The Physical Components of the Monastery of Saint Catherine in the Sinai of Egypt

The Physical Components of the
Monastery of Saint Catherine in the Sinai of Egypt

John Watson

A view of St. Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai of Egypt

The physical components of the Monastery of St. Catherine vary considerable in age, dating from the 6th century right up to the present day, though most structures in the monastery enclosure are older. For example, the newest structure within the compound itself is probably the north wing, built in 1951 to house the Library, the Icon Gallery and the new refectory for the monks, as well as the apartments of the Archbishop of St. Catherine. The bell tower is somewhat older, dating to the 18th century. Most other buildings are considerably older. On the outside of the compound, the visitor's center is a fairly recent addition.

The Walls

Drawing of the old and current entrance in the walls of the Monastery

To protect the numerous monks who had settled around the Burning Bush, and to withstand the attacks of marauding Bedouins and many others who at one time are another attempted to assault the monks then living in caves and simple huts, Justinian's builders under the direction of the architect, Stephanos of Aila (Elath), constructed a fortress of such monumental design that its walls stand little changed after fourteen centuries, except for the northern expanse which was damaged several times, and last repaired in 1801 during Napoleon's Egyptian expedition.

This is how people once entered the Monastery of St. Catherine

The fortified enclosure of the monastery is built of rectangular hewn blocks of hard granite. The ground plan of the enclosure is somewhat off-square, with sides measuring 75 meters on the west, 88 meters on the north, 75 meters on the east and 89 meters on the south. The height of the walls varies from 8 meters on the south, to 35 meters on the north. The thickness of the enclosure ranges from 2 to 3 meters, mostly depending on the space that was needed for towers, crypts and such. The south wall of the enclosure, which is adorned with ancient cross symbols and other stone carvings, faces Mount Sinai, and is the best preserved.

The structure's ancient gate, with a machicolation above it to strengthen its defense (from which boiling oil could be poured down on attackers), is on the west side of the fortress. Today, it is closed and another old entrance is used instead, which is just left of the ancient entrance. This entrance is secured every night by three iron-bound doors.However, at some points in the monastery's history, apparently all of the doors were sealed up, and entrance was made through a lift, which was also used to haul up supplies.

A design in one of the walls of the monastery

The cells for monks and other structures were built along the inner sides of the fortified enclosure. The irregular and sloping ground was leveled by constructing solid arches and barrel-vaults, upon which the dwellings and other buildings were raised.

The Ancient Church

Plan of the main church in the Monastery of St. Catherine

Plan of the main church in the Monastery of St. Catherine

The Monastery's main church (Katholikon), usually referred to as the Church of St. Catherine (Katherine), was built at the same time as the walls and also of massive granite blocks. Work on it was begun in 542 AD, and completed nine years later. The Older church of St. Helena, dedicated to the Burning Bush, was incorporated into it.

The Primary Church of St. Catherine and the Bell Tower

It is a three-aisled basilica with a central nave, a narthex and Apse, located at the northern end of the compound. It measures 40 meters in length and is 19.20 meters wide, including the chapels it incorporates behind the sanctuary apse. The church's walls and pillar, the roof and the inscriptions are from the period of Justinian. The ancient roof is presently covered by a ceiling dating to the 18th century. The floor, the interior decorations and the current Iconostasis date to the 17th and 18th centuries.

The wooden doors of the church entrance are 1400 years old. Above them a Greek inscription reads, "This is the gate to the Lord; the righteous shall enter into it" (Psalms 117:21). They were elaborately carved by a Byzantine artist, using cedar wood from Lebanon. The doors contain four parts, with reliefs of animals, birds, flowers and leaves. The doors of the Narthex were made by the Crusaders in the 11th century.

There are actually nine chapels incorporated into the Monastery's Katholikon. Along ech of the aisles are three chapels and the vestry. There are two additional chapels on either side of the apse, and behind it is the Chapel of the Burning Bush. Other chapels include that of St. James, of the Holy Fathers slain at Sinai and Raitho, of St. Marina, of Saints Constantine and Helen, of St. Antypas, of Saints Cosmas and Damian, of St. Symeon the Stylite and of St. Anne. The Naos proper of the Katholikon measures 25 meters in length and is 12 meters wide. The naos is divided into three aisles by colonnades of six monolithic granite columns, each carrying a different capital adorned with crosses, flags, lambs, plants and fruit motifs. hence, there is a column for each month of the year, and above each is a Byzantine icon portraying the saints venerated during the particular month.

Inside the Katholikon, the main church at the Monastery of St. Catherine

During the 18th century, during the time of Cyril of Crete, who was Archbishop of the Sinai, the old wooden roof of the Katholikon was covered with a horizontal wooden coffered ceiling, which was painted blue and decorated with a multitude of golden stars. The side walls are pierced by two rows of windows, including eight double arched windows and seven rectangular ones. The level of the holy bema is higher than that of the nave. The templon separating these two areas of the church is composed of marble panels below and a wood carved iconostasis above, reaching to the ceiling with the so-called Lypera (icons of the Virgin and St. John standing on either side of the Crucifx). The iconostasis dates to 1612 and was made in the Monastery's dependency of Crete at the time of Archbishop Lavrentios.

Plan of the Moanstery of St. Catherine in the Egyptian Sinai

Plan of the Moanstery of St. Catherine in the Egyptian Sinai

The surviving inscriptions recording the names of Justinian and Theodora indicate that the fortress and church were built in 557 AD, after the death of the empress. This date is indirectly confirmed by the writings of Cosmas Indicopleustes, who lived in the the Sinai Peninsula before 548 AD, and mentions the monastery at Phran but not that of Mount Sinai. There are inscriptions found on the roof beans, on the carved doors of the naos and on the lintel of the outer portal of the church that record Stephanos of Aila (Elath) as the architect of both the fortress and the church.

Inside the Katholikon, the main church at the Monastery of St. Catherine

Other Chapels

There are actually twelve other chapels within the Monastery. Of these, the most important is the Chapel of the Burning Bush, which is situated behind the sanctuary of the Katholikon. Aetheria, a 4th century pilgrim from Spain, tells us of his visiting this site:

"We had to advance deep into the valley for there are many hermit cells and a shrine at the site of the Bush. The Bush is verdant to this day. This is the Bush of which I have spoken earlier, the one from which God in a flame of fire spoke to Moses. The Bush is in a very beautiful garden in front of the Church"

The Chapel of the Burning Bush honors the Annunciation to the Holy Virgin. This is conveyed by "the Virgin of the Burning Bush", an icon that represents the Mother of Christ seated within the Burning Bush and holding her Son, with Moses worshipping barefooted on the left. A mosaic cross of the 10th century decorates the apse of the chapel.

A view of the Moanstery at night

The holy alter of the chapel stands not upon the sacred remains of martyrs, which is usual, but above the roots of the Burning Bush. The Bush flourishes several yards farther from he chapel where it was transplanted in order to build the Alter upon its roots. It is said that this is the only bush of its kind growing in the entire Sinai Peninsula, and that every attempt to transplant a branch of it to another place has been unsuccessful.

A monk striking the wooden semantron (talanton) with one of the bells in the background

Pilgrims enter the chapel without shoes, in remembrance of the commandment of God to Moses, "Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground" (Ex. 3:5).

A few other notable chapels include that dedicated to St. Stephens, which also contained the Archbishop's old quarters, and the Chapel of St. Antonius.There are also chapels dedicated to the five Martyrs of Crete, to St. John the Baptist and to St. George.

The Bell Tower

Built in 1871, the bell tower contains nine bells of different sizes that were a gift of the Czars of Russia. The tower itself was built by a monastery monk named Gregorius. The bells continue to be rung for services on Sundays and feast-days, whereas the wooden semantron (also known as talanton), which predate the bells, is struck for Vespers and Matins.

Old Refectory

The Old Refectory

The Old Refectory is actually one of the most interesting structures in the compound. This oblong hall with pointed Gothic arches preserves stone carvings with Frankish inscriptions and coats-of-arms, symbols of the Crusader knights. The small conch is decorated with a 16th century painting showing the Hospitality of Abraham, in which the three angels symbolize the Holy Trinity. A monumental composition, dating to 1573, of the Last Judgment covers the entire surface of the wall. The long narrow wooden dining table, placed in the middle of the hall, was made and carved in Corfu, in the 17th century.On it are carved representations of angels and flowers in rococo style. It was here, during a more distant past, that the monks eat with the Archbishop at the head of the Table.

Gallery of Icons

A small, but select part of the Monastery's vast collection of icons is displayed in the Gallery of Icons. Of the some 2,000 icons in the monastery's collection, covering some 15 centuries, less than 100 were chosen for their unique artistic value to be exhibited in the gallery. They represent, in a historic and stylistic sequence, all the trends and techniques of Byzantine art.

A monk in the Library of St. Catherine's Monastery


Considered one of the largest and most important of its type in the word, the library contains a rich collection of 4,500 manuscripts, mainly Greek, but also Arabic, Coptic, Syriac, Slavonic and others. The regrettable story of one of the most precious manuscripts in the world, the Codex Sinaiticus, is well known. This mid-4th century Greek text of the Holy Scriptures was officially borrowed in 1859 by the German scholar K. van Tischendorf on behalf of the Czar of Russia, but it was never returned. In 1933, it was purchased by the British Museum, where it is kept to this day. This text, from which the modern King James version of the Bible was translated, is one of those artifacts that should be returned to its rightful owners.

A page from an old illuminated manuscript

Many of the manuscripts in the collection are illuminated with rare and fine miniatures. In addition to the manuscripts, the Library contains a considerable number of printed books. About 5,000 of these are old editions, some of which date from the earliest days of the art of printing. The Library has been organized in a scientific method and is equipped with laboratories for the conservation and the microfilming of manuscripts. Both the Library and its archives are at the disposal of scholars engaged in special studies.

Other Structures within the Compound

Other than the Monk's dwellings located in several areas along the walls of the monastery, there are is also an Olive press and several wells, including that known as Moses' Well, and another named St. Stephen's well. There is also a hospice and other administration facilities.

Moses' Well in at night

There is also a small mosque, doubtless built to placate the early Arabic rulers of Egypt and the local Muslims who served the monks, that dates to about the 10th or 11th century.

The Garden and Orchards

The gardens and orchards of the Monastery are outside its enclosure, and are a true oasis in the desolate landscape of granite rock. The garden extends as a long triangle into the desert. It is very old, having been mentioned, for example, by Aetheria in the 4th century, as well as other ancient writers. It is the work of the monks, who tirelessly brought the soil from far off, and made tanks to provide irrigation water by trapping rainfall and the melting snow that flows down from the mountains. Today, vegetables, decorative plants and flowers are grown on soil that the monks carried in, as well as olive trees, delicious apricots, plums and cherries.

Skulls 1400 years of monks contained in the Charnel House

In the garden is the small cemetery with the Chapel of St. Tryphon and the Charnel House. The scantiness of earth does not permit permanent graves, so the monks buried in the cemetery are later exhumed and their bones placed in the ossuary. The remains of archbishops are kept in special niches. The Charnel House also serves a spiritual purpose. The site of the piled bones makes both monks and visitors meditate on life and death, on the vanity of human and earthly matters.

One of the oldest skeleton is that of a hermit named Stephanos, a 6th century monk who is now dressed in the black vestments of a monk with a white cross on hi cap. He is said, by John of Climax, to have lived on the holy mountain of Sinai for many years in a lonely dwelling, where he struggled on behalf of monasticism and was a man of many virtues.

See Also:

Our Monastery of St. Catherine Home Page

A History of St. Catherine's Monastery In Egypt's Sinai

The Icons of the Monastery of St. Catherine

The Physical Components of the Monastery of Saint Catherine

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

Gallery of Artifacts in the Monastery of St. Catherine Collection






Reference Number

Christianizing the Roman Empire A.D. 100-400

MacMullen, Ramsay


Yale University Press

ISBN 0-300-03642-6

Monastery of St. Catherine, The

Papaioannou, Dr. Evangelos



None Stated

Sinai and the Red Sea

Beecham, N.



None Stated

St. Catherine's Monastery

Paliouras, Athanasios


St. Catherine's Monastery at Sinai

None Stated


Last Updated: June 22nd, 2011