Saint Catherine Monastery

Mount Sinai, Egypt


Saint Catherine Monastery

Saint Catherine, Icon from the Icon Gallery
depicting scenes from the life of St. Catherine.

This page contains:
The Monastery of St. Catherine

Sinai - "A thousand square miles of nothing!"
Mount Sinai
Photo tour in the Monastery St. Catherine
The story of St. Catherine
Monasticism in Sinai
"The Church of the Transfiguration of the Saviour of Christ"
The Burning Bush
The Icon Gallery
Tourists coming and going ...


The Monastery of St. Catherine

The Monastery of St. Catherine on Mount Sinai built by Justinian (527-565)
as a fortress in the middle of the 6th century.

The Monastery of St. Catherine is an orthodox monastical center with a continous monastic life since the 6th century. Still today the monastery belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church and most of the monks who live here are Greek. Here they practise the rules of the Order of St. Basil the Great (329-379AD), who was boishop of Cesarea. A women order is living in a Monastery at the Oasis of Feiran, west of Mount Sinai.

The Monastery and Mount Sinai are some of the most important Christian pilgrims sites in the World. According to the legends it was on this mount that Moses recieved the Ten Commandments and here the story of the Burning Bush took place. Ever since the site has been highly regarded as a most holy place and it has been the goal for seekers and pilgrims for several centuries.

The Monastery is situated in the heart of the Sinai Desert, and has preserved its special character since the building in 6th century. The Monastery is build as a fortress in the times of great upheaval and unrest. But never in its long history has it been conqured, damaged or destroyed, maybe due to its desolated situation in the Sinai desert. But also because Arab caliphs, Turkish sulans, Mohammed, the founder of Islam, and Napoleon all took the Monastery under their protection. The original proclamation of Napoleon is still kept in the Icon Gallery of the Monastery

 The protection proclamation of Mohammed


The Sinai Desert - "A thousand square miles of nothing!"

At first glimpse Sinai seems to be a boundless mooon landscape, arid and barren in its immense mountains, in its parched "ouadi", in its stony streches that have never known either mans labour or the presence of animals.

The name "Sinai" can perhaps be connected to Sin, the goddess of the moon, who was adored by the ancient inhabitants of the desert, or maybe to the Semitic word "sen" which means tooth - the form of the peninsula of Sinai, streching between the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba, the northern part of the Red Sea.

The El Tel Region of the central Sinai is a broard plateau of limestone.


Mount Sinai

Further south into the triangular tip of the peninsula, the visitor finds a moonscape of granite mountains, with the peaks and high ridges of Mount Moses - in the Bible called, Horeb or Sinai -, Mount Catherine, Mount Serbal and Umm Shumar, where the children of Israel wandered 33 centuries ago.

Mount Sinai, the best and only wiev from the roads,
this road going East/West from Dahab at the Gulf of Aqaba

Mount Sinai dissapearing behind other rocks, no more to be
seen again before arriving at the Monastery of St. Catherine

Getting into the St. Catherine Protectorate

Ticket Office



Photo tour in the Monastery St. Catherine













The story of Saint Catherine

St. Catherine was born in Alexandria in 295. Her birth name was Dorothea. According to the records of her life, she was educated in a pagan school where she learned philosophy, rhetoric, poetry, music, physics, mathematics, astronomy and medicine. As the beautiful daughter of an aristocratic pagan family, she did not lack for suitors, but she rejected them. A Syrian monk taught her about Jesus Christ, th bridegroom of the soul, and converted har to Christianity. She was baptized as Catherine.

During the persecution of Christians in the reign of the Roman Emperor Maximinus in the early 4th century, she confessed her faith in Jesus Christ and publicly accused the emperor of sacrificing to idols. Fifty wise men brought from all over the Empire tried in vain to dissuade her. But she, on the contrary, persuaded them, by quotations and sayings of the ancient Greek philosophy, to believe in Jesus. Under torture she succeded in converting members of the Emperor's family and members of the Roman aristocracy to Christianity.

After Catherine's execution her body vanished. According to tradition, angels transproted it to the peak of the highest mountain in Sinai, which now bear hers name.

18th century silk embrodery depicting the life of Sct.Catherine
and her transportation to Mount Sinai by angles.

About three centuries later (7th century), monks of the Monastery already erected by Justinian, found her body guided by a dream, brought it down from the mountain and placed it in a golden casket in the Church. The sweet fragrance of her sacred remains is even today a continous miracle.

Rare icon from the Icon Gallery
depicting six scenes from the life of Sct. Catherine.
In the center: Saint Catherine 
Top left and right: She is looking at Jesus as infant on the lap of Virgin Mary.
Center left: She is speeking to the Emperor.
Below left: Teaching the Empress.
Center right: The beheading of St. Catherine.
Below right: Her body is transported by angels to the peak of Mount Catherine.

The story of St. Catherine's martyrdom was carried to the West by the Crusaders, and she became accepted in Europe as a major saint. So since the 11th century the Monastery of the Transfiguration has also been known as the Monastery of St. Catherine.



At the age of forty, Moses escaped from Egypt to Mount Horeb (Mount Sinai) and here he found Jethro's seven daughters watering a flock at the well, which is still to be seen today on the north side of the Monastery's Church.

After marrying one of Jethro's daughters, Moses lived for forty years with his father-in-law, tending the flocks and cleansing his soul in the silence and solitude of the Sinai Desert. Here God revealed Himself to Moses in the miracle of the Burning Bush and ordered him to return to Egypt, and bring the children of Israel to Mount Horeb in order to serve Him.

The Children of Israel crossed Sinai in the 13th century Before Christ on their way from bondage in Egypt to the Promised Land of Canaan. Although their exact route is subject of controversy among scholars, the traditional route leads across the Red Sea (Exodus 14:21-22) to Elim (probably the present El-Tur with its 12 wells and 70 date palms (Exodus 15:27)), and Wadi Hebran (taking its name from the Hebrews' crossing of the Wilderness of Sin) into Egypt, they reached the sacred Mount Horeb where they recieved God's Law - Teh Ten Commandments - the foundation on which they were called to build their religious and social organization.

Six hundred years later, another great profet of Israel, Elijah, came to this area, seeking refuge from the rage of Queen Jezebel. A cave in a chapel on Mount Moses dedicated to the Prophet is the traditional site where he lodged and spoke with God (1 Kings 19:9-15)


Monasticism in Sinai

The yearning to be near God and far from the persecutions of pagan Rome brought many early Christians to Sinai in search of tranquility, silence, isolation and holiness. From the 3rd century AD and onwards, monks settled in small monastic communities near sacred places around Mount Horeb, such as the site of the Burning Bush, the Firan Oasis and other places in southern Sinai. The exact location of these holy places has been preserved in the memory of the native population through the centuries.

The first monks suffered constant privations. Nature was unkind to man, and many fell prey to marauding nomads. The first monks were hermits who lived alone in caves, praying alone in utter poverty. They were self-sufficient, except on holy days when they gathered near the site of the Burning Bush in order to listen to their spiritual leaders and to recieve the Holy Communion.

Because of their holy lives, the Christian hermits of Sinai were natural missionaries among the pagan tribes of Sinai. By the time og the Arab conquest in the 7th century, most of Sinai's inhabitants were Christian.

In year 313 AD Constantine the Great bestowed the status of a recognized religion on Christianity and granted freedom of worship throughout the Roman Empire. He and most of the Byzantine rulers were inclined to favour the monastic orders that sprang up in the Land of the Bible. And in this atmosphere of religious freedom, removed from earlier persecutions, monasticism took a new lease of life.

The monks of Sinai petitioned St. Constantine's mother, the Empress Helena, for her patronage. In 330 AD, St. Helena erected a small church dedicated to the Mother of God (Mary), and a tower at the site of the Burning Bush to serve as a secure shelter for the monks. Pilgrims of the late 4th century relate that there was an important and flourishing community of monks in Sinai. Famous among them was a former high officer of the Emperor in Constantinople, St. Nile, whose writings are studied today by priests, monks and believers.


"The Church of the Transfiguration of the Saviour of Christ"


The Transfiguration of Jesus is an event reported in the New Testament in which Jesus is transfigured and becomes radiant upon a mountain. The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 17:1-9, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36) describe it, and 2 Peter 1:16-18 refers to it.

In these accounts Jesus and three of his apostles go to a mountain (the Mount of Transfiguration). On the mountain, Jesus begins to shine with bright rays of light, the prophets Moses and Elijah appear next to him and he speaks with them. Jesus is then called "Son" by a voice in the sky, assumed to be God the Father, as in the Baptism of Jesus.[1]

The Transfiguration is one of the miracles of Jesus in the Gospels.[2][3][4] This miracle is unique among others that appear in the Canonical gospels, in that the miracle happens to Jesus himself.[5] Thomas Aquinas considered the Transfiguration "the greatest miracle" in that it complemented baptism and showed the perfection of life in Heaven.[6]

In Christian teachings, the Transfiguration is a pivotal moment, and the setting on the mountain is presented as the point where human nature meets God: the meeting place for the temporal and the eternal, with Jesus himself as the connecting point, acting as the bridge between heaven and earth.[7]


Wiev along the church wall towards South from the well of Moses

Wiev towards North, the Minaret, Mosque and Archbishop's New Dwellings


The Burning Bush

"It was furthermore nessesary to go out at the head of the valley, because there were many cells of hermits, and a church, where the bush is. This bush is alive to the present day and sends forth shoots. This is the bush I spoke of about, out of which God spoke to Moses in the fire. Where the bush stands in front of the church there is a very pleasant garden."
Description given by a women pilgrim from Spain named Etheria, who visited this place about the end of the 4th century.
Until today the site of the Burning Bush retains the main features of this description.

The Burning Bush today

The Chapel of the Burning Bush is now behind the Altar of the Transfiguration Church. The pligrims enters this holiest place of the Monastery without shoes, in remembrance of the commandment of God to Moses: "Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground." (Ex. 3:5).

Moses recieving "the Law"
with his feet on the Burning Bush

The chapel is dedicatedto the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, and this is also the meaning of some special icons which are to bee seen here. They show the Mother of God holding Jesus Christ and sitting in the middle of the Burning Bush.

The holy altar of the chapel stands not upon the sacred remains of martyrs, which is the rule, but above the roots of the Burning Bush. In the apse is the mosaic of a cross dating to the 10th century. The holy Liturgy is performed in the chapel every Saturday.

The bush flourishes several yards farther from the chapel where it was transplanted in order to build the holy altar upon its roots. It is the only bush of its kind growing in the entire Sinai Peninsula, and every attempt to transplant a branch of it to another place has been unsuccessful.

Further debate on:

Christian hermits originally gathered at Mount Serbal, believing it to be the biblical Mount Sinai. However, in the 4th century, under the Byzantine Empire, the monastery built there was abandoned in favour of the newer belief that Mount Saint Catherine was the Biblical Mount Sinai; a new monastery - St. Catherine's Monastery was built at its foot, and the alleged site of the biblical burning bush was identified. The bush growing at the spot (a bramble, scientific name Rubus sanctus[21]), was later transplanted several yards away to a courtyard of the monastery, and its original spot was covered by a chapel dedicated to the Annunciation, with a silver star marking where the roots of the bush had come out of the ground. The Monks at St. Catherine's Monastery, following church tradition, believe that this bush is, in fact, the original bush seen by Moses, rather than a later replacement[citation needed], and anyone entering the chapel is required to remove their shoes, just as Moses was in the biblical account.

However, in modern times, it is not Mount Saint Catherine, but the adjacent Jebel Musa (Mount Moses), which is currently identified as Mount Sinai by popular tradition and guide books; this identification arose from bedouin tradition.

Mount Serbal, Jebel Musa, and Mount Saint Catherine, all lie at the southern tip of the Sinai peninsula, but the peninsula's name is a comparatively modern invention, and it was not known by that name at the time of Josephus or earlier. Most modern scholars, as well as many modern theologians, dismiss the idea that the biblical Sinai was at the south of the peninsula, instead favouring locations in the Hijaz (at the north west of Saudi Arabia), northern Arabah (in the vicinity of Petra, or the surrounding area), or occasionally in the central or northern Sinai Peninsula. Hence, the majority of academics and theologians agree that if the burning bush ever existed, then it is highly unlikely to be the bush preserved at St Catherine's Monastery.


The Icon Gallery

The Gallery exhibit 150 out of a collection of 2.000 priceless icons of immense spiritual, artistic and historic value. Twelve of the rarest and oldest icons of the 6th century were made in the wax-melting technique. Part of the collection belongs to the early Byzantine period (6th-10th century), and the Hellenistic, Georgian, Syrian and Copthic styles. A large collection dates back to the 11th-15th century. Western icons are rare, among them is the Spanish icon of Sct. Catherine from Alexandria in Gothic style, dating beck to 1387, which is to be seen in the church.

Sct. Catherine

Rare Spanish icon depicting six scenes from the life of Sct. Catherine of Alexandria.
In the center: Saint Catherine 
Top left and right: She is looking at Jesus as infant on the lap of Virgin Mary.
Center left: She is speeking to the Emperor.
Below left: Teaching the Empress.
Center right: The beheading of St. Catherine.
Below right: Her body is transported by angels to the peak of Mount Catherine.

Jesus Pantocrator Ruler of the World


A very rare and world famous wax icon in Byzantine style from 7th century
From The Icon Gallery in Sct. Catherine Monastery, Mount Sinai, Egypt.

The two different facial expressions on either side emphasize
Christ's dual nature as fully God and fully human

Jesus is seen on the left side represented as the savior blessing humanity.
On the right side Jesus holds a volume of The New Testament
representing a more worldly function, and seen crying for humanity.

Two versions of "The Ladder of Divine Descent"

"The Transfiguration of Christ" - 12th century

See more icons from Sct. Catherine Monastery:


Tourists coming and going ...

As mentioned the Monastery of St. Caterine and Mount Sinai are some of the most important Christian pilgrims sites in the World. Thousands of tourists of every nation, faith etc. visit this area every day. Expect to be one of many.

The best thing a visitor can do, is to read about the site beforehand. Choose what is most important for you to see and go there on your own. You will probably loose sight of your guide anyway. As the tours normally are one-day tours from the tourist centers and you only have 1 - 2 hours at this wast place, it is quite impossible to see everything. It is not possible to go outside the monastery area and up in the mountains.



Wax icons:


Lamp of Sct. Catherine leading the seeker
to St. Catherine Monestary in the dark   created by BP