After walking down the Way of the Steps from the summit of Mount Sinai, I arrived at the walled Fortress of Justinian and Saint Catherine’s Monastery at 8:30am. Built in 548 by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, it’s one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world and has the second largest religious library in the world after the Vatican.
The monastery, which is run by Greek Orthodox monks, is named for St. Catherine of Alexandria, whose remains were found nearby in the year 800. The official name is the Sacred Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai (Ιερά Μονή του Θεοβαδίστου Όρους Σινά). It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The first thing I saw near the monastery is an archaeological site. It was undergoing excavation at the time of my visit. I took a quick look at it and admired the Byzantine walls of the monastery. I then rested until the rest of the group arrived from the Camel Trail for our tour of the monastery.
We entered the monastery complex as a group around 9:15am. The church and immediate area are open to visitors every day except Fridays, Sundays, and Greek Orthodox holy days. The visiting times are very restricted. It opens at 9am and all guests must be out of the complex by noon. Visit the official site for more info on visits.
Inside the church are the relics of St. Catherine and other saints along with some incredible icons. Time is very limited due to the flow of visitors in and out of the church. I had less than a minute to enjoy the moment and was not allowed to take any photos.
The monastery encloses the actual Burning Bush purportedly seen by Moses. Nearby is a museum with the Achtiname, a letter containing a handprint from the Prophet Mohammad ordering protection of the monastery. The museum charges an extra fee. I didn’t have enough time to visit.
It’s also possible to see the Well of Moses. According to scripture (Exodus 2:15-22), Moses helped the seven daughters of Jethro (Reuel) get water from this very well. Jethro let Moses take one of his daughters, Zipporah, as his wife. Surrounding the well are several icons of the life of Moses.
The bell tower was built in 1871. Next to it is a mosque built in November 1106 that has never been used. It was a gift from Shahan Shah el-Afdal of the Fatimid Caliphate. St. Catherine’s is the only Christian monastery in the world that also has a mosque.
I thought it was odd but there wasn’t one monk in sight when I was at the monastery. Instead, local Bedouin are in charge of controlling visitors, collecting donations, and selling items in the gift shop. These Bedouin are called the Jebeliya Bedouin and are actually descendants of Greek and Roman soldiers from the Black Sea region of Pontus. They were sent by Justinian to guard the monastery in the 6th century. They later mixed with the local Bedouin and converted to Islam, but some elements of their unique culture are alive to this day, such as their skill as craftsmen and gardeners. The local Bedouin live in harmony and understanding with the monks at the monastery and uphold their ancient duty of protecting it.
We were ushered out of the monastery just before 10am for the late tours to visit and were taken to have a buffet lunch in the town of Saint Catherine. The food wasn’t that great but it was welcome after a very long night. I slept on the entire ride back to Sharm el-Sheikh.
There are two tours available, one that leaves the night before to climb Mount Sinai and another one that leaves in the morning to visit the monastery only. You can book either tour through your hotel or any travel agency in Sharm. If you’re in decent physical shape and want to get the full experience, it’s extremely well worth it to do the overnight tour. You won’t regret it.