From ONE Magazine

profiles The Orthodox Church of Mount Sinai

Few monuments of the early Christian era have come to us unaltered or unharmed. Shifting populations and cultures, changing priorities and values, and disasters, natural and manmade, have left their mark, leaving faint impressions of a dynamic time fraught with spiritual and social tension.

But in the arid and rocky wilderness of the southern Sinai Peninsula rests a living link to Byzantine emperors, fourth-century pilgrims, third-century Christian hermits and Moses. The Monastery of St. Catherine of Alexandria — the smallest autonomous church in the Orthodox world — is a major repository of the early church’s cultural and spiritual heritage.

Deep behind its sixth-century walls, a basilica and treasury house thousands of rare manuscripts, codices, icons and liturgical objects. For almost 1,700 years, the monks of St. Catherine’s revered and guarded these precious relics, many of which date to the time of the church fathers. But in the last few decades, Sinai’s monks have shared these treasures, loaning parchment and painted wood to museums throughout the world. Record crowds, surprising even experts, have responded. No longer an isolated oasis lost in time and sand, St. Catherine’s is fast becoming the center of a renewed interest in the Christian East.

The burning bush. The Egyptian city of Alexandria developed into the early church’s primary center of scholarship and theology. Unchallenged in the Christian world, Alexandria’s Catechetical School (founded around 180) included studies in mathematics, philosophy and science and was led by such influential thinkers as St. Clement and Origen.

The Church of Alexandria was not merely an urban phenomenon limited to the learned. Egypt’s vast wilderness drew thousands of souls eager to leave the distractions of the city for solitary lives of prayer, penance and the promise of the second coming of Christ.

By the third century, Christian hermits settled in caves at the base of a mountain near the tip of a peninsula today called the Sinai. There, they lived in proximity to the place where they believed Moses encountered the Lord in the burning bush and received the tablets of the Law. By the early fourth century, these monks welcomed pilgrims as illustrious as Helena (who died around 330), mother of the Roman emperor Constantine the Great. Helena traveled from Rome to Sinai, Jerusalem and Bethlehem to “worship at the place where his [Jesus’] feet have stood,” wrote Eusebius, Constantine’s biographer and contemporary.

The empress commissioned a chapel to mark the site of the burning bush, the living shoots of which had long been venerated by anchorites and pilgrims alike. Some 60 years later, a Spanish pilgrim, Egeria, recorded in detail her pilgrimage to the Holy Land and her experiences ascending the mountain of Moses and her descent to the valley below, where she found the “church there at the place of the bush (which is still alive and sprouting) … This is the burning bush, out of which the Lord spoke to Moses … the bush itself is in front of the church in a very pretty garden that has plenty of excellent water.”

A religious community — drawing Armenians, Greeks, Latins and Syrians — quickly formed around Helena’s shrine, forming the core of the monastery now known as St. Catherine’s.

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.

While the Arab Muslim occupation preserved the monastery’s treasures, it also ended Christian Sinai’s international character. The Sacred and Imperial Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount of Sinai, as it was known officially, declined.

Hallowed discovery. The fortunes of the monastery changed after the discovery of the remains of St. Catherine of Alexandria, one of the most popular saints of the church. According to tradition, angels took the relics of Catherine to the highest mountain in the Sinai soon after her martyrdom around 305. There, they rested for six centuries until Sinai’s monks, drawn to the peak by a powerful yet sweet fragrance, “translated” St. Catherine’s remains to Justinian’s basilica, enshrining them in an elaborate reliquary.

Devotion to the saint, especially during the Crusades (1095-1272), radically altered the standing of the monastery, which eventually assumed Catherine’s patronage. Despite the gradual divorce of the churches of East and West after the Great Schism in 1054, thousands of Catholic and Orthodox pilgrims visited the monastery annually — a practice kept up for centuries. Interestingly, for more than 400 years, a papal knighthood guarded and supported pilgrimages to the monastery and Latin monks participated in a revived international community.

Counted among the treasures of the monastery are medieval panel paintings and other votives from French, German and Italian donors. These jewels attest to the popularity of the monastery and its patron saint among Catholics, until the decline of pilgrimages in post-Enlightenment Europe.

Events in the 20th century — World War I, the Bolshevik coup d’état in Russia (where the monastery had many dependent churches and monasteries), World War II and the Cold War — nearly cut off pilgrimages and vocations from the Orthodox world, which until as recently as the early 1980’s had declined to a trickle.

Revival and challenge. The abbots of St. Catherine’s have long prized their autonomy, functioning as bishops of Sinai’s Christian community (which now includes under 1,000 people) since the early medieval period. Once dependent on the Church of Jerusalem, whose patriarch continues to consecrate the monastery’s abbot-archbishop, the Orthodox Church of Mount Sinai has the unique privilege of being “totally free from all and everyone,” wrote the ecumenical patriarch. “Furthermore, it is autocephalous.”

While freedom has its privileges, it also has its burdens. The Egyptian government has stepped up efforts to develop the peninsula’s attractions for tourist dollars, adding daily bus service from Cairo and building highways, service roads and comfort stations. The monks (there are about 20 today), while not lacking in contacts in the larger church, work alone to preserve their ministry from commercialization and economic exploitation.

“The Holy Monastery of the God-trodden Mount Sinai,” the monks have written, “is a purely religious institution dedicated to the protection of the Sinaitic pilgrimage sites ... the maintenance of the history of Sinai … the values of the great religious tradition of the monastery [and] to cultivate the development of the exalted moral life through the exercise of the Christian virtue that derives from the first commandment: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God…”

Motivated by “the active and generous love that Christ ordered his disciples through his second commandment,” the monks also operate schools and social service centers for the local community, holding fast, they write, “to these two Christian commandments as the basis of their exercise and ministry.”

No longer lost in time and sand, the monks of Sinai offer glimpses of the Byzantine past, but their challenges are modern, indeed.

Michael La Civita is executive editor of ONE magazine.