Egypt // Sinai //

St Catherine’s Monastery and Mount Sinai

Venerated by Christians, Jews and Muslims as the site of God’s revelation of the Ten Commandments, Mount Sinai overlooks the valley where Moses is said to have heard the Lord speaking from a burning bush.

The bush is now enshrined in St Catherine’s Monastery, nestling in a valley at the foot of the Mount, surrounded by high walls and lush gardens. As tourists have followed pilgrims in ever greater numbers, the sacred mount has witnessed unseemly quarrels between Bedouin over the shrinking amount of sleeping space for the climbers at the peak, and the monastery itself shows signs of strain. Yet for most travellers it remains a compelling visit, while other seldom visited peaks offer equally magnificent views if you’re prepared to make the effort to reach them.

The Monastery of St Catherine

The Greek Orthodox Monastery of St Catherine dates back to 337 AD, when the Byzantine Empress Helena ordered the construction of a chapel around the putative Burning Bush, already a focus for hermits and pilgrimages. Since then, the monastery has had cycles of expansion and decline, on occasion being totally deserted. Most of the monks today have come here from the monasteries of Mount Athos in Greece.

Kléber’s Tower and the walls
Entrance is through a small gate in the northern wall near Kléber’s Tower (named after the Napoleonic general who ordered its reconstruction) rather than the main west-facing portal, which has a funnel that was used for pouring boiling oil onto attackers. Built of granite, 10–15m high and 2–3m thick, St Catherine’s walls are essentially unchanged since Stephanos Ailisios designed them in the sixth century.

Moses’ Well and the Burning Bush
As you emerge from the passage, a right turn takes you past Moses’ Well, where the then fugitive from Egypt met Zipporah, one of Jethro’s seven daughters, whom he married at the age of 40. Walking the other way and around the corner, you’ll see a thorny evergreen bush outgrowing an enclosure. This is the transplanted descendant of the Burning Bush whence God spoke to Moses: “Come now therefore, and I will send thee unto Pharaoh, that thou mayest bring forth my people the children of Israel out of Egypt” (Exodus 3:10). Sceptics may be swayed by the fact that it’s the only bush of its kind in the entire peninsula and that all attempts to grow cuttings from it elsewhere have failed. The bush was moved to its present site when Helena’s chapel was built over its roots, behind the apse of St Catherine’s church.

Nearby is the Monastery Museum (£E50), which has Byzantine icons, crosses and chalices, reams of aged manuscripts, fragments of the world’s oldest bible and other pieces from the library. Exhibits are labelled in English and Arabic.

St Catherine’s Church
A granite basilica, St Catherine’s Church was erected by Justinian between 542 and 551; the walls and pillars and the cedarwood doors between the narthex and nave are all original. Its twelve pillars – representing the months of the year and hung with icons of the saints venerated during each one – have ornately carved capitals, loaded with symbolism.

At the far end, behind the iconostasis is the Chapel of the Burning Bush, only viewable by special dispensation. The narthex displays a selection of the monastery’s vast collection of icons, running the gamut of Byzantine styles and techniques, from encaustic wax to tempera. The church’s bell is rung 33 times to rouse the monks before dawn.

The rest of the monastery
Other parts of the monastery are usually closed to lay people. Among them are an eleventh-century mosque, added to placate Muslim rulers; a library of over three thousand manuscripts and five thousand books; and a refectory with Gothic arches and Byzantine murals. You can usually enter the charnel house, however, which is heaped with monks’ skeletons; the cemetery itself is small, so corpses have to be disinterred after a year and moved into the ossuary. The cadaver in vestments is Stephanos, a sixth-century guardian of one of the routes to the Mount.

Mount Sinai

While some archeologists question whether Mount Sinai really was the Biblical mountain where Moses received the Ten Commandments, it’s hard not to agree with the nineteenth-century American explorer John Lloyd Stephens that “among all the stupendous works of Nature, not a place can be selected more fitting for the exhibition of Almighty power”. Its loftiest peak, a craggy, sheer-faced massif of grey and red granite “like a vengeful dagger that was dipped in blood many ages ago”, rises 2285m above sea level. Strictly speaking, it’s only this that the Bedouin call Jebel Musa (“Mount Moses”), though the name is commonly applied to the whole massif. Some Biblical scholars reckon that Moses proclaimed the Commandments from Ras Safsafa, at the opposite end of the ridge, which overlooks a wide valley where the Israelites could have camped.

Many people ascend by the camel path and descend by the Steps of Repentance. You could start your ascent around 5pm (earlier during winter) to avoid the worst of the heat and arrive in time to watch the spellbinding sunset and then sleep overnight at the summit. With a torch, you could also climb the camel path (but not the steps) by night, though not during winter.

The camel path
You’ll have to hire a Bedouin guide (£E125) to climb the mountain; don’t let them hurry you – do it at your own pace. The longer but easier route is via the switchback camel path, starting 50m behind the monastery. It’s possible to rent a camel for most of the ascent (around £E110), but it’s really worth the effort of walking (2–3hr). You can stock up on water at the shops outside the monastery before setting off, and there are refreshment stalls along the way. Prices rise the higher you go, but restocking on the mountain saves you carrying extra weight right at the start. Bedouin entrepreneurs at the peak rent out blankets and mattresses for the night (£E10–20).

Steps of Repentance
Beyond the cleft below the summit, the path is joined by the second route up the mountain, known as the Sikket Saiyidna Musa (“Path of Our Lord Moses”) or Steps of Repentance. Hewn by a penitent monk, the 3750 steps make a quicker but much steeper ascent from the monastery (1hr 30min), which is hell on the leg muscles; some of the steps are a metre high. Two buildings top the summit, a mosque and a Greek Orthodox church, both usually locked. Next to the mosque is the cave where God sheltered Moses: “I will put thee in a cleft of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass over” (Exodus 33:22). A little lower down the slope, a bunch of semi-permanent structures have sprung up, offering weary travellers a place to sleep.

Around 300m below the summit you enter a depression known as the Plain of Cypresses or Elijah’s Hollow, where pilgrims pray and sing; a five hundred year-old cypress tree stands here. This is also where Elijah is believed to have heard God’s voice (I Kings 19:9–18) and hid from Jezebel, being fed by ravens. One of the two chapels is dedicated to him, the other to his successor, Elisha.