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Saint Catherine's Monastery
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Saint Catherine's Monastery

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Place overview

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The Monastery of St Catherine of Sinai is an important Orthodox monastery located on the hillside of Mount St Catherine in the southern Sinai Peninsula of Egypt. Located at an altitude of 1,570m, it is one of the oldest monasteries in the world still in operation. Its grounds (enclosure and adjoining gardens) constitute the Orthodox Archdiocese of Sinai, canonically linked to the Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

It houses a valuable collection of icons and the second largest library of ancient manuscripts in the world after the Vatican. It has about twenty monks, mostly of Greek origin. The main recruitment centre for novices with a 'desert vocation' is the metochion (outbuilding) that the Monastery of St. Catherine has in Dorylaiou Street, in the Athens district of Ambelokipi.

The Monastery of St Catherine of Sinai has been listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO since 2002 although only a small part of it is open to the public.

History

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The mother of Emperor Constantine I the Great, St. Helena, had a chapel built on the site where, according to tradition, Moses spoke to God in the biblical episode of the "burning bush". Later Emperor Justinian I had a monastery built on the site, next to the chapel mentioned above. The monastery was built between 527 and 565. The bush that remains is supposed to be the original bush, making the monastery a sacred place for the three great monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

Although its real name is the Monastery of the Transfiguration, it is also known as the Monastery of St Catherine, named after St Catherine of Alexandria, a Christian martyr who was sentenced to die on the torture wheel. Tradition has it that the wheel broke and that she was finally beheaded. Her body was taken by angels to Mount Sinai and the monks of the monastery found her remains around 800 in a mountain grotto, from which time the monastery guarded her relics and became an important center of pilgrimage.

The monastery has a document, the Ashtiname of Muhammad, that supposedly is in the handwriting of the prophet Muhammad himself, giving his protection to the monastery after it granted him refuge. Thanks to this special document and a  Fatimid mosque built within its walls, the monastery survived the Muslim domination of the region. The mosque is now closed and has never been used because, by mistake, it does not face Mecca.

The anchorites of Sinai were eliminated during the 7th century and only the monastery survived thanks in part to the fortifications that protected it. The monastery still retains its defensive walls. Until the 20th century, access to the interior of the enclosure was by means of a raised gate in the outer wall. The monastery became an even more important center of pilgrimage between 1099 and 1270 in the Crusades era. The monastery was supported by dependencies in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Crete, Cyprus and Constantinople.

Architecture

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The outer wall is made of squared blocks of local red granite is pierced with loopholes and bears, in places, various engraved Christian symbols: Maltese cross, monograms, etc. Small bronze cannons surmount an inner walkway.

The enclosure forms a rectangle measuring 85 meters by 74 meters, with the corners facing the four cardinal points. Its height varies between 12 and 15 meters, and its thickness reaches 1.65 meters in places. The enclosure houses 24 chapels and, above all, the Church of the Transfiguration

The Church of the Transfiguration has a basilica plan, an apse, and a narthex. To the right of the altar, under a baldachin, it houses a reliquary, a marble sarcophagus which preserves two relics of Saint Catherine, her head and her left hand19. The neoclassical bell tower, designed by the monk Gregorius, was erected in 1871 and houses nine bells, including an old wooden one, which were given by Tsar Alexander II of Russia. At the chevet level, an apsidal chapel (called the chapel of Buisson-Ardent) is, according to tradition, built on the exact spot where Moses received his calling, a small silver plaque recalling this episode. The old refectory, rectangular in plan, dates from the 16th century20.

Near the church, the monastery also houses the "well of Moses", which, according to a legendary tradition, is the place where the prophet met the daughters of Jethro.

The monastery has preserved a unique example of early medieval carpentry

Landscape

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Egypt's highest mountains surround the monastery with many smaller valleys running from the basin to the mountains in all directions. The monastery is located at an altitude of 1570m above sea level.

The high altitude of the monastery and the surrounding high mountains provide a pleasant climate, with refreshingly cool summer nights and an excellent spring, while winter days are cool for the region and nights could reach -14°C on rare occasions. Infrequent snowfalls in Santa Catarina occur during the winter months of December, January and February, however, snow has also occurred in autumn and spring. It has the coldest nights of any locality in Egypt and ts humidity is very low.

A small town with hotels and swimming pools, called Santa Catarina, has grown up around the monastery.

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