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Other Chapels and Ruins near the Monastery of Saint Catherine in the Sinai of Egypt


Other Chapels and Ruins near the
Monastery of Saint Catherine in the Sinai of Egypt

John Watson

The Gate of Confession on Mount Sinai


Many people who visit St. Catherine's Monastery are unaware of many of the other interesting religious and other sites within the southern Sinai, as well as the region's natural wonders. Specifically, this area of the Sinai has a history, beginning with the Jewish Exodus, as an important religious center with visible ruins that date back considerably prior to the establishment of the Monastery of St. Catherine.

Of course, anyone visiting the monastery is awarethat it is situated at the foot of Mount Sinai, but there are a number of other locations that are also worth knowing about and visiting in the region.

While any number of other locations have been suggested as Mount Sinai (also known as Mount Horeb and today, Jebel Musa) of the Bible, very old traditions maintain that the mountain that rises dramatically above the Monastery ofSt. Catherine is in fact the true site where Moses received the Ten Commandments. In the valleys surrounding the mountain are also any number of other sites long held to be holy places connected with the biblical story of the Exodus, as well as from later times when biblical figures such as Elijah returned to the mountain (between 900 and 800 BC).

A view from the top of Mount Sinai

It is doubtful that anyone today is aware of the specific evidence that convinced so many very early hermits to establish themselves in the vicinity of Mount Sinai, though oral and other traditions dating much further back probably played a role. By Egyptian standards, the biblical Exodus can be said to have occurred actually rather late in their history, probably between 1,500 and 1,200 years before the time of Christ. There were certainly even then the same race of Bedouins, as well as other Egyptians scattered throughout the Southern Sinai, who would have known about and even had contact with the wandering Jews. It would seem logical that they would have been the ones who maintained the traditions that would later define specific sites as some of the most holy places mentioned in the Bible.

While the earliest ruins we know of in this region of the Sinai date to the 4th century, it is not impossible that earlier religious sites do exist in this rocky, mostly desolate landscape.

Map of the Region around St. Catherine's Monastery

Map of the Region around St. Catherine's Monastery

At Mount Sinai, a long flight of 3,700 steps, hand hewn from the stone by the monastery monks, leads to the peak of the mountain. Writing in the 4th century, Etheria explains that in his time the stairway extended only part way up the mountain, and perhaps this early section of the stairway was carved out in the 4th century, but their origin, and exactly when they were built is lost to us. Records of the monastery reveal that they were completed by an anonymous monk under the patronage of Emperor Justinian in the 6th century.

The ancient chapel  dedicated to Elijah below the summit of Mount Sinai on Elijah's Basin

The stairway is known as the "Stairs of Repentance". Mount Horeb is of special importance by reason of the "Peak of the Decaloque". A church consecrated to the Prophet Elijah was built on this peak during ancient times, and Ephraim the Deacon in the 4th century records theexistence of twelve chapels on the slopes and summit of Mount Horeb.

The Gate of Confession on Mount Sinai

Along the stairway one passes a number of historical sites. For example, the first significant one is known as the Spring of Symeon, where Saint Stephen supposedly baptized Jews so that they could pass through the Shrive Gate further up on their way to the Holy Mount. However, prior to reaching the Shrive Gate (The Gate of Forgiveness or Gate of Confession), one passes by the White Washed Byzantine chapel about halfway up the mountain known as the Chapel of Our Lady of the Steward (Oikonomissa). Still further up is Elijah's Gate and beyond that, Elijah's Basin. Here on a sandy surface, is an ancient well and below the well, a Byzantine dam built to prevent flood damage to the Monastery. There is also the chalky white Church of Elijah, which is built over a stone beneath which Elijah is said to been sheltered when he spoke with God (I Kings 19:1-18). Here also, about 200 meters from the other church at the neck of the basin is the Church of Saint Stephen, which is believed to mark the cave where Saint Stephen lived. His cloaked, 6th century remains are now in the ossuary at the Monastery.

At the top of Mount Sinai, a church was built on this site very early, possibly in the 4th century, and rebuilt later under Justinian on plans by the architectStephanos. Today, only the foundation of the old church remains, which was fairly large, measuring 21 meters in length and 11.5 meters wide. In 1933, a small chapel dedicated to the Holy Trinity was raised over part of the ruins of the Justinian church, and there is also an ancient mosque built on the peak.Both of the newer structures were built partly from blocks of the older church.

The Chapel at the  top of Mount Sinai

The alternate path up the mountain is by camel, and it too passes by a number of interesting sites. The camel path up Mount Sinai begins just behind the monastery and leads up to just short of Elijah's Basin.

Some distance up this path leads past a small mountain or hill known as Jethro's Mountain or Jebel El-Muneijah. This is the site where Jethro and his daughters were supposed to have lived when Moses first came to Mount Sinai. On its summit is a small white church dedicated to Saint Theodore the Commander and Saint Theodore the Tyro (Recruit), both martyred Roman soldiers.

This path continues to twist its way up the mountain until almost reaching Elijah's Basin, but looking about on the way up, one can discern other sites on nearby mountains.

The hermitage of St. Episteme near the Monastery of St. Catherine in the Egyptian Sinai

Opposite the Monastery, on the Mount of St. Episteme, also known as Jebel el-Deir, are a hermitage and a chapel dedicated to St. Episteme, as well as a cave in the name of St. Galaktion.The monastery is located about half way up the mountain. To the south of these structures and east southeast of the Monastery is another small monastery known as Magafa, which is nestled amid date palms and Byzantine walls.

To the north of the Monastery of St. Catherine leading to the northwest is Wadi el-Deir, along which the road to the monastery runs. The stone ruins just to the north of this road as one approaches the monastery date only to the mid 19th century. They are the barracks built for Abbas Pasha's soldiers and workers.

The Chapel of the  Prophet Aaron

A little further north and close to the village of St. Catherine is Aaron's Hill, Here, there is both a Christian Church and a Muslim Shrine. According to tradition, the Golden Calf was set up and worshipped on this hill.

Just to the north of the hotels of the village is the Plain of El-Raha, meaning resting place, where supposedly Aaron and the Israelites made the golden calf while Moses was on Mount Sinai.

The chapel  honoring the Birth of the Virgin Mary at Bustan

To the south of the hotels is a location known as Bustan, where there is a chapel honoring the Birth of the Virgin Mary. Southwest of this is an environmental center and nearby is the convent of the 12 Apostles.

Further south along the Wadi el-Arbaein, that lies on the opposite side of Mount Sinai from the Monastery of St. Catherine, is the Chapel of the Prophet Moses and next to it is a stone wall which encloses the "Rock of Moses". Monks relate that this rock relates to the time of the Exodus and is described in 1 Cor. 10:4.

Still further south along the wadi is the Monastery of the Forty Martyrs, surrounded by a green belt of olive, cypress and poplar trees. This monastery was built during the 6th century in honor of the forty Christian martyrs, Roman soldiers, who died at Sebaste in central Turkey. In the garden of the monastery is the chapel of St. Onouphrios, who is said to have lived for seventy years in the rock shelter at the northern end of the garden, until he died in the late 4th century AD.

Another route just to the south of the hotels at the village of St. Catherine leads into the Wadi Shrayj, which later connects to Wadi Ferrah further to the south. Here, not far south of the hotels are rounded walls, niches and shelves and tiny doors that make up typical Byzantine stone dwellings. One can also see traces of ancient water systems or conduits that are typical of the Byzantine era. A bit further south up this wadi are more Byzantine ruins and a few ancient Nabatean structures that date from between 200 BC and 100 AD.

The chapel  dedicated to St. John Climacus

About five miles from the Monastery is the well known Valley of Thola, where one finds preserved to this day a cave and chapel that were the retreat of the celebrated St. John Scholasticus, perhaps better known as St. John Climacus after his renowned work. In the same area is a dependency of St. Catherine's Monastery known as Saints Anargyroi.

Map of the  Southern Sinai

In the same general area near the Monastery but beyond Mount Sinai is the Mount of St. Catherine, where there is a chapel dedicated to St. Catherine on the site. Traditions hold that the Saint's body was found. Mount Catherine is the highest in the SinaiPeninsula, towering some 8,700 feet above sea level. The mountain is not difficult to ascend and its peak offers a magnificent view south to the Red Sea and Gulf of Aqaba.

Somewhat further away to the northwest of the Monastery is the famous Wadi Feiran.(Wadi Faran) which is actually the largest oasis in the Sinai. It once had the privilege of being the See of the first Bishopric of the Sinai Peninsula. The latest excavations at Feiranhave brought to light the foundations, the floor and the ruined wall of the ancient church and annexes. This was the place mentioned in Genesis 21:21 as the site where Hagar dwelt withher son after Abraham sent her away.Today, there is a fine and interesting convent, as well as other sites with historical significance in the area.

The ruins of the  ruined basilica at Wadi Feiran

A little north of Wadi Feiran is Wadi Mukattab, also known as the Valley of Inscriptions, which has Byzantine graffiti.

Present day El-Tor is not much visited by foreign tourists, but this is ancient Raitho where, during the time of the Roman emperor Diocletian, the Holy Fathers of the Sinai were massacred by the Blemmyes of Africa. Not much is left here, but a letter addressed by the Abbot John Hegoumenos of Raitho to "John the most worthy Hegoumenos of Mount Sinai" has survived. From this we learn that at the time of the Abbot John there was a lavra (a group of hermit dwellings) at Raitho. Today, one can still see the ruins of a monastery built by Justinian, and thereis also a more recent monastery with a splendid church and a guest house.

Interior of the  Church of St. George at El-Tor (ancient Raitho)

Here, we have concentrated mostly on religious sites, though we have not mentioned every chapel even in the region around Mount Sinai, as there are a number of other sites that are difficult to place. Furthermore, it should be mentioned that there are various mines, quarries, pharaonic ruins, and more modern sites, as well as natural wonders in this region that are beyond the scope of this description. For example, Serabit el-Khadem, which has mines and a temple is within the Valley of Inscriptions.

Exterior of the  Church of St. George at El-Tor (ancient Raitho)

Egypt's Southern Sinai in and around the Monastery ofSt. Catherine is a wonderful place to experience Christianity's roots, as well as biblical sites dating back to the very foundations of Judaism. Taking a few extra days to explore the region may provide surprising finds in this land that continues to hold gems of hidden beauty and wonder.

See Also:

See Also (Related to St. Catherine's Monastery)

Resources:

Title Author Date Publisher Reference Number
Christianizing the Roman Empire A.D. 100-400 MacMullen, Ramsay 1984 Yale University Press ISBN 0-300-03642-6
Monastery of St. Catherine, The Papaioannou, Dr. Evangelos Undated Unknown None Stated
Sinai and the Red Sea Beecham, N. Undated Unknown None Stated
St. Catherine's Monastery Paliouras, Athanasios 1985 St. Catherine's Monastery at Sinai None Stated

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