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The Orthodox Church of Mount Sinai

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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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.

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Tags: Egypt Orthodox Church Monastery Church history Manuscripts