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The Monastery of St. Catherine in the Sinai

Mount Sinai exerted a natural attraction on early anchorites, who had settled near the site of the Burning Bush no later than the V Century. Justinian ordered the local architect Stephen of Elat to build the present monastery, which was originally dedicated to the Transfiguration as well as to Moses and the events of Exodus. (The Burning Bush, which still grows at the monastery, is obviously linked to both dedications.) However the relics of St. Catherine of Alexandria, discovered on a nearby mountain, soon became the monastery's most famous treasure, and the community was renamed in the saint's honour.

Until the mid-XX Century, Sinai was one of the most expensive destinations for a Christian pilgrimage, accessible only after an arduous desert journey. Successful pilgrims were given a wheel-shaped badge or, in the XIX Century, a colourful ikon-print showing the peninsula's saints and holy places. Aristocratic Westerners often felt that the pilgrimage was accomplishment enough to merit a knighthood; this was probably the origin of the rather mysterious Chivalric Order of St. Catherine, still occasionally bestowed by the Abbot of Sinai as well as by other authorities today.

The remote location also insulated the monastery from such upheavals as the iconoclast movement: today the monastery is known chiefly as the home of some of the few truly-ancient ikons in the world (and, until its theft by Tischendorf, of the ancient Biblical Codex Sinaïticus). However, the monastery itself, while hard to reach, has never been truly isolated. At one time it maintained daughter houses in nearly every part of Eastern Christendom, even India, although this network has today contracted to Cyprus and Greece. Moreover, there has always been the influx of pilgrims and other tourists, which today (with buses from nearby resorts) threatens the continuation of the monastic life more than any historic threat over the centuries.

The monastery has always been surprisingly friendly to Westerners. Although never Uniate, it flourished during the Crusades and welcomed Latin pilgrims. Fundraisers for the Monastery (some of them Greek monks, others members of the Knightly Order) operated in Roman Catholic countries throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, and their activities were partly responsible for the enormous popularity of the cultus of St. Catherine in the mediæval West.

Even more surprising, perhaps, is the Monastery's long history of good relations with Muslims. A letter in Arabic, purportedly dictated by Mohammed, hangs near the monastery's gate; it forbids Muslims from troubling the monks, who according to tradition gave him shelter as a young man. There is also a rather slipshod mosque in the monastic compound, the minaret of which dominates the skyline. Probably constructed as an insurance policy against Muslim attackers who doubted the authenticity of Mohammed's letter, it has sometimes been used by the Monastery's Bedu employees.

Under construction --- far from complete! Read with caution.


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