Saint Catherine

Saint Catherine is the capital city of Saint Catherine Markaz in the South Sinai Governorate in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt. It is located at the outskirts of El-Tur Mountains at an elevation of 1586 m (5200 ft), 120 km away from Nuweiba, at the foot of Mount Sinai and the Saint Catherine’s Monastery. Its population is 4,603 (1994).

The town of St. Katherine is in the Sinai peninsula in Egypt at an elevation of about 1600 meters from sea level, at the foot of the Sinai High Mountains. Up to a thousand visitors come to visit St. Katherine’s Monastery, the oldest continuously inhabited monastery in the World built on the site where Moses (Prophet Musa) talked to God in the miracle of the Burning Bush, and to climb Mt. Sinai (the Biblical Mt. Horeb, known locally as Jebel Musa) where Moses has received the Ten Commandments. Most visitors arrive on organized coach tours from the Red Sea resorts of Sharm el Sheikh, Taba and Dahab in the evening, have dinner and maybe a couple of hours sleep in a hotel, climb the mountain at dawn, visit the Monastery in the morning and return to the resort. St. Catherine and Mt. Sinai can be visited independently as well, avoiding the busy times on the mountain and discovering the rest of what this unique region offers.

The region is a UNESCO World Heritage Area for its natural and cultural importance, and in fact, you could spend weeks to explore it. There are over 200 religious places and other important monasteries and churches, ruins of Byzantine monastic settlements, the highest mountains in Egypt with spectacular views, amazing rock formations and landscape. It is a unique high-altitude desert eco-system with many endemic and rare species, there is a whole range of medicinal plants used by locals for centuries which are not found elsewhere, there are water-pools, springs, creeks, narrow canyons and wide valleys. In the valleys of the high mountains, called wadis, everywhere you go there are beautiful Bedouin gardens unique to this area only. Its original inhabitants, the kind and friendly Jebeliya (Gebeliya) Bedouin are expert gardeners and camel herders, and if you take your time you might have a glimpse into their closed, traditional, albeit slowly changing way of life and culture that has been around for more than 1400 years.

Geography and Climate
Köppen-Geiger climate classification system classifies its climate as hot desert (BWh). It has the coldest nights of any other city in Egypt. The highest mountains ranges in Egypt surround the town with many smaller valleys leading from the basin to the mountains in all directions. The township is at at an elevation of 1,600 metres (5,200 ft). The high altitude of the town itself and the high ranges of mountains which embrace it provide a pleasant climate, with refreshing cool summer nights and excellent spring, while winter days are pretty cold and the nights could reach −14 °C (7 °F), making it extremely important to heat buildings and public places. Different sources give different average temperatures for Saint Catherine’s town. Saint Catherine is considered to be one of the coldest towns in Egypt with Nekhel and many other places especially in mountainous Sinai. Snowfalls in Saint Catherine take place regularly in winter months December, January and February, yet it also occurs in autumn and spring.

Saint Catherine Town lies at the foot of the Sinai high mountain region, the “Roof of Egypt”, where Egypt’s highest mountains are found. Some trekking groups however prefer especially the winter season as they find it more interesting and lovely to hike and climb in these conditions.

The town also puts a great pressure on the water resources, as ground water in the valley is from the mountains. Today water has to be purchased and brought in by trucks. As of September 28, 2011 water from the Nile is being transported to Saint Catherine via a pipe line, built with the help of the European Union.

Modern Township
St. Katherine is one of the newest cities in Egypt, with all amenities of a modern place: there are several schools, including a high school, a hospital, police and firebrigade, a range of hotels, Post Office, Telephone Center, bank and all other important establishments. Few decades ago it was not much more than the annual gathering place of the Jebeliya Bedouin at El Milga plain and a few more or less temporary settlements. The oldest settlement in the region is Wadi El Sybaiya, east of the Monastery, where the Roman soldiers, whose descendants the Jebeliya are, were accomodated. It started growing into a city after the tarmac road was completed in the 1980s and the tourist trade begun. Many of the nomad Bedouins moved to small settlements around the Monastery, which collectively make up St. Katherine’s City. The districts of El Milga, El Rasis, Shamiya, Raha and Nabi Harun form the core of the city, at the end of the tarmac road where the valleys of Wadi el Arbain (Wadi El Lega), Wadi Quez, Wadi Raha, Wadi Shrayj and Wadi el Dier connect to the main wadi, Wadi Sheikh. There are settlements in Wadi Sheikh before town and other smaller ones in the wadis. The Municipality of St. Katherine includes these outlying areas as well. Some of the government offices are planned to be moved to Wadi el Isbaiya, which starts from the main road opposite Abu Zaituna. With the financial help of the EU water will be brought to St. Katherine from the Nile, pumping it up to a height of almost two kilometers. The constarction is under way and the pipes are in Wadi Feiran at the moment. There are a number of other development projects in St. Katherine and the area, check the “Local Initiatives” section.


Pharaonic Era
Although Saint Catherine wasn’t established as a city at that time, it was always part of the Egyptian Empire throughout history and it was part of the province of “Deshret Reithu.”

In the 16th century BC, the Egyptian Pharaohs built the way of Shur across Sinai to Beersheba and on to Jerusalem. The region provided the Egyptian Empire with Turquoise, gold and copper, and well preserved ruins of mines and temples are found not far from Saint Catherine at Serabit Al-Khadim and Wadi Mukattab, the Valley of Inscription. They include temples from the 12th Dynasty, dedicated to Hathor, Goddess of Love, Music and Beauty, and from the New Kingdom dedicated to Sopdu, the God of the Eastern Desert.

Roman Era
Located at the foot of Mount Sinai, St. Catherine’s Monastery was the start of the city, it was constructed by order of the Emperor Justinian between 527 and 565.

Modern Township
Saint Catherine is in a region holy to the world’s three major Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is a place where Moses is believed to have received the Ten Commandments; a place where early Christianity has flourished and the Orthodox monastic tradition still continues in present day; a place which the prophet Mohammed took under his protection in his Letter to the Monks and where people still live in respect to others. Many events recorded in the Bible took place in the area, and there are hundreds of places of religious importance in the city. There are two ancient churches, and the Monastery of St. Katherine and the Rock of Moses.

What to see and visit in Saint Catherine? 

St. Catherine Monastery
Set beneath the mountain where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments, Saint Catherine Monastery has been one of the world’s great centers of religious pilgrimage for over fifteen centuries. Within its impose of walls rests a citadel like no other, incredibly rich in important religious and historical structures, Among its treasures is a library of ancient manuscripts and icons second only to the Vatican’s itself, and a 6th century church reputed to lie directly on the site of the Burning Bush. Quite simply, the monastery is a defining feature of the Holy Land.

It is the greatest monastery in Africa and its construction goes back to the 4th century AD. It lies in the foothills of Moses Mountain 5012 feet above sea level, built by Emperor Justinian for himself and his wife. The Monastery was named after Saint Catherine “the daughter of Kistery” who was tortured to death by her father for she succeeded in converting 50 of his followers to Christianity in 307 AD. The door is surrounded by a wall about 85 m. long, and comprises church which called St. Catherine church.

Inside the monastery there is EI-Mouta church “Church of the Dead’ There are also 6 Wells, 4 springs and a large garden rich in fruit trees of different kinds and two mills.

Father for she succeeded in converting 50 of his followers to Christianity in 307 AD. The door is surrounded by a wall about 85 m. long, and comprises church, which is called St Catherine church.

Living amidst the isolation of the Sinai desert, St Catherine’s monks had plenty of time to develop their artistic talents and no objects express their skill better than the thousands of icons they created through the centuries. For the monks creating icons and mosaics was not only a pastime, but an integral part of expressing their devotion to God. Their efforts to this end were both beautiful and extraordinarily prolific.

Most of the icons native to St. Catherine were created between the tenth and fifteenth centuries, following a style which has come to be called the ‘ Sinaitic School” of art. Rather than striving for realism the imagery of this time period typically reflects a strong interest in the power of Sinai’s biblical landscape. The school became so influential that many European artists incorporated elements of Sinai’s mountainous terrain into their own compositions.

The library and Gallery of Icons
The Monastery’s Library Considered one of the largest and most important of its type in the word, the library contains a rich collection of 4,500 manuscripts, mainly Greek, but also Arabic, Coptic Syriac, Slavonic and others. The regrettable story of one of the most precious manuscripts in the world, the Codex Sinaiticus, is well known. This mid-4th century Greek text of the Holy Scriptures was officially borrowed in 1859 by the German scholar K. van Tischendorf on behalf of the Czar of Russia, but it was never returned.

In 1933, was purchased by the British Museum, where it is kept to this day. This text, from which the modern King James version of the Bible was translated. is one of those artifacts that should be returned to its rightful owners.

Many of the manuscripts in the collection are illuminated with rare and fine miniatures. In addition to the manuscripts, the Library contains a considerable number of printed books. About 5,000 of these are old editions, some of which date from the earliest days of the art of printing. The Library has been organized in a scientific method and is equipped with laboratories for the conservation and the microfilming of manuscripts.

Old Refectory
The Old Refectory is actually one of the most interesting structures in the compound. This oblong hall with pointed Gothic arches preserves stone carvings with Frankish inscriptions and coats-of-arms, symbols of the Crusader knights. The small conch is decorated with a 16th century painting showing the Hospitality of Abraham, in which the three angels symbolize the Holy Trinity.

A monumental composition, dating to 1573, of the Last Judgment covers the entire surface of the wall. The long narrow wooden dinning table, placed in the middle of the hall was made and carved in Corfu, in the 17th century. On it are carved representations of angels and flowers in rococo style. It was here, during a more distant past, that the monks eat with the Archbishop at the head of the Table.

The Bell Tower
Butt in 1871, the bell tower contains nine bells of different sizes that were a gift of the Czars of Russia. The tower itself was built by a monastery monk named Gregorius. The bells continue to be rung for services on Sundays and feast-days, whereas the wooden semantron (also known as talanton), which predate the bells, is struck for Vespers and Matins.

The Basilica
The physical heart of St. Catherine’s monastery is its Byzantine-style basilica, which was built along with the protective walls in 527A.D. The basilica has three naves, and its dazzlingly ornate interior contains works of art spanning fifteen centuries. Among the more distinctive pieces are the many lamps which hang from the ceiling in a silvery, glittering constellation, and the impressive mosaics. Lying next to the main alter is a sarcophagus which allegedly holds the remains of St. Catherine herself.

The Chapel of the Burning Bush
The monastery’s spiritual heart is the Chapel of the Burn ~g Bush, an unassuming structure of tremendous religious significance, According the oldest monastic tradition, this chapel sits atop the roots of the same Biblical bush ‘that burned with fire, and was not consumed” (Exodus 3:2) ihen God spoke to Moses for the first time. A few feet away from the Chapel is the reputed bush itself, a rare species of the rose family called Rubus Sanctus This species is endemic to Sinai and extremely long-lived, a fact that lends scientific credence to the site, the sprawling bush is said to have been transplanted in the tenth century, when the chapel was given a roof.

Today, it is very large in size, and many monks and scholars agree that the bush’s presence is the very reason St. Catherine’s Monastery developed in the first place.

The Mosque
It lies beside the main church, constructed in the reign of the Fatimid Caliph, Al Amer Bi-Ahkam Allah, in the 11th century, symbolic of love and fraternity on the land of Egypt. St. Catherine’s Mosque was originally a chapel, but in 1106 it was converted into an Islamic structure for Unknown reasons.

One theory holds that the monks themselves hastily built it to appease an angry caliph threatening to attack; another argues that it was built by a Muslim detachment defending the monastery during the crusades.

On special Occasions the mosque is still used by the local Bedouin who have helped maintain the monastery grounds or centuries, One of the mosque’s most Signffl~00~ features is a member, or Islamic style Pulpit, which remains the only one of its kind.

Justinian’s Wall 
In 527 AD., the Byzantine emperor Justinian ordered the construction of two of the monastery’s defining features, the wall and the basilica The imposing wall was meant to defend the inhabitants of the monastery from the local Bedouin tribes, and it reaches up to 9 ft in thickness and sixty ft in height. In 1801, another emperor, Napoleon, ordered their restoration.

Moses Mountain
By any other standards. Mt. Sinai would be just another barren peak lost among the Martian landscape of Southern Sinai. It is neither the highest mountain in the region, nor the most dramatic; there is no soaring, heaven-reaching apex. and it is rare to see anything resembling a divine shroud of clouds hugging its peak. Were it not for a single, overwhelming belief that has endured for over fifteen centuries, Mt. Sinai would probably be a topographical footnote.

But this is the mountain where God spoke to Moses. That, at least, is the overwhelming belief, and the belief itself has drawn pilgrims for over a thousand years. Although no archeological evidence of Moses’ presence on the mountain exists, there are abundant relics of faith throughout the eons. Ancient chapels and structures honoring saints and the Virgin Mary appear all along the main route, called Sikket Saydna Musa (“The Path of Moses”), including a stone-hewn arch where, long ago, a monk once sat and heard confession from the pilgrims.

The Golden Calf
In Wadi el Dir, the short valley leading to the Monastery, you can see a rock formation what locals believe is the mould which was used to make the Golden Calf.

According to the Hebrew Bible, the golden calf (עֵגֶּל הַזָהָב ‘ēggel hazâhâḇ) was an idol (a cult image) made by Aaron to satisfy the Israelites during Moses’ absence, when he went up to Mount Sinai. In Hebrew, the incident is known as ḥēṭ’ ha’ēggel (חֵטְא הַעֵגֶּל) or “The Sin of the Calf”. It is first mentioned in Exodus 32:4.

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Another Religious places around Saint Catherine

Beyond the many religious places found around the Monastery of St. Katherine and on the top of Jebel Musa (Mt. Sina) and Jebel Safsafa there are many other churches, monasteries and holy places in the area and a bit furhter afield. The most notable ones are described below.

The Chapel of St. Katherine 
The Chapel of St. Katherine is on the summit of Jebel Katherina, the mountain where the body of the saint from Alexandria was placed by angels, according to Christian beliefs. The saint, born as Dorothea in 294 AD, was educated in pagan schools but converted to Christianity for which she was executed. Her body vanished, but some three centuries later, monks guided by a dream found it on the mountain. It was brought down and placed in a golden casket in the Monastery what became known since the 11th century as the Monastery of St. Katherine.

Hajar Musa
Hajar Musa (Rock of Moses) in Wadi el Arbain, where Prophet Moses fetched water from the rock. A holy place to all the big monotheiostic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Locals believe the twelve clefts on it represent the twelve springs mentioned in the Quran (Sura 2:60). It is also mentioned in the Exodus as the rock which sustained the children of Israel (1 Cor. 10:4). There is a small Orthodox chapel next to it. According to Swiss orientalist Johann Ludwig Burkhardt the Jebeliya Bedouin believe “that by making [female camels] crouch down before the rock […] the camels will become fertile and yield more milk”. There is also a Bedouin marriage proposal rock in the walled compound.

The Monastery of the Forty Martyrs
The Monastery of the Forty Martyrs, in Wadi el Arbain “was constructed in the sixth century in honor of the forty Christian martyrs who died in Sebaste (central Turkey). Monks relate that forty Christian soldiers from the Roman Army in the third century were commanded to worship pagan gods. They refused and were put to death by being exposed at night to the bitterly cold winds off a frozen lake. Those who survived until morning were killed by the sword. […] In the grounds of this monastery is a chapel dedicated to the hermit Saint Onuphrius. Coming from Upper Egypt, he was said to have lived for seventy years in the rock shelter at the northern end of the garden, until he died in AD 390.

The Monastery of Cosmas and Damianos
The Monastery of Cosmas and Damianos in Wadi Talaa, named after the martyred brothers who were doctors and treated locals for free in the 3d century AD. The garden of the monastery, looked after by a Bedouin family, has a long olive grove, some tall cypress trees, other fruit trees and vegetables. There are more gardens belonging to the Monastery further down in the wadi.

The Chapel of Saint John Klimakos 
The Chapel of Saint John Klimakos, or St. John of the Ladder, was built in 1979 in Wadi Itlah to commemorate his devotional work in the 6th century AD. Also spelled St. John Climacus or Climax, the saint spent forty years in solitude in a cave above the existing chapel. Read more.

Deir El Banat
Archaeological complex Deir el-Banat (((a female convent’>) is located in the Fayoum Governorate, in two kilometers from the convent Deir el-Naklun.

At the central part of the complex the ruins of a Medieval convent have preserved. The central building was a church, build on rock-cut foundation with fired bricks. Nowadays it is almost destroyed though at the beginning of the XX century it was considered as ((well preserved.

The church had a western narthex and a three aisled naos. There are remains of small rooms adjoining to the northern and, most probably, to the southern sides of the church. To the west and the east of the church the remains of living quarters are located. These were erected in mud brick. though it is evident that they were rebuilt several times. One of the buildings could be a refectory, where the monks could have community meals.

According to the authors of the Coptic Encyclopedia, the monastery could be built at the place of an earlier convent. The surface material, including ceramics, different spices of glassware, fragments of textiles, architectural fragments date to I—Xl centuries AD.

It is possible to suggest that the monastery was destroyed during persecution of the Christians that took place during the reign of Fatimid ruler AL Hakim(101 5—1020) To the north and the south of the monastery there are two large cemeteries. The burials of the upper layer of the necropolis date to early Christian period, while the lower ones — to the Greco-Roman period.