It is the most distinguished town of Sinai. It is the highest inhabited area in Sinai, located on top of a plateau that rises 1600 m above the sea level, it is surrounded by a series of the highest mountains not only in Sinai but in Egypt as a whole.
The highest of them are peaks of Catherine, Moses and AL- Safsafa Mountains. Such a unique height provided the location with a special type of climate i.e. moderate in summer and very cold in winter which gives it a certain beauty when ice covers the mountain peaks. The area was announced a natural protectorate.
Historically speaking, St Catherine has a great historic and civilization importance due to its religious importance when the monastery known by the name of St. Catharine Monastery was built there in the 16th century. It still remains as the greatest of the Christian monuments in Egypt and the world.
As it is distinguished in location, climate, history and geography, this reflected on its present as it is now considered a touristic location of special type as well as an agricultural area due to the presence of underground water.
St. Catharine town is located at the heartland of south Sinai at a distance of 300 km from Ahmed Hamdi Tunnel. Its area is about 5130 km2 and it is renowned of its varied forms of tourism; religious, safari and mountaineering.
St. Catharine teems with religious relics: the monastery, Moses Mountain and prophet Haroun shrine. Besides, several touristic projects, and it is considered the biggest natural protectorate in Egypt.
In 330 A.D, Helena mother of Emperor Constantine ordered a chapel to be built on the traditional site of the burning bush. In 530A.D. Emperor Justinian built the basilica, the Church of Transfiguration. In 640 A.D, after the Arab conquest, the monastery became an island of Christianity in the sea of Islam.
In 726 A.D, Emperor Leo III decreed that all images of the Christianity communities be destroyed, but due to its isolation, the monastery remained intact.
The walls are made of local red granite and are 85m long, 75m wide and 11 to 15 m high.
It has several wells providing water, the most important one is Moses’ well, where Moses met Jethro’s daughter Zipporah, who became his wife.
Beyond the walls on the northwest side, the gardens of the monastery are surrounded by cypress trees and include grapevines and orchards of lemons, oranges, olives, pears and apricots.
St. Catherine, whose name is given to the Monastery, was born in Alexandria in 294 A.D. and was tortured and beheaded for her Christian beliefs.
One of the monks of the Sinai had a vision about her body being at the top of a nearby mountain, where her remains were discovered. Mount Sinai, in the south, which rises to 2,285 m is where God revealed the Ten Commandments to Moses. A small church was built on the peak in 1934. Mount Catherine is the highest summit in Sinai where on a clear day it is possible to see the whole of the Sinai; a chapel, built by Calls to, exists at the top.
Saint Catherine Monastery
The Monastery of St. Catherine is one of the well-known monasteries in the world - a Greek Orthodox holy place connected with the Prophet Moses and the exodus of the Jews from Egypt.
The Monastery is famous for its Byzantine-style basilica, which was built together with its protective walls in 527 A.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 altar is a sarcophagus which allegedly holds the remains of St. Catherine herself.
The buildings inside the monastery are crowded together, each of a different shape and size. They are made up of mazes of small courtyards, staircases, galleries and narrow corridors, vaulted arcades and rounded arches.
Adjacent to the monastery are the bell tower and minaret of the mosque. Beyond the walls on the northwest side, the gardens of the monastery are surrounded by cypress trees and include grapevines and orchards of lemons, oranges, olives, pears and apricots.
The monastery is also famous for its library, which by any standard is extraordinary. It contains the largest collection of Christian manuscripts and icons outside of the Vatican Museum.
In 1844, a German scholar visiting the library discovered important 4th century version of the Bible that now rests in the British Museum. Similar incidents throughout the years have forced the monastery to allow access only to visitors who have obtained written permission from the Archbishop of Cairo.
St. Catherine’s is still a functioning monastery and visitors can view the chapel as well as an amazing collection of icons. Above all St. Catherine’s is a spectacular natural setting for priceless works of art.
The route to the top is on foot, and the best time to go is between October and May. For a comfortable journey you will need sneakers, a bottle of water and some candy. As the journey takes place during the night, when it gets very cold, you will need a jumper or a heavy jacket apart from a flashligh
Treasures of St Catherine
-The Church of transfiguration
The Church of Transfiguration is built in the shape of a basilica and divided into the narthex, where a collection of icons is exhibited, the main body of the church, and the apses' with the altar.
Among the most impressive art work of 15 centuries are chandeliers each decorated with the egg of an ostrich, and icons, among them the famous icon is presenting the huge icons of St. John the Baptist, the Holy Virgin, Christ, and St. Catherine. The monastery’s treasure is a 6th century mosaic showing the transfiguration of Christ. Only the basilica is open to today’s visitors.
The Chapel of the Burning Bush :The Chapel of the Burning Bush is the sacred part of the monastery. Once it contained the Burning Bush, which is replaced outside of the chapel and fenced behind a stone wall. Every Saturday the monks hold their liturgy in the chapel.
Anyone entering has to remove his shoes as written in the bible: “…put off thy shoes from off thy feet for the place where on thou stands is holy ground...” (Exodus 3:5)
The Bell Tower houses 9 bells of different sizes and an ancient wooden bell. The wooden bell is used daily; the bells are only heard on Sundays and on holidays.
Caliph Hakim Mosque:The Mosque was built in 1106 during the era of Caliph Hakim to protect the Monastery.
With the rise of Islam in Egypt in 640 the monastery became an isolated Christian outpost in the desert. Tradition has it that a delegation of monks visited the Prophet Muhammad asking for his protection. After his visit to the monastery he granted in a document:” …. I shall be his protector against every enemy… it is not allowed to move … a priest from his religion, nor a hermit from his cell…”
The Library: The Library represents one of the richest collections in the world. Out of 6000 manuscripts, 3000 are ancient, some of them older than the monastery itself. Written in Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, Syrian, Armenian Georgian, Coptic, Polish and Slavic, the manuscripts deal with theological, scientific, liturgical and historical issues.
The Codex Syracuse is a 5th century translation of the Gospels in Syria and the oldest translation of the bible into any other language. It is the oldest after the theft of the Codex Sinaiticus by von Tischendorff in 1859. The Codex Sinaiticus dates back to the 4th century and shares with the Codex Vaticanus to be the first copies of the Greek Bible. Whereas the Codex Sinaiticus is more complete and less corrupted.
Controversies over what is fiction in the later versions of the bible - related to the discovery that the oldest gospels of Mark miss the treasured biblical stories - will continue.
Mountain Moses:Mountain Moses also Mt. Horeb or Mount Sinai and known with its Arabic name Gebel Mussa, is honored by the three great monotheistic religions.
The path of Moses, Sikket Sayydna Mussa,starts in a gentle slope and gets steep on the last bit where it ends at the Valley of Elijah. It is believed that God appeared in fire to the prophet. The two chapels are dedicated to Elijah.
The final steep climb leads over rocky steps to the summit. Just below the summit in a natural hollow in the granite the imprint of a camel’s foot can be made out. Bedouin tradition has it, that here is the place where Prophet Muhammad started his night journey to heaven.
The magnificent view from the summit is worthwhile the effort of a 3 hour long climb to the top of Mt. Moses.
3600 steps skillfully arranged by a monk on penalty - lead to the gate of Stephanos. Here he heard the confessions of the pilgrims and giving them absolution before letting them pass .The steep way down leads to points with extraordinary views, always the smell of herbal plants and the chirping birds at company.