St. Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt is one of the world’s most remote and significant religious landmarks, located at the base of the mountain where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments.
St. Catherine’s (also known as Mount Sinai Monastery) is believed to be the oldest continually occupied monastery in the world and is home to a community of Greek Orthodox monks.
To reach St. Catherine’s Monastery, you need to cross the Sinai, the peninsula of land that lies between Israel and Egypt. Fought over during the Six Day War of 1967, it is now in Egyptian control and welcomes those who seek inspiration amid a landscape of harsh mountains and empty desert.
Reached most easily by a short airplane flight from Cairo, the Sinai is both bleak and beautiful, particularly at dawn and evening when its harsh terrain glows with an almost unearthly light. To the north the landscape is flat and monotonous, while the south is dominated by jagged-edged mountains. The peninsula’s interior is home primarily to scattered Bedouin tribes, though tourist resorts line its southern tip along the Red Sea and provide a convenient jumping-off point for desert tours.
While several Christian monasteries are located in the Sinai, the most significant is St. Catherine’s. Located a two-hour drive from the resort area of Sharm El-Sheikh, the monastery sits in an isolated valley between dramatic mountain peaks. Like all of the Sinai, the landscape here is desperately dry, with only scattered vegetation and trees.
Visitors enter St. Catherine’s Monastery through massive stone walls built in the sixth century to protect the building from attack. Winding through a narrow passageway, they enter the Basilica of the Transfiguration, which dates back to AD 527 when the Emperor Justinian ordered that a church be built here on the remains of an even older chapel.
Inside, Byzantine icons line the church’s walls and an ornate icon screen separates the altar from the sanctuary. The atmosphere here is serene and hushed, providing a welcome respite from the large crowds that often fill the monastery enclosure.
After leaving the church, pilgrims can see a huge evergreen bush that overhangs an adjacent walkway. Tradition says that the plant is descended from the Burning Bush from which the voice of God spoke to Moses.
In a custom followed by many generations of pilgrims, people stand on tiptoes to touch one of its overhanging branches. Visitors also can tour the monastery’s library, whose collection of ancient manuscripts and icons is second only to the Vatican’s in importance.
In many ways the landscape that lies outside its walls is an even more powerful draw. Above the monastery loom a set of peaks that over the millennia have been hallowed by the prayers of countless penitents and pilgrims.
The most famous is Mount Sinai (also known as Mount Moses), where Moses is said to have spent forty days and nights before receiving the Ten Commandments. Many pilgrims walk the route at night so that they can see the sunrise from its peak, while others take a camel ride for at least part of the journey.
Even a short walk in this dramatic landscape evokes a sense of awe in visitors. In this fierce landscape, devoid of creature comforts and harshly baked by the sun, it’s possible to feel a kinship to the desert pilgrims of long ago.
In the silence here, God’s voice speaks louder than almost any place on earth.
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Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.