St Catherine


Ins and outs

Getting there

The road journey from Dahab to St Catherine, which is generally good with little traffic, takes about 1½ hours. On the way, at the top of a very steep hill there is a breathtaking view over the desert. The coaches and taxis stop here and Bedouins attempt to sell fossils, sand-roses and other souvenirs. While all of the organized tours to St Catherine stop at the monastery itself, the normal bus services stop in the small village of St Catherine about 2 km from
the monastery.

Information

St Catherine's National Park visitors' centre
 has information on shorter walks, and a few books and maps of the area, and excellent information on the tribes, ecology and history of the region. Alternatively access walking tours and maps online at www.touregypt.net/walkingtours. A useful and inspiring website is www.st-katherine.net, for information on trekking, Bedouin culture and the St Catherine's region in general.

The
Tourist Police
 are in St Catherine, in the main square, opposite the bus station.

Best time to visit

St Catherine is very cold in winter with a metre of snow a few times a year, and snow sometimes until March, but it is very hot in summer.

St Catherine's Monastery

The
Burning Bush
, through which God is said to have spoken to Moses, holds religious significance for Jews, Christians and Muslims and in AD 337 Empress Helena, mother of Constantine, decreed that a sanctuary was to be built around what was thought to be the site of the bush. This became a refuge for an increasing number of hermits and pilgrims who traversed the wilderness of the Sinai Valley over the following centuries. Israeli pilgrims are few and far between these days, but the monastery has long been unique in that here the three great monotheistic religions have come together peaceably, without clashes. A rather unimpressive overgrown evergreen bush, which is claimed to be a transplanted descendant of the Burning Bush, grows in the courtyard inside the monastery, and there is an almost continual photo-call going on beneath its thorny branches.

Between AD 537 and 562, Emperor Justinian expanded the site considerably by building fortifications and providing soldiers to protect the residents and adding the Church of the Virgin and the Basilica of the Transfiguration. The monastery and its community which then, as today, was controlled by the Byzantine Church were tolerated by the subsequent Muslim conquerors.
The number of pilgrims dwindled until a body, claimed to be that of the Egyptian-born St Catherine, was 'discovered' in the 10th century and was brought to the monastery. This attracted many pilgrims during the period of Crusader occupation (1099-1270). The numbers of both pilgrims and monks, who are now restricted to Greeks mainly from the Mount Athos area, subsequently waxed and waned until today there are only 25 monks, although the thousands of international pilgrims and tourists actually make the monastery unbearably crowded in the high season.

The site

The ancient gate on the western face has been walled up (but the funnel above, for pouring oil on unwary attackers, remains) and now visitors enter through a newer door in the north wall.
The outer wall, constructed of local granite by Justinian's builders, is 2-3 m thick and the height, which varies due to the uneven topography, is never less than 10 m and in places reaches 20 m. The southern face has some interesting raised Christian symbols.

The highlight of the walled monastery, which includes the monks' quarters, refectory, library and gardens (not open to the public), is the highly decorative and incense-perfumed
St Catherine's Church
. The church was built of granite in the shape of a basilica between AD 542-551, in memory of Emperor Justinian's wife. Its 12 enormous pillars, each a single piece of granite, are free-standing and decorated with beautiful icons representing the saints that are venerated in each of the 12 months of the year. A candle is lit below the relevant icon on each saint's day. Examine the capitals for their Christian symbols. The walls, pillars and cedar-wood doors of the church are all original - by comparison, the 11th-century doors made by the Crusaders seem almost new! The ancient roof is hidden above a more recent (18th-century) ceiling with reliefs of animals and plants. Above them the inscription (in Greek) reads, “This is the gate to the Lord; the righteous shall enter into it.” The hanging oil lanterns and swinging incense burners, plus Greek monks lit by shafts of sunlight, do something to detract from the camera-wielding masses shuffling through (even though photography is forbidden). The iconostasis is dated at 1612. In the apse is the chief delight of this building - a magnificent mosaic illustrating the Transfiguration. It is the earliest and one of the finest mosaics of the Eastern Church. (Since 2005, it has been covered for restoration and only tantalizing glimpses of its beauty can be seen as you exit the building). The theme is taken from St
Matthew's Gospel. Christ is in the centre with Moses and Elijah at each side and Peter, James and John at his feet. Around these are further figures identified as the 12 apostles, the 12 prophets, the abbot at the time of the mosaic's construction and John of Climax, the deacon. The three-tiered bell tower at the western end of the church was built in 1871. There are nine bells, each of a different size. They came as a gift from Russia and are used only for special services. The original wooden bell, older than the metal bells, is used daily.

West of the church is a small 11th-century
mosque
which, originally a guesthouse, was converted apparently in order to placate the Muslim invaders and to encourage them to tolerate the monastery. The detached minaret that faces the church is 10 m high. Significantly, however, the church steeple is considerably taller.

The
Library
houses some of the monastery's most extraordinary treasures, unfortunately (but not surprisingly) it is closed to the general public. It has an almost unrivalled collection of precious Greek, Arabic, Syriac, Georgian, Armenian Coptic, Ethiopian and Slavonic manuscripts, reputedly second only to that of the Vatican. There are over 6000 books and over 3000 manuscripts, mostly in Greek, including the famous Codex Syriacus, a fifth-century translation of the gospels.

The monastery's small, but excellent, refurbished
museum
 contains a collection of the gifts presented to the monastery over the centuries. The treasures were randomly scattered throughout the monastery until their accumulated worth was calculated by Friar Pachomius who then carefully gathered and preserved them in one place. Many interesting items have been lost over the ages, but it is fascinating to trace the routes of the pilgrims and of monks who sought alms through these treasures from cities as far-flung as Moscow and Calcutta. Also on display are a few of the monastery's 2000 priceless icons, a uniquely complete series with examples from every period, and a small selection of illuminated manuscripts from the library.

Because the monastery's
cemetery
in the gardens was so small, a custom developed of storing the overflow of monks' skeletons in the crypt of the Chapel of St Tryphon. This serves as the ossuary of the
Charnel House
that was in the monastery gardens. When a monk died his body was buried in the cemetery in the place of the oldest body, which was then removed to the Charnel House. The remains of the archbishops are kept separate in special niches. There's usually a queue to view this rather macabre room full of skeletons and skulls.

The monastery gardens are small. All the soil was carried here by the monks, who also constructed the water tanks for irrigation. It contains olive and apricot trees, plums and cherries with vegetables growing between. Immediately to the right of the monastery's main entrance at
Kleber's Tower
, which is about 15 m high and 3 m thick, is
Moses' Well
, which it is claimed has never dried up. It is supposed to be where the 40-year-old Moses, fleeing from Egypt, met one of Jethro's seven daughters whom he subsequently married.

Mount Sinai

If you've journeyed this far, attempt a climb up Mount Sinai (Jebel Musa), 2285 m, where, according to Christian tradition, Moses received the tablets of Law known as the Ten Commandments. The view is particularly spectacular at sunset and sunrise. However, the vast majority traipse up for sunrise, setting off at an ungodly hour in the cold and dark to find it all but impossible to secure a good spot amidst the mass of huddled forms at the summit. It is better to start the ascent at about 1600 (earlier in winter) in order to arrive at sunset. And, if you walk up via the more challenging steps, frequent solitary interludes can indeed feel spiritual and the passionate pilgrims met on the way only serve to intensify the experience. The 3700 steps, accessed from immediately behind the Monastery, are the shortest route (maximum 1½ hours), tough going and very difficult in the dark. The steps take you past the sixth-century
Elijah's Gate
and the
Shrive Gate
where pilgrims used to confess their sins to a priest before continuing their hike. The path is less crowded and dirty than the other route, which is easier but indirect (about 2½ hours) and can be done on camel - there are plenty for hire behind the monastery. Either way, the last 700 steps have to be done on foot and take another 30 minutes. Although there are refreshment stalls on the way up, getting more expensive nearer the summit, it is advisable to take at least two litres of water per person if making the ascent during the day. The stiff walk is quite rough and stout shoes and warm clothing are essential. On Mount Sinai is a chapel where services are performed on some Sundays by the monks and a mosque where a sheep is sacrificed once a year. Camping is possible and blankets and mattresses are available for hire around the summit.

Mount Catherine

At 2642 m Mount Catherine, or Jebel Katrinah, is Egypt's highest peak. It is about 6 km south of Mount Sinai and a five-six-hour exhausting, but rewarding, climb. It
is supposedly compulsory to take a guide, although it is possible to avoid detection and hike alone. Again, there are two routes up, one via the settlement of Arbayin (where you can see hyrax) that is longer but easier, and an steeper alternative route that has the appeal of being more natural. En route you pass the deserted
Monastery of the Forty Martyrs
. The path up to the summit was constructed by the monks who laid the granite staircase up Mount Sinai. On the summit there is a small chapel dedicated to St Catherine with water, a two-room hut for overnight pilgrims or trekkers, and a meteorological station.

Surrounding sights

About 50 km west of St Catherine lies
Wadi Feiran
 
a lush winding valley filled with palms and wells. Some say this is where Moses left his people when he went to collect the Ten Commandments. A nunnery lies at the valley's centre and there are several good and challenging hikes nearby. These, and longer treks, can be arranged with local guides on arrival. Few tourists visit, hence the eight tribes that live here are very welcoming. There are three lodges where you can stay in the village of Feiran (Greenland, Beit Al-Shar, and Holy Oasis) all adjacent to each other and offering similarly basic accommodation.

Wadi Feiran is a good destination for independent travellers, who wish to be flexible and don't want to be bound by any schedule.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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