Exodus. Main building of the Monastery of Saint Catherine is the Church of the Transfiguration there is an exhibition of icons and old books in the vestibule. It is only a small part of the whole collection that is owned by the monastery. Marble floors of the basilica and caisson ceiling date to the 18th century and gilded iconostasis to the 17th century. In the altar monks keep a silver casket of Saint Catherine's remains.
Over the alter stands the Chapel of the Burning Bush, the most sacred part of the monastery. You will have to remove your shoes before entering the chapel. The alter of the chapel, supported by the marble columns, stands on top of the place where Biblical shrubs was said to grow. A similar bush grows in the courtyard. The Monastery of Saint Catherine is particularly famous for its huge collection of 3,000 manuscripts. The bell tower of the monastery was added in the 19th century on donations from Russia. All of nine bells were also cast by the Russian masters.


History of the monastery


From the 3rd century, monks began to settle in small groups around Mount Horeb - near the Burning Bush, in the oasis of Faran (Wadi Firan) and other places in southern Sinai. The first monks in that area were mainly hermits, living alone in caves. Only on holidays did hermits gather near the Burning Bush to perform joint divine services. The monastic life of this period was described in the 5th century by the disciple of John Chrysostom, the former prefect of Constantinople - Saint Nile, whose works are still studied by priests, monks and believers: “Some ate food only on Sundays, others - twice a week, others - after two days... Every Sunday they all gathered from different places in one church, kissed each other, partook of the Holy Mysteries, and with conversations about the salvation of the soul they edified, consoled and encouraged each other to high deeds.”

During the reign of Emperor Constantine, around 329, the monks of Sinai turned to his mother Saint Helena with a request to build a small church dedicated to Our Lady near the Burning Bush, as well as a tower for refuge for the monks in case of raids by nomads. The monks' request was granted, and pilgrims of the late 4th century reported that Sinai already had a thriving community of monks, which attracted believers from various places in the Byzantine Empire.

The story about the Holy Places of the East, written at the end of the 4th century by the noble pilgrim Silvia (or Etheria), also tells about the monastic community that formed around the Burning Bush:

It was necessary for us to go to the beginning of this valley because there were many cells of holy men there, and a church in the place where the bush is located: this bush is alive to this day and is giving birth. And so, having descended from the mountain of God, we came to the bush at about ten o'clock. And this bush, as I said above, is the one from which the Lord spoke to Moses in the fire, and is located in an area where there are many cells and a church, at the beginning of the valley. And in front of the church there is a lovely garden, with an abundance of excellent water, and in this garden there is a bush.


Buildings of Justinian the Great

The monastery received a further impetus for development in the 6th century, when Emperor Justinian I ordered the construction of powerful fortress walls that surrounded the previous buildings of St. Helena, and a church that has survived to this day, and also sent soldiers to Sinai to protect the monks. His contemporary Procopius of Caesarea reports about the construction of Justinian:

On this Mount Sinai live monks whose life consists of continuous reflection on death; fearing nothing, they enjoy the desert that is dear to them. Since they do not desire anything, and above all human passions they do not care about any acquisition and do not look after their bodies and in all other respects do not want any benefit for themselves, then Emperor Justinian built a church for these monks in the name of the Mother of God, so that they could spend your life praying in this church and performing sacred services. He built this church not at the very top of the mountain, but much lower: it is impossible for a person to spend the night at the top of this mountain, since constant noises and all sorts of other phenomena causing religious fear are heard there during the night, striking the mind and will of a person with horror. They say that from here Moses once brought the laws he received from God. At the foot of this mountain, the emperor built a very strong fortification and placed a significant military garrison here so that the Saracen barbarians could not break into the region of Palestine completely unnoticed from here, since this country, as I said, was deserted.
- Procopius of Caesarea. About buildings (Book 5:VIII)

Above the main monastery gate there is an inscription: “From the foundation this sacred monastery of Mount Sinai was erected, where God spoke to Moses, the humble king of the Romans Justinian for the eternal remembrance of him and his wife Theodora. Finished after the thirtieth year of his reign. And an abbot named Dula was appointed in it in the year from Adam 6021, from Christ 527.” Based on this inscription, the Russian scientist Bishop Porfiry (Uspensky) dated the completion of the construction of the monastery to 557.

According to the Chronicle of Eutyches of Alexandria, for the protection and maintenance of the monastery, the emperor resettled two hundred families from Pontus Anatolia and Alexandria to Sinai. The descendants of these settlers formed the Sinai Bedouin tribe of Jabaliya. Despite their conversion to Islam in the 7th century, they continue to live in the vicinity of the monastery and maintain it.

The powerful monastery fortifications built by Justinian were maintained in good condition by the monks and delighted pilgrims:
It's time to enter the monastery... Do you see how the fortress wall is built - long, skillfully built, very revered? The king, nicknamed Justinian, paid for the costs, and it was built very carefully. It has a circumference of two hundred fathoms, and its height is nineteen and a half...
- Paisios Agiapostolite. Description of the Holy Mount Sinai and its surroundings

Among the abbots of the monastery was John Climacus. Until the end of the 7th century, the monastery belonged to the Faran diocese and was headed by an abbot in the rank of archbishop (the antiquity of the Sinai Archdiocese is evidenced by the materials of the Council of Chalcedon, where in the “Ordinary of Metropolises and Archdioceses of the Apostolic See of the Holy City” the archdiocese of “Mount Sinai” is mentioned in 24th place). In 681, when the bishop of Faran was deprived of his see for being a monothelitist, the episcopal see was transferred to the monastery, and its abbot became the bishop of Faran. A little later, the diocese of Raito came under his control. At the beginning of the 8th century, all Christians of the Sinai Peninsula were under the jurisdiction of the Sinai archbishop.


Arab and Turkish conquests

The monastery, during the Arab conquest of Sinai in 625, sent a delegation to Medina to secure the patronage of the Prophet Muhammad. A copy of the safe conduct received by the monks - the firman of Muhammad (the original has been kept in Istanbul since 1517, where it was reclaimed from the monastery by Sultan Selim I), exhibited in the monastery - proclaims that Muslims will protect the monastery, and also exempt it from paying taxes. The firman was written on the skin of the gazelle in Kufic handwriting and sealed with the handprint of Muhammad.

However, despite the privileges received, the number of monks began to decline, and by the beginning of the 9th century there were only 30 of them left. With the spread of Islam in Egypt, a mosque appeared in the monastery, which has survived to this day: “Behind the church, not far away, is a stone hut, where Turks and Arabs worship Mohammed "

During the period of the Crusades from 1099 to 1270, there was a period of revival in the monastic life of the monastery. The Sinai Crusader Order took upon itself the task of guarding the increasing number of pilgrims from Europe heading to the monastery. During this period, a Catholic chapel appeared in the monastery.

After the conquest of Egypt by the Ottoman Empire in 1517, the Turkish authorities did not reduce the rights of the monks - Sultan Selim I confirmed the key points of Muhammad's firman, they retained the special status of the archbishop and did not interfere in the internal affairs of the monastery. The monastery carried out extensive cultural and educational activities; in the 18th century, it opened a theological school on the island of Crete, where Greek theologians of that time were educated. The monastery's farmsteads were opened in Egypt, Palestine, Turkey, Romania, Russia and even India.


Relations with Russia

The monastery maintained long-standing ties with Russia. In 1375, Metropolitan Macarius came to Moscow for alms for the monastery, and in 1390, an icon depicting the Burning Bush was brought from the St. Catherine’s Monastery as a gift to the great princes, which was placed in the Annunciation Cathedral of the Kremlin (first in the iconostasis, and then in the altar with others valuable icons received from the Eastern clergy).

In 1558, Tsar Ivan the Terrible sent an embassy to the Eastern Patriarchs with a gold-woven cover on the relics of St. Catherine as a gift for the Sinai Monastery. The Tsar wrote to the Archbishop of Sinai: “Father, you yourself, in all your bishopric and in Mount Sinai, would order to pray to God and His Most Pure Mother and all the saints for our health and preservation, and for my queen Anastasia, and for our children, the crown prince Ivan and Theodora and about all Orthodox Christianity.”

In 1619, the Sinai archimandrite visited Russia and participated, together with the Jerusalem Patriarch Theophan, in a prayer service before the shrine of Sergius of Radonezh in the Trinity-Sergius Lavra. After this, numerous donations from the Russian tsars went to Sinai. In 1625, the Alexandrian Patriarch Gerasim turned to Tsar Mikhail Fedorovich with a request for help for the monastery:
...if Your Majesty does not help, this monastery will be ruined, they are wicked, and they want to destroy the elders. But we hope for the mercy of God and your Majesty to help us in such a great difficulty.

The monastery received assistance, which the monks called “manna from heaven” in their letter of gratitude, and in 1630 the king granted the monastery a charter with the right to come for alms every four years. The Sinai clergy not only received rich alms from Russia, but also participated in the church life of the country. Thus, Archbishop Ananiy of Sinai was a participant in the Great Moscow Council of 1666-1667, which deprived Nikon of his patriarchal dignity.

In 1687, the Sinai monks arrived in Moscow, where they lived until 1689. The visit was connected with the campaign launched in 1682 by the Sinai Archbishop Ananias to transfer the monastery under the protection of Russia. On behalf of Tsars Peter and John and Princess Sophia, the monks were given a letter: “in charity of their sovereign, they deigned to accept the holy mountain and monastery of the Most Holy Theotokos of the Burning Bush for the unity of our pious Christian faith.” The Sinai monks left Russia with rich gifts, among which was a silver shrine for the relics of St. Catherine, made, according to legend, with the money of Princess Sophia.

In 1691, the Jerusalem Patriarch Dosifei wrote to the Moscow Patriarch that the subjugation of Sinai to him was “a thing of both lawlessness and ridicule.” However, researchers are not inclined to see in these events a change in the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the monastery of St. Catherine, but see only an attempt by the Sinai monks to find new ktitors capable of providing for the monastery.

In Kyiv, in the middle of the 18th century, the courtyard of the monastery of St. Catherine was opened. In 1860, the monastery received from Emperor Alexander II a gift of a new shrine for the relics of St. Catherine, and for the monastery bell tower built in 1871, the emperor sent 9 bells, which are still used on holidays and before the liturgy.

Numerous Russian scientists have contributed to the study of the Sinai Monastery. In 1837, the Russian hieromonk Samuil was the first to clear and strengthen the 6th-century mosaic “The Transfiguration of the Lord,” which adorns the monastery’s catholicon. In 1887, researcher Alexey Dmitrievsky compiled a catalog of icons from the monastery collection and examined questions about the Cretan school of icon painting and the role of Sinai in preserving cultural traditions in the 16th-18th centuries. The Orthodox Palestine Society played a major role in the study of the monastery of St. Catherine, publishing Russian and Greek materials about these places.


Current state

The Monastery of St. Catherine is the center of the autonomous Sinai Orthodox Church, which, in addition to this monastery, owns only a number of monastic farmsteads: 3 in Egypt and 14 outside Egypt - 9 in Greece, 3 in Cyprus, 1 in Lebanon and 1 in Turkey (Istanbul).

The abbot of the monastery is the Archbishop of Sinai. Since the 7th century, his ordination has been performed by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, under whose jurisdiction the monastery came under his jurisdiction in 640 due to difficulties in communicating with the Patriarchate of Constantinople that arose after the conquest of Egypt by Muslims (officially, autonomy from the Patriarchate of Constantinople was received only in 1575 and confirmed in 1782).

The affairs of the monastery are currently managed by a general meeting of monks, which decides economic, political and other issues. The decisions of the Assembly are carried out by the Council of Fathers, which includes four people: the deputy and assistant archbishop, the monastery sacristan, the housekeeper and the librarian.

The monastery, as before, is a traditional place of Christian pilgrimage. Every day after hours, believers are given access to the relics of St. Catherine. In memory of the veneration of the relics, the monks give a silver ring with the image of a heart and the words ΑΓΙΑ ΑΙΚΑΤΕΡΙΝΑ (St. Catherine).

In 2005, the Supreme Council of Antiquities of Egypt announced the start of a program for the development and study of the monastery complex, including the systematization and study of documents related to the history of Sinai and the Monastery of St. Catherine, the filming of a documentary film and the publication of a detailed encyclopedia about the monastery.


Monastic buildings

Basilica of the Transfiguration

The main church of the monastery (catholikon), a three-nave basilica, is dedicated to the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ. Its construction dates back to the reign of Emperor Justinian.
The temple is oblong, large and beautiful, it is supported by 12 large columns, 6 on each side, in the form of an emblem of the 12 months of the year. Its floor is covered entirely with beautiful marble slabs, the width of the temple is 14 open steps, the length is 19 steps; it is in the name of Christ the Savior.

The entrance to the narthex is decorated with carved doors made of Lebanese cedar, made during the Crusades, and the doors to the main nave of the basilica date back to the 6th century and are its same age. Above the entrance door there is a Greek inscription: “This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous will enter into them” (Ps. 118:20). In each of the twelve columns, crowned with Corinthian capitals and dividing the naves of the basilica, the relics of saints, covered with bronze plates, are stored in special recesses, and on the columns themselves are placed 12th-century mineain icons according to the number of months of the year. Along the columns there are two rows of wooden carved stasidia. The columns are connected by arches, above which there are windows. In 1714, a new marble floor was laid in the basilica. The ceiling of the basilica is made of Lebanese cedar and painted in the 18th century with stars on a blue background.

The main decoration of the basilica is the mosaic of the Transfiguration of the Lord located in the apse conch, which is in very good condition. The mosaic was made in the first half of the 6th century by court craftsmen sent by Justinian to decorate the monastery.

The mosaic of the Transfiguration of the Lord is framed by medallions with sixteen half-figures of the apostles and prophets. In the center of the composition is the monumental figure of Jesus Christ, enclosed in an azure mandorla, which is connected by rays of divine light with the figures of the prophets and three disciples, made on a shimmering golden background. On the sides of the mosaic on the apse arch there are two images of the prophet Moses: standing in front of the Burning Bush (left) and receiving the Tablets of the Covenant at Sinai (right). The apse is also decorated with medallions with images of a lamb between two flying angels, the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist.

According to Academician V.N. Lazarev, in the 7th century, the design of the apse was supplemented by two images on the marble facing of the altar pillars: “The Sacrifice of Abraham” and “The Sacrifice of Jephthah.” Both images are made using the encaustic technique, and their artistic style is archaic.

The basilica's mosaics delighted pilgrims and are mentioned in various descriptions of the monastery:
Look first of all at the entire vastness of the conkha and at the host of prophets standing around on high. There, in the dome, a host of prophets, shining in gold, together with the apostles, is clearly depicted, through mosaics and gold mixed with lapis lazuli, scarlet, red and purple. In the middle is the venerable Transfiguration, painted with exquisite art, along with a cloud.
- Paisios Agiapostolite. Description of the Holy Mount Sinai and its surroundings

The mosaic of the Transfiguration of the Lord was cleaned of dirt and soot by American restorers in 1958-1965. For viewing from the central nave, the mosaic is covered by a wooden carved iconostasis of the 17th century, but from the side naves at the altar level the mosaic is accessible for viewing.

In the altar of the basilica, two silver reliquaries with the relics of St. Catherine (head and right hand) are kept in a marble shrine. Another part of the relics (finger) is located in the reliquary of the icon of the Great Martyr Catherine in the left nave of the basilica and is always open to believers for veneration.


Chapel of the Burning Bush

Behind the altar of the Basilica of the Transfiguration is the Chapel of the Burning Bush, built on the site where, according to the biblical account, God spoke to Moses (Exodus 2:2-5). Following the biblical instruction, all those entering must remove their shoes here. The chapel is one of the oldest monastic buildings; it was mentioned at the end of the 4th century by the pilgrim Silvia in his story about the Holy Places of the East (see section Foundation of the monastery).

The chapel is dedicated to the Annunciation and is decorated with icons dedicated to this holiday. In the apse of the chapel, a mosaic image of a cross from the 10th century has been preserved. There is also an icon of the Mother of God with the baby Jesus in her arms, sitting in the center of the Burning Bush.

The chapel has an altar located not, as usual, over the relics of saints, but over the roots of the Kupina. For this purpose, the bush was transplanted a few meters from the chapel, where it continues to grow. There is no iconostasis in the chapel, which hides the altar from the faithful, and pilgrims can see under the altar the place where Kupina grew. It is marked by a hole in a marble slab, covered by a silver shield with chased images of a burning bush, the Transfiguration, the Crucifixion, the evangelists, St. Catherine and the Sinai monastery itself. A Greek inscription from the 13th century has been preserved on the slab: “Remember, O Lord, Thy servant, the humble Gabriel Oripsai, Archbishop of the holy Mount Sinai in the Holy Bush.” Liturgy in the chapel is celebrated every Saturday.


Other buildings

Well of Moses - located north of the Basilica of the Transfiguration and is considered the well where, according to the Bible, Moses met the seven daughters of the Midian priest Raguel (Ex. 2:15-17). The well currently continues to supply the monastery with water.
The monastery has numerous chapels: the Holy Spirit, the Dormition of the Blessed Virgin Mary, John the Theologian, St. George the Victorious, St. Anthony, St. Stephen, John the Baptist, the five Sebastian martyrs, ten Cretan martyrs, Saints Sergius and Bacchus, the holy apostles and the prophet Moses. These chapels are located inside the monastery walls, and nine of them are connected to the architectural complex of the Basilica of the Transfiguration. Two chapels are located in the chambers of the Archbishop of Sinai: the upper one in honor of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary and the lower one, dedicated to the Mother of God of the Life-Giving Spring (located in an ancient tower built in 330 by Empress Helena, the chapel is decorated with icons of the 12th-13th centuries, among which stand out the royal doors, decorated with golden luminous circles, and the revered image of the Mother of God “Life-Giving Spring”, attributed to the brush of the Cretan master Angelos).
Refectory - built in the 11th century, after the premises of the ancient refectory were converted into a mosque. In 2005, the refectory premises were restored and continue to be used for their intended purpose. The walls of the refectory are decorated with frescoes depicting scenes of the sacrifice of Abraham (1577), Elijah in the desert fed by a raven, and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ (1573). In the refectory there is a large wooden table, sent as a gift to the monastery in the 14th century from the island of Zakynthos. The table is decorated with carvings of angels and flowers in the Rococo style.
The garden is located in the northwest of the monastery walls and is connected to the monastery by an ancient underground passage, which is still in use today. On one of the terraces, apple trees, pears, pomegranates, apricots, plums, quinces, mulberries, almonds, cherries, and grapes are grown. Another terrace is dedicated to the olive garden, which supplies the monastery with olive oil. Vegetables for the monastery table are also grown in the garden. At the beginning of the 20th century, the monastery garden was considered one of the best in Egypt.
Ossuary and cemetery - located outside the monastery walls, next to the garden. The cemetery has a chapel of St. Tryphon and seven graves that are used repeatedly. After a certain time, the bones are removed from the grave and placed in an ossuary located on the lower tier of the Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The only complete skeleton in the ossuary are the relics of the hermit Stephen, who lived in the 6th century and is mentioned in the “Ladder” of St. John Climacus. The relics of Stephen, dressed in monastic robes, rest in a glass case. The remains of the other monks are divided into two parts: their skulls are piled up against the northern wall, and their bones are collected in the central part of the ossuary. The bones of the Sinai archbishops are kept in separate niches.


Treasures of the monastery

Since the monastery has never been conquered or destroyed since its founding, it currently possesses a huge collection of icons and a library of manuscripts second only to the Vatican Apostolic Library in historical significance.



The library in the monastery was created only in 1734 under Archbishop Nikifor; before that time, no work on the study of books and manuscripts was carried out. Russian pilgrim A. Umanets, who visited the monastery in 1843, writes about the state of the library:
“ located in a special small room with shelves around the walls. The books on the shelves are located in complete disorder, in some places piled up in heaps, and it is very noticeable that the people who sometimes sorted them out were not the local owners, but were in a hurry to finish this sorting as quickly as possible, and therefore threw them anywhere: the work, no doubt, of travelers, of whom everyone, not at all concerned about maintaining order here, and being the hundredth visitor to the library, sorted through the books in turn with the desire and hope of finding some hitherto unknown manuscript, and by hook or by crook, taking it with them.”

This situation contributed to the looting of the congregation; in particular, the Codex Sinaiticus, one of the oldest texts of the Bible, was taken from the monastery.

The most valuable manuscripts of the monastery library include:
twelve leaves of one of the oldest texts of the Bible, Codex Sinaiticus (IV century), which was taken from the monastery to Russia in 1859;
Codex Syriac, 5th century;
ten leaves of a 6th-century uncial manuscript in Greek with the text of the Gospel of Matthew (Codex 074);
Greek Gospel of 717 (gift to the monastery of the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius III);
The Sinai Psalter (11th century) is the oldest psalter in the Slavic language.
The monastery houses 3,304 manuscripts and about 1,700 scrolls. Two thirds are written in Greek, the rest in Arabic, Syriac, Georgian, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopic and Slavic languages. In addition to valuable manuscripts, the library also contains 5,000 books, some of which date back to the first decades of printing. In addition to religious books, the monastery library contains historical documents, letters with gold and lead seals of Byzantine emperors, patriarchs and Turkish sultans.

In 2005, it was announced that a special repository for this collection would be built in the monastery to replace the book depository built in 1951 at the southern monastery wall.


Collection of icons

The monastery has a unique collection of icons that have exceptional spiritual, artistic and historical value. Twelve of the rarest and oldest icons were painted in the 6th century with wax paints - these are the oldest icons in the world. Several encaustic icons of the pre-iconoclastic era were exported to Russia by Archimandrite Porfiry (Uspensky) in 1850 (since 1940, the icons have been kept in the collection of the Kyiv Museum of Western and Eastern Arts named after Bogdan and Varvara Khanenko, Kyiv).

Part of the monastery collection dates back to the early Byzantine period up to the 10th century (including Syro-Palestinian icons from the 8th-9th centuries). These icons were made by Greek, Georgian, Syrian and Coptic masters. The icons were preserved, since the monastery, being outside the Byzantine Empire since the 7th century, did not suffer from iconoclasm. There are few works of Western European writing in the collection, but there are unique icons from the period of the Crusades, combining the features of “Western Latinism” and “Greek Byzantinism” in a single style.

The only icon revered as miraculous in the monastery is a 13th-century triptych depicting the Virgin Mary Bematarissa with scenes from the cycle of the Theotokos. The icon does not have a separate day of celebration and a special service; it is located in the altar of the catholicon to the left of the high place.



In 1695, the Wallachian boyar Mihai Cantacuzino from the ancient Byzantine family of Cantacuzinos, after a pilgrimage to the monastery of St. Catherine, founded the Sinaia monastery in his homeland, named after the monastery he visited.