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A Monastery Built on Faith

by Marel Brown

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On a spot in the Sinai where it is believed God spoke to Moses through a burning bush stands St. Catherine’s Monastery, a testimony to that awesome moment of faith.

St. Catherine’s Monastery, nestled between Mt. Sinai and Mt. Catherine in the southern part of the peninsula, was founded by monks between 330 and 335 who were seeking a place of solitude and refuge from pagan rulers. In 537 they appealed to Emperor Justinean the Great for protection from marauders and security for their cluster of buildings. In addition to providing soldiers to protect the monks, he ordered the building of the high fortress wall that still encloses the compound.

The monastery was also the site of the 1844 discovery of the Codex Sinaiticus. A codex is a manuscript volume of ancient Bible text made from four or five sheets of papyrus (a plant whose stem, when treated, was used as paper) folded together and then stitched. Codices were first used by Christians to supplant old parchment scrolls and tablets used by Hebrews for writing their scriptures. The Codex Sinaiticus, written in brown ink in Greek during the fourth century, contains nearly the entire Bible. It is on 326 1/2 pages and is now in the British Museum.

Tradition has it that when St. Catherine of Alexandria was beheaded in Rome in 305, angels bore her body up to Mt. Sinai. Five hundred years later a body, believed to be Catherine’s, was discovered and placed in an ornate casket that now rests at the foot of the high altar.

Once a flourishing community numbering in the hundreds, there are now only 15 Greek Orthodox monks living at the Monastery. They tend their vegetable and flower gardens which are scattered throughout the stone paved, alley-type streets and grudgingly share their isolation with visitors.

The religious fervor and artistic skills of the monks have produced some priceless works of art. Still remaining as a relic of an age long passed is the half dome mosaic of the Transfiguration in the Church of the same name. A collection of 3,000 manuscripts, written in Greek, Arabic, Syriac, Georgian, Slavonic and other languages are well preserved by the dry climate of the Sinai. Icons depicting scenes from the life of Christ, the Virgin Mary and St. Catherine escaped the ravages of the eighth century because of the monastery’s remote location.

Sixteen hundred years after it was built St. Catherine’s Monastery still attracts visitors from around the world. Some come as non-believers and see a starkly beautiful building standing in the shifting sands of the Sinai. Others journey as believers and become part of a tradition of faith.

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Marel Brown, a resident of Atlanta, has authored several books.



Tags: Monastery Historical site/city Architecture Manuscripts