Given its importance as the site where, according to the Book of Exodus, Moses received the Books of the Law from God, Mount Sinai has been frequented by Christian pilgrims since ancient times. By the third century, Christian anchorites had begun to live in the area, and by the fourth century one or more communities of monks had been formed.
Because the area had become unstable and the monks vulnerable to attack, the Emperor Justinian decided to fortify the main monastery in 528. He also settled 200 families from Egypt and Trebizond in the area to protect and serve the monastic community.
At first the monastery had a highly international character with Slavic, Arab, Latin, Armenian, Ethiopian and Syrian monks, as well as Greeks. Perhaps the best-known monk of the monastery was St. John Climacus, who was abbot in the 7th century. By that time, the area had been conquered by the Moslem Arabs. Islamic governments were generally tolerant, but on several occasions wild tribes ravaged the monastery, requiring the monks to temporarily close it down and take refuge in Cairo or Alexandria. During this period, monks of other nationalities abandoned the monastery to the Greeks.
St. Catherine’s monastery, as it has been known since the 9th century, was named after Saint Catherine of Alexandria. It was originally part of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, within the diocese of Pharan. After the bishop of Pharan was deposed for monotheletism in 681, the see was transferred to the monastery itself, the abbot becoming the bishop of Pharan. With the subsequent union of the diocese of Raitho with the monastery, all the Christians in the Sinai peninsula came under the jurisdiction of the Abbot-Archbishop.
In 1575 the Patriarchate of Constantinople granted Mount Sinai autonomous status. This was reaffirmed in 1782. The only remaining link with the Jerusalem Patriarchate is that the abbot, who is elected by an assembly of senior monks, must be ordained a bishop by the Jerusalem Patriarch, who is also commemorated in the monastery’s liturgy.
The monastery’s library is renowned for its great antiquity and its manuscripts. It was here in 1859 that Tischendorf found the Codex Sinaiticus of the Bible. Today it contains about 4,000 manuscripts. Some of the world’s most ancient icons are also found in the monastery, which was already outside the Byzantine Empire during the iconoclast controversy when most of the icons within the empire were destroyed.
Currently the monastery, in addition to the library, has a guest house and a hospital for the local population. The monks have also administered a school in Cairo since 1860. The monastery has historically had many dependent churches and monasteries (metochia) in other countries. In 2006 in Egypt there were metochia in Cairo (where the Abbot often resides) and Alexandria, nine metochia in Greece, three in Cyprus, one in Lebanon and one in Istanbul, Turkey.
Today, in addition to the 20 or so monks in the monastic community, this church includes a few hundred Bedouins and fishermen who live in the Sinai. Since the Israeli invasion in 1967, perhaps the greatest problem facing the community has been maintaining an authentic monastic lifestyle while dealing with a massive influx of tourists. This problem has continued after the area’s return to Egypt in 1982, and the population of the area has been increasing. Pope John Paul II visited the monastery on February 26, 2000.
The monastery has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Saint Catherine’s Foundation, based in London, is a non-profit organization that assists in the preservation of the monastery and its treasures. Its royal patron is HRH the Prince of Wales.
Location: Sinai peninsula, Egypt
Head: Archbishop Damianos (born 1935, elected 1973)
Title: Abbot of St. Catherine’s Monastery, Archbishop of Sinai, Pharan, and Raitho
Residence: Cairo, Egypt