Few monuments from antiquity have come down to us unaltered or unharmed. Just yesterday, 24 August 2015, the world learned that ISIS blew up an important monument of the Classical era: the Temple of Baal Shamin in Palmyra, Syria.
In Egypt, in the arid and rocky wilderness of the southern Sinai Peninsula, rests a living link to Byzantine emperors, fourth-century pilgrims, third-century Christian hermits and Moses. The Monastery of St. Catherine of Alexandria is a major repository of the early church’s cultural and spiritual heritage. Deep behind its sixth-century walls, the monastery’s monks — who form the smallest of the churches in the Orthodox communion of churches — revere and guard thousands of rare manuscripts, codices, icons and liturgical objects. Many of these precious relics date to the time of the church fathers.
In the last few decades, especially as the enemies of civilization target its patrimony, there is a renewed interest in St. Catherine’s and its position in the ancient Christian East. Sinai’s monks have shared their treasures, loaning parchment and painted wood to museums throughout the world. And record crowds, surprising even the experts, have responded, waiting in long lines to view ancient relics once preserved in an isolated oasis lost in time and sand. Scholars have flooded the monastery, studying its manuscripts and digitizing their pages. And tourists, thanks to daily bus service from Cairo, challenge the monks in their efforts to preserve their ministry from commercialization and economic exploitation.
“The Holy Monastery,” the monks have written, “is a purely religious institution dedicated to the protection of the Sinaitic pilgrimage sites … the maintenance of the history of Sinai ? the values of the great religious tradition of the monastery [and] to cultivate the development of the exalted moral life through the exercise of the Christian virtue that derives from the first commandment: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God?”
These are objectives that Muhammad appreciated, granting the monastery and its monks his protection after visiting it circa 628:
“No compulsion is to be on them,” the prophet wrote in a letter known in Arabic as the “Ahtiname.”
“Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries. No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it or to carry anything from it to the Muslims’ houses. Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God’s covenant and disobey his prophet. ? They are my allies.”
Click here to learn more about the monastery, its monks and miracles.