Pilgrimage to the Holy Land
(Oct 21-Nov. 7, 2013)
By Susie R. Cuñada
Holy Land Pilgrimage Travelogue #23 – St. Catherine / Taba, Egypt
After taking in the breathtaking view of the surrounding mountain ranges and valleys at the summit of Mr. Sinai for the last
time, we began our descent. You can either return via the route you came up or down the "steps of repentance", which we
took. It's a decent descent but it would have been a difficult ascent that way. A lot less people take this way down and I
heartily recommend it.
It was by no means an easy route so I was “aided” by Fr. Neil for the first half of the descent and by my “guardian angel”,
Natalie, the rest of the way down.
After huffing and puffing my way down the steep mountain slopes, I was elated to finally see a glimpse of St. Catherine’s
Monastery in the distance.
Nestled on the lower slopes of Mount Sinai, the Greek Orthodox monastery of St. Catherine is located at the very place
where God appeared to Moses in the Burning Bush. With origins extending to late antiquity, it is the oldest continually
working Christian monastery in the world, with a history that can be traced back over seventeen centuries.
The monastery has never been destroyed in all its history, and thus it can be said to have preserved intact the distinctive
qualities of its Greek and Roman heritage, including its large wooden doors and carved ceiling beams. It has been
honoured by members of other Christian denominations coming as pilgrims to this holy place, as well as by rulers
throughout its history, including contemporary heads of state who have continued to show their interest in the monastery
which has been celebrated throughout the world for its spiritual and cultural radiance. Moreover, it has been revered not
only by Christians, but also by Moslems and Jews, and has recently been listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, both
for its cultural and for its scenic significance.
The monks have lived here, in the shadow of Mt. Sinai, almost without interruption since the Byzantine Emperor Justinian
built the monastery in the 6th century. From earliest times until the present day, the monks have maintained a dedication
both to prayer and to the support of pilgrims and visitors, and have lived at peace with the native Bedouins. They maintain
the ancient spiritual heritage of Sinai, a heritage that extends from the giving of the Law, through the whole of the Old and
New Testaments, to the multitude of saints whose memory has been enshrined at Sinai.
Named after a saint who was martyred in Egypt in AD 307, the monastery is uniquely steeped in tradition. Catherine of
Alexandria was a Christian martyr sentenced to death on the wheel. When this failed to kill her, she was beheaded. The
angels then took her remains to Mount Sinai, which remains were found incorrupt by the monks around the year 800 AD.
Although it is commonly known as Saint Catherine, the monastery's full official name is the Sacred Monastery of the
God-Trodden Mount Sinai. The patronal feast of the monastery is the Transfiguration.
The monastery can be thought of as a veritable Ark for its spiritual treasures. These include the manuscripts and early
printed books preserved in the Sinai library, and probably one of the most important collections of rare and ancient
manuscripts outside of the Vatican. Most of these are in Greek and were copied by the monks of this monastery. It also
includes the most important collection of pre-iconoclastic panel icons, and icons of the greatest beauty and significance
dating from the time of the Comnene dynasty.
Since the location was difficult to protect from marauders, Justinian surrounded the monastery with a high wall of
close-fitting granite stones, about 2 metres thick.
Looking more like a fortress than a church, access is through a massive iron gate shut for the night and opened in the
morning from 9am to 12 noon only, and open daily except Friday and Sunday. Note that the monastery observes the Greek
Orthodox rites and is thus also closed for Christmas and Easter as calculated by the Greek Orthodox calendar.
Anyhow, exhausted and starving, we reunited with the rest of the group. After devouring my “boxed” breakfast in a room
which looked like a cafeteria, we had a tour of the monastery.
As you emerge from the passage, a right turn takes you past Moses’ Well where Moses met Zipporah, one of Jethro’s
seven daughters, whom he married at the age of 40. As recounted in Exodus (2:15-21), Moses was resting by the well
when the seven daughters of Jethro came to draw water. Some shepherds drove them away and Moses came to their
defense. In gratitude, Jethro invited Moses to his home and gave him his daughter Zipporah in marriage.
The well is still one of the monastery’s main sources of water.
Walking the other way and around the corner, you’ll see a thorny evergreen
bush outgrowing an enclosure. This is the transplanted descendant of the
Burning Bush where God spoke to Moses. The bush was moved to its
present site when Helena’s chapel was built over its roots, behind the apse
of St. Catherine’s church.
According to tradition, at the time of the church's construction, the actual
Burning Bush still stood just outside the apse, but was virtually destroyed
over the centuries as pilgrims took away pieces as relics. What remained of
the bush, a form of wild raspberry, was transplanted to a more protected
spot in the monastery where it thrives to this day.
Continuing with our tour, we came to a granite basilica, St. Catherine’s
Church, which was erected by Justinian between 542 and 551. The walls
and pillars and the cedarwood doors between the narthex and nave are all
original. Its twelve pillars – representing the months of the year and hung
with icons of the saints venerated during each one – have ornately carved
capitals, loaded with symbolism. The most outstanding art treasure is an
unusual mosaic of the Transfiguration of Jesus above the altar in the apse
of the basilica. Christ is shown in glory in an almond-shaped panel of greys
and blues, wearing a white mantle edged with gold. His halo has a gold
cross on a white and gold backing. Around him are the prophets of the
Sinai, Moses and Elijah, and the disciples John, Peter, and James. To the
right of the altar is a marble sarcophagus with two silver caskets containing
the saint’s skull and left hand.
Other parts of the monastery are closed to the public.
After the tour, we left Morgenland at around 11:30am and headed to our hotel
in Taba. We stopped for lunch at a Korean restaurant in the middle of
nowhere where I ordered a burger.
During our bus ride, Fr. Neil asked those brave souls as to their experience
on their trek up Mt. Sinai. When it was my turn, I regaled them with my
frightening camel ride experience and, of course, my moving spiritual
awakening during the Holy Mass celebrated at the top of Mt. Sinai.
We arrived at Movenpick Resort in Taba at around 1:30pm. Since I was
exhausted to the bone, I took a much-needed nap to energize my weary
body. Waking up refreshed, Tessa and I headed to the beach, checked out
the beautiful resort, and marveled at God’s creation by watching the amazing
sunset over the Red Sea.
After yet another fulfilling day, both physically and spiritually, we had dinner at the resort and called it a night.
To Be Continued…