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The early monks dedicated their community to the Virgin Mary, believing the burning bush prefigured the virgin birth of Jesus. As with the burning bush, they reasoned, Mary was not consumed by God when she encountered the Lord and conceived and bore his son.

Walls from the original chapel still protect the living bramble — a rare flowering plant classified as Rubus sanctus — and remains the primary object of veneration for pilgrims. On the feast of the Annunciation, the community celebrates the Divine Liturgy at the Chapel of the Burning Bush and uses it throughout the year to tonsure new members.

Justinian’s foundation. Sinai’s monks lived near a frequently traveled mountain pass between two bodies of water (known today as the gulfs of Suez and Aqaba) separating them from Egypt to the west and Arabia to the east. Vulnerable to attacks from bandits and Bedouin, they appealed to the emperor in Constantinople.

In the middle of the sixth century, Justinian I, a prolific builder responsible for Constantinople’s Cathedral Church of Haghia Sophia — the greatest of Byzantine structures — heeded their pleas for help. He commanded the construction of a basilica, lavished it with mosaics and icons and built stout barricades to protect it. Leaving nothing to chance, the emperor granted the abbot of the monastery certain prerogatives, namely a degree of autonomy, and resettled families and soldiers from Egypt and Pontus to ensure service and protection.

The mosaics commissioned by Justinian are considered some of the finest works of the early Byzantine era. In the apse of the basilica, an image of a transfigured Christ — flanked by Moses and Elijah with the blinded James, John and Peter below — figures prominently. Mosaic images also include Moses receiving the law and a portrait of Justinian. The monastery also houses several important icons executed in encaustic, a pigment and wax technique ubiquitous in antiquity but abandoned later for egg tempera.

Muhammad’s protection. According to tradition, Muhammad visited the monastery and its sites and later, around the year 628, granted the monastery a letter of protection. Known in Arabic as the “Ahtiname” — from the words ahd, or “obligation,” and name, or “document” or “testament” — it spelled out the community’s rights:

No compulsion is to be on them. Neitherare their judges to be removed from theirjobs nor their monks from their monasteries.No one is to destroy a house of their religion,to damage it or to carry anything from it tothe Muslims’ houses. Should anyone takeany of these, he would spoil God’s covenantand disobey his prophet … They are myallies …

Ironically, Muhammad’s promise and the subsequent Arab Muslim occupation of the Sinai in 640, along with much of the eastern Mediterranean, preserved the monastery and Justinian’s endowments. Elsewhere, in the eighth and ninth centuries, Byzantium’s emperors propagated an iconoclastic policy, destroying religious icons as idols that had brought divine displeasure upon Byzantium.

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Tags: Egypt Orthodox Church Monastery Church history Manuscripts