EN VOYAGE – The Monastery of Santa Katerina

29 Jun 2004

Sinai was a fundamental point on Moses’ journey to the promised land. It is where he received the Tablets of the Law, destroyed the golden Calf of the idolaters and saw and heard God in the form of a burning thorn bush.

Today the hardy, surviving thorn bush is actually a blackberry bush, said to be the only one in all of Sinai, and its shoots do not grow elsewhere. It can be seen clinging to the side of a wall alongside the apse of the church built on its roots.

Once, this thorn bush was ablaze with the fire and voice of God as he thundered his orders to Moses. Today, green and strangely fruitless, it is indifferent to the comings and goings of the shorts and sunglasses below.

1500 years ago the orthodox monastery of Santa Katerina was built around it: the monastery is a treasure trove of history, art and culture enclosed within high walls, nestling between steep mountains and now besieged by busloads of tourists. The human tide is forcibly channeled through the only entrance, a tiny door which still has a hole through which boiling oil could be hurled.

The Santa Katerina monastery was built in 527-565 by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian and it has never been sacked or ruined. Over the centuries the monks have always managed to defend themselves, barricading themselves inside the solid walls or drawing up agreements with local rulers: for example, after the Islamic conquest in around 600 AD, the monastery obtained a guarantee of immunity from the Caliph Omar. The proof of this agreement is the presence of a mosque inside the monastery walls, built in the middle of the original courtyard.

The monastery library is one of the leading and oldest historical sources of Christian culture. The 4th century Codex Sinaicus, one of the oldest biblical texts, came from here, as well as a collection of thousands of ancient valuable icons, mostly painted by the monks themselves.

Inside the walls the monks talk and write in Greek, and have always entrusted the monastery tasks to a tribe of bedouins called the Gebelieh, the descendents of two hundred families brought here by Justinian for this reason from Bosnia, Wallachia and Alexandria. The Gebelieh were Christians for a long time, only converting to Islam in the 13th century.

Despite the fact that they do not share the monks’ religion, these bedouins still work for the monastery today. You might spot them inside and outside the walls, like white elves.

As well as a few chickens the monastery owns a vegetable garden and orchard, in which they grow date palms, apples, oranges, citron, figs, olives and vines. The monks buy goat cheese from the bedouins.

The only daily meal is taken after 5pm, at the end of a day of prayers that begins at 2.30am according to the precepts of St Basil. The meal is a simple dish, usually soup with bread or rice.

Who knows whether the monks follow the same precepts as those of Mt Athos, timing the meal to last as long as the reading of the saint of the day? Consequently, if the saint of the day had a long life, the meal takes a normal amount of time – but if he or she died young, you had better eat quickly!

From the monastery it is possible to climb to Gebel Mousa, the mountain where Moses received the tablets of the law. At dawn there is a wonderful view – beyond the ragged mountaintops and the vast open space of the desert is the sea, and then more desert, stretching endlessly on.

From this point on the earth the world is naked and basic, almost divine. You begin to understand Moses.

Marina Comandini, a writer and painter, has traveled extensively in the Middle East

Adapted by Ailsa Wood

Illustration by Marina Comandini

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