At the triangle which is formed between the Bay of Suez and Acaba as well as the desert Tih, not only spread desert expanses but also insurmountable mountains. In this barren peninsula, the mountainous masses provoke a deep impression and are named; the Mount Sinai (2244m), the mountain of Saint Catherine (2602m), the Serbal, the Oum Somar and that of the Holy Science. Through this desert Moses guided the Israelites on their return to the Promised Land. It was necessary to overcome all the obstacles, winning over the enemies “Hamalekites” nomads of Arabia, who were then fighting them continuously.
At the peak of Sinai, according to the Old Testament, Moses received from God the Ten Commandments. In this desert place, God met man again. “The Lord descended on the mount of Sinai, at the peak of the mountain ……. of God (Exodus 31:18). This way this parched and barren desert becomes a holy and sacred place for all humanity, displaying great moral heights. At the base of the mountain of Saint Catherine is the historic Holy Monastery of Sinai, which was built by emperor Justinian, who accepted the request of the Sinaites and built a magnificent church, surrounded by fortified walls which made it possible to protect the monks from the raids of the Agarenes. The Church is of three aisles Basilica format, has a narthex of dimensions reaching 40m length and 19.20m width. Within these distances the chapels of Saint Vatou, of Saint James and of the Sinaite Fathers are included behind of the Catholicon. The main church of the catholicon inside is 25m length and 12m width. The early wooden roof of the Catholicon was covered with a horizontal wooden knave, which was produced in the 18th century under the Archbishop Kyrillos 2nd of Crete. At the adjacent walls open up two rows of eight two lobed windows and seven rectangular ones. The holy step is at a higher elevation than the floor of the main Church and separates from it by an iconostasis, at the parapet it is marble while on the upper sides it is sculpted wood. It was built in 1612 under Archbishop Laurence at the Sinai Metohion in Crete.
Most beautiful are the wood sculpted doors of the main Church made of Lebanon cedar whose original construction was in the 6th century. The gates of the narthex however, were constructed by the Crusaders of the 12th century. From the inscriptions that were saved the name of Justinian and Theodora are commemorated and it is noted that the wall and the Church were built in 577AD after the death of the empress. From the inscription also we learn that the architect of the fort and the catholicon was Stephanos Ailistos from Ela, today’s Eilat.
On the 7th and 8th century, the Monastery of Sinai passed through great dangers and deep crisis due to mainly the Arab conquest. It is said that when the Sultan Selim 1st captured Egypt and the Sinai in 1517, he saw the Ahtiname of Mohammed, took it with him and left a copy for the Sinai Fathers. From the 11th century begins a new period for the Sinai monks. The transfer of Saint Catherine’s relics to France increased the interest of the European Christians for the security and independence of the monks and the protection of the Monastery across the world, Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Crete, Cyprus, Constantinople. During the time of Frankocracy in Syria, the Crusaders created a special order of Sinaites, with the purpose of the protection and financial support of the Monastery. The Popes with different decrees at various times protected the rights of the monastery: Pope Honorius 3rd in 1217, Gregory 10th (1271-1276), Benedict 12th in 1338, Innocentius 6th in 1360 etc. The Ducats of Venice with official documents control the deportment of the dukes of Crete towards the Sinai metohia, exempting them from taxation and rendering judgment in favour of the Sinai interests. Even though Sinai was located in a Muslim region, it had great and frequent communication and ties with Constantinople. Emmanuel Comnenos, Michael Paleologos but also the Patriarch of the Ecumenical Throne of Constantinople showed a real interest in matters regarding the monastery. Besides, the frequent communication between Sinai and the Empire through important personalities such as Saint George the Arselas, Saint John the Sinaite, the author of the “Ladder”, Gregory the Sinaite, shows the spiritual bridge which connected the two centres of Orthodoxy.
Turkish Sultans, Selim 1st and Suleiman the Magnificent rendered privileges, which many times helped Sinai to attain great economic power and become exempt of customs taxes. In 1798 when Napoleon captured Egypt after a request by the Sinaites, he took under his protection the monastery and the surrounding area. With this “insurance policy” it strengthened and solidified the autonomy of the Monastery of Sinai and of the region by recognizing earlier economic concessions, Sinai became particularly known in Europe with the spread of fame but also the piety of Saint Catherine.
Important role played Symeon the Translator, who in the 10th century having written about the martyrdom of the Saint and Great Martyr of Christ Catherine contributed decisively towards the spread of knowledge on the life of the Saint. The wise daughter had studied all the sciences of that period, philosophy, medicine, rhetoric, mathematics, astronomy, music and physics. Her aristocratic descent, her beauty, her impressive for that time education and her morals did not impede her from getting to know “the Bridegroom of the souls”, Jesus Christ and become baptized Christian. During the time of Maximian’s period of persecutions, in the beginning of the 4th century, the Saint publicly accused the emperor for his sacrifices to the idols, fearlessly confessing her faith. The emperor ordered fifty sages to publicly discuss with her, with the intention of upsetting her Christian arguments. Their efforts floundered and many sages, even from the close entourage of the emperor, believed in Christ. When the persuasion failed, Maximian resorted to torture. He ordered the construction of large wheels with nails and knife points in each of them. When after this atrocious torture the Saint did not succumb, a soldier beheaded her.
In the West, her persona, the martyrdom and her relationship with Sinai started to spread when Symeon the Five-linguist, transferred her relics to Rouen and to Treves of France. No other Saint became so loved in the west as Saint Catherine. Great painters such as Fra Angeliko, Corregio, Rubens, Murillo, immortalized the heroic and tragic scenes from the struggles for the faith and from the martyrdom of the Saint. But also in the East spread the veneration and iconography of Saint Catherine. She is depicted with a crown and royal vestments, surrounded by items of her study, such as a stylus, a globe, books and by the tool of her torture, the wheel. Byzantine hagiographers added to all these, the mountains of Sinai, Horeb and Saint Catherine. Early, a marble larnax was constructed in 1231 where they laid her relics. In 1688 the old marble larnax was replaced with a silver one, gift of the Tsars of Russia but the relics remained in the old reliquary.
Bibliography: A. Holy Monastery of Sinai, issued by the Holy Monastery of Sinai, by E. Djafery A.E. 1985.
The Shrine brochures of Sinai are saved in ten manuscripts, which are assigned to six monasteries of the Holy Mountain as follows: Three for the Iberon, two each for Great Lavra and Koutloumousio and one each for the monasteries of Dionysios, Xeropotamou and Dohariou. The manuscripts are of small format and date back to the 16th and 17th centuries and are characterized as mixed codex with varied content. In the most part the text of the brochures start with the description of the geographic location of the Sinai Mountain and its distance from the city of Jerusalem, as well as mentioning that on it Moses saw the sacred bramble in flames without being consumed. In continuation they describe in detail the Monastery of Sinai which was built by the famous emperor of Byzantium, Justinian (527-565). They start with its lead covered Catholicon which is supported by 12 columns and the holy step (Vema) on which exists the famous mosaic of the Transfiguration of the Saviour, Christ. Then they turn to the iconostasis on which the following icons are saved: a) Christ as the Great Hierarch, b) the Theotokos, c) Moses and d) St. Catherine. The second part closes with the mention of the marble larnax of St. Catherine’s relics on the right side of the holy step which produces holy myrrh and is fragrant.
In continuation there is mention of the three oil lamps of the Holy Altar which are situated at the place of the holy bramble, the miraculous icon of the Theotokos, who at one time spoke to a monk, the church of Saint James the Persian at the right or the left of the holy bramble, the well of prophet Moses which is saved outside the Catholicon. All six chapels embodied in the catholicon are commemorated. It then follows a description of the Holy Peak of Sinai where a set of stone steps lead to it. In turn the following churches are listed: Church of the 40 Martyrs, Church of the Holy Apostles, Church of the Anargyron and Church of David, as well as the rock of Moses and the cave of Saint John of the Ladder.
The desert of Raitho is also described, which is at a distance of “two days duration” from Sinai. Described there are the salty waters, the twelve springs of water and other great sights. Also described is a monastery on the mountain and the Sinai Metohio of Saint George. Apart from the main descriptions, in some manuscripts some regions, cities and castles of Egypt are also described. Also other manuscripts list the cities of Jerusalem, Gaza, Lydda and Joppa. Yet in other, miracles that occurred at Sinai are described. At these, as well as at other libraries of the Holy Mountain, a number of manuscripts are still saved which concern the Sinai Mountain, without however describing it.