No doubt about it; St. Catherine’s Monastery was a fortress, purportedly built on holy ground that to this day harbors the Burning Bush “that was consumed by fire, but was not burned” when God spoke to Moses for the first time.
If the monks believed it to be gospel, who was I, a humble, modern-day pilgrim, to question three thousand years of religious history and the oldest continuously working monastery (and the smallest diocese) in the world; a monastery that just happens to sit at the foot of Mount Sinai/Jebel Musa/Mount Musa/Mountain of Moses. Yes, the Ten Commandments Mount Sinai! The same 7,494-foot peak on which Muslims believe Mohammad’s horse, Boraq, ascended to heaven.
Oh, yea of little faith.
It was a modern-day miracle, me standing inside the 60-foot walls of this medieval enclave, snapping at least three thousand pictures of the Burning Bush.
Don’t you just love a good story? Here’s the prologue to that story.
The healthy brambles specimen is believed to be a transplant from the original Burning Bush, whose roots are said to be just yards away, buried below and behind the altar of the monastery’s Church of the Transfiguration in a small chamber called the Chapel of the Burning Bush.
That church was ordered built in 337 AD by Empress Helena – mother of Constantine, who legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire in 313 – after her pilgrimage to the holy site. As lawlessness invaded this remote region of the Roman Empire, the monastic community at Mt. Sinai sought help from Emperor Justinian I. In 527 AD, architects and masons arrived to fortify the church and compound with today’s 60-foot- high wall. It took thirty-eight years to complete the fortifications.
We got a chance to step briefly into the church, the physical heart of St. Catherine’s Monastery, but pictures were not allowed. Phooey! Actually, I got to simply be in the moment, which was glorious.
The Byzantine-style basilica, built over the same time period the protective walls went up courtesy of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I beginning in 548 AD, was a work of art, right down to the incense burning. Needless to say, this is a working monastery, prayer a key element in the daily lives of the twenty or so Greek Orthodox monks living there.
The most prominent feature of this sacred house of worship was the dozens of glittering lamps hanging from almost every inch of the ceiling, lending an almost ethereal feel to the nave. Beautiful mosaics covered the floors; iconographic murals and priceless works of art covered the walls (over 2,000 iconic images are part of St. Catherine’s historic collection). Religious artifacts dotted every imaginable surface, many created in the 13th century by Latin monks based in or around the monastery.
What was unimaginable is that outside of the Vatican, the Orthodox monastery is home to the largest collection of early codices and manuscripts in the world. At its zenith, in the 14th century, approximately 200 monks lived in the Greek Orthodox monastery.
Today, the monastery library houses 4,500 manuscripts, mainly Greek but also Arabic, Armenian, Coptic, Georgian, Hebrew, Syriac, and Slavonic texts sacred to Christians, Jews, and Muslims. The most important of those has been filmed or digitalized and are accessible to scholars around the world; twenty-first century meets the Middle Ages.
The monastery’s main source of water comes from an underground spring called, “The Fountain of Moses.” It is believed to be the spot where Moses met his future wife, Zipporah. According to Biblical accounts (Exodus 2:16-21), it was here, at this well, that Moses stepped in to protect Zipporah and her and her sisters from a group of rather thirsty shepherds.
Miracles did seem the order of the day in this part of the world the day we were there; miracles that defy human explanation; miracles that suggest the only explanation is that this rocky desert is truly God's place.