February 26, 2011

Saint Catherine's Monastery and the "Burning Bush"

After our long day on the road from Cairo the day before, we didn't see anything of the Sinai Mountains until we awoke the next morning. So, to our amazement, we awoke to a beautiful sunrise on the barren rocky cliffs rising 1000 feet or more above the hotel. We had a busy day ahead, so we ate an early breakfast and were off to St. Catherine's Monastery, as well as, the climb to the summit of Mount Sinai.

Our hotel at sunrise

St. Catherine's village, where all the hotels are, is located about 3 miles from St. Catherine's Monastery. We drove up the road and then parked at the tourist lot with the tour buses. From there, there was a long path that you walk to the Monastery and the base of Mount Sinai.

The trail back to the parking lot after climbing Mount Sinai

St. Catherine's Monastery is the oldest continuously occupied Monastery in the world. The first chapel was built on the site in 330 AD on the orders of Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine at the site of the famed "burning bush". In 550 AD, a larger monastery was constructed. Following the sweep of Islam across the region in the 7th century, the monastery became isolated from most of the rest of the Christian world. But, it is said that Mohammed himself personally guarunteed the protection of this monastery and it remained an isolated pocket of Christianity through the Crusades and until modern times.

While this monastery is generically of the Eastern Rites, its isolation resulted in it having its own designation as an independent diocese. It is governed by its own monks, but the Archbishop of Sinai is selected jointly by the patriarch of the Greek Orthodox church, plus those from Moscow, Alexandria, Istanbul, and Antioch. At any one time, there are usually only about 20 monks living on site, making it the smallest Christian diocese in the world.

The little wood boxes at the top of the wall are the original "entrances"

Because of its isolation and the wealth of religious artifacts inside, the monastery was always at risk for attack from theives and vandals. One way they kept outsiders out was that there were no doors at the ground level. To get in and out they had to lower a rope-bucket or ladder from the upper walls. Obviously, in the more modern era of tourism, a ground door has been installed.

The "Burning Bush"

Inside, the main thing people come to see is what is claimed to be the original "burning bush" from the Old Testament, where God spoke to Moses and told him to free the Isrealites from Egypt. In actuality, this particular bush is a species of blackberry of the rose family that lives in wadis and streamsides in the Middle East. This particular bush is thought to be about 1000 years old. It was apparently brought in by pilgrims in the 10th century during the construction of the Chapel of the Burning Bush.

A little bit creepy, but also fascinating room in the monastery is the place where the skulls of every monk who has lived here is stored. While only around 20 may be there at any time, given this monastery has been in place for 1500 or more years, the skulls add up.

Outside the monastery are the gardens. Being so isolated from society, these monks had to be self-sufficient. Luckily for them, there were natural springs for irrigation despite the extreme aridity of the region. Something tells me these springs may have played a larger role in the original construction of this monastery and religious writings than anything else and that this site being where the "burning bush" was is no accident.

Some of the monks live high up above the Monastery in simple stone dwellings. They too have small gardens. I wonder if they haul their water up to it in buckets or if there are also small springs up there.

On the next post, I will describe the hike to the summit of Mount Sinai, said to be the place where Moses recieved the Ten Commandments.

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