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Egypt's Oasis of Peace: Saint Catherine's Greek Orthodox Monastery of Mount Sinai

Egypt’s current upheavals and deteriorating security situation recently touched the world’s oldest continually operating monastery and most ancient repository of Christian material culture.  On February 16, an Egyptian driver and three South Koreans were killed, and fourteen others were hospitalized, by a bomb attack against a tourist bus in Taba, Egypt, in the Sinai, near the Israeli border.  The bus, which had earlier that day departed from Saint Catherine’s Monastery, carrying 31 South Korean members of a church group on a tour of Christian sites in the Middle East, was targeted by the Islamist militant group, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis.  Such deplorable violence has intensified in Egypt since the Arab Spring beginning in 2010 and the tumultuous events following the downfall of the Mubarak regime and the Egyptian military’s subsequent ouster of President Mohamed Morsi.  The rise of Islamist extremism has unsettled the Egyptian authorities, which had forced Saint Catherine’s to temporarily close its doors in September because of security concerns—a virtually unprecedented development for an Orthodox Christian space which has been an oasis of peace and a shelter for all peoples and faiths since its inception in antiquity.

Never destroyed, attacked, or looted in its fifteen centuries of existence, the Greek Orthodox Monastery of Saint Catherine, at the foot of Biblical Mount Sinai, has sustained uninterrupted since Late Antiquity the artistic, intellectual, and spiritual traditions that mark the long history of Orthodox Christianity.  In this sense, Saint Catherine’s Monastery—or the Sacred Monastery of the God-trodden Mount Sinai, as it is known officially—has no equal in the Orthodox community of Churches, nor any counterpart in Western Christianity.          

During the reign of Emperor Justinian, who led the Byzantine Empire from 527 to 565, ascetics and monks flourished in the remote Sinai’s desert and mountains.  This religious expansion was nurtured by Justinian’s decision to construct a major monastery complex around the existing Chapel of Saint Helen, built at the site of Moses’ Burning Bush, and dedicated in 330, by Saint Helen, the mother of Emperor/Saint Constantine the Great.  In order to protect the monastery from potential attackers, Justinian ordered the erection of massive, towering granite walls to enclose several planned structures, all crowned by a new magnificent church dedicated to the Transfiguration of the Savior.  Designed and built under the direction of the Greek architect, Stephanos of Aila (Elath), construction of the entire complex was begun in 548 and completed some time before 556.

In the century following its founding, Saint Catherine’s became a major center of monasticism, iconography, and scholarship.  The monastery also emerged as an important destination for Christian pilgrimages and home to a respected hospital.  Furthermore, the monastery’s brotherhood of monks developed an acclaimed reputation for humility and philanthropy.  Indeed, the charitable work of Saint Catherine’s monks extended throughout the Christian world and beyond, even as far as India.  Secure in their imperial patronage and flourishing in cultural and spiritual life, the monastic brotherhood could not have foreseen the impending and violent transformation of the world around them.

Between 634 and 641, the recently unified tribes of Arabia, driven by the zeal of Islam and the quest for plunder, poured out of their homeland and conquered the Byzantine provinces of Syria, Palestine, and Egypt.  In the Sinai, thanks to a fortuitous event and a unique document, the monks behind Saint Catherine’s fortress walls were spared from the violent changes that shook the region. 

At some point before his ascendancy to leadership over the tribes of Arabia, Islam’s Prophet, Mohammed, had sought refuge in Saint Catherine’s Monastery from his enemies.  The monastery’s monks extended a warm, Christian welcome to Mohammed and received him with their traditional, gracious hospitality, as was their custom in caring for all pilgrims and guests, Christian and non-Christian alike.  Mohammed was so impressed by the humble kindness and decency of his hosts that he returned their comity with a promise to safeguard their peace and safety in the future.

As if foreseeing the Islamic conquests that would follow his death in 632, Mohammed granted a Letter of Protection to Saint Catherine’s Monastery in 628.  The Letter, signed by Islam’s Prophet himself, gave the monastery Mohammed’s personal pledge of protection.  In short, Mohammed forbade any attack against the monastery and made it incumbent upon all Muslims to abide by his command to never molest the complex and its monks.

Notwithstanding the monastery’s possession of Mohammed’s Letter of Protection, life under the long succession of violent conquerors of the Sinai over the subsequent centuries—Arabs, Mamluks, Catholic Crusaders, Ottomans, Napoleon, and the British—was not always easy for Saint Catherine’s monks.  Yet, through philanthropy practiced among the people of the Sinai, the monastery worked hard and successfully to promote peaceful and cooperative relations between Christians and Muslims, persevering through every new tumult with dignity, grace, and love.

With the transition from British rule to Egyptian sovereignty over the Sinai, between 1922 and 1936, and through the remainder of the twentieth century, Saint Catherine’s Monastery experienced a dazzling revival—one that continues into the present—reaffirming its incomparable role in the long and rich history of Orthodox Christianity.  Indeed, Saint Catherine’s houses irreplaceable religious and cultural artifacts.  It contains, among other treasures, the world’s largest and only stylistically comprehensive collection of iconography from the fifth century to the present.  Most estimates indicate that the monastery holds more Early Christian icons than are found throughout the rest of the world.  Underscoring its uniqueness as an unrivalled refuge of peace and harmony in a world consumed by conflict and disorder, Saint Catherine’s Monastery was untouched by the destructive fury of Iconoclasm, a fundamentalist movement in the eight and ninth centuries which decimated existing iconography and ravaged Byzantine society.  As a result, the monastery was able to safeguard, and continues to maintain, the largest repository of Christianity’s earliest icons.

Adding to the plenitude of the monastery’s icon holdings is one of Christianity’s most important libraries.  Exceeded in volume only by the Vatican’s imperial amassing, the library at the Monastery of Saint Catherine contains the world’s largest and most significant collection of original illuminated manuscripts.  Most of these more than 4,500 priceless, ancient and medieval tomes are written in Greek, but Arabic, Armenian, Church Slavonic, Coptic, Georgian, Hebrew, Syriac, and other languages are also represented in the monastery’s incomparable library.  In a phrase, the richness of uninterrupted culture, faith, and history that are preserved and continue to thrive within the walls of the Greek Orthodox Monastery of Saint Catherine are arguably not to be found in any other place in the world.

Its precious artifacts notwithstanding, Saint Catherine’s greatest treasure is its example to the world of what can be achieved through peace.  Given its matchless history as an oasis of perpetual peace in the face of conflict and violence over centuries, Saint Catherine’s dedication to Orthodoxy’s love of all mankind can offer inspiration and a path to harmony for the people of Egypt, Christian and Muslim alike, as they face the upheavals that now confront their society, the Middle East, and the world beyond.

Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.