Among the most stunning and classic features of the Sinai’s rich historical landscape, the Monastery of St. Katherine is a UNESCO World Heritage site that stands in the shadow of Mt. Sinai, in the bottom of a rugged valley. It marks the spot where religious tradition holds that God spoke to Moses from a burning bush. The structure was built some 1500 years ago on the orders of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian; many scholars and historians believe thatSt. Katherine’s is the oldest functioning Christian monastery in the world.
With its high walls and foreboding corner towers, the monastery may look more like a fortress than a religious institution from the outside. Within these walls, however, an atmosphere of sanctity and tranquility unfolds, especially outside busy visiting times.
The most significant building within the monastery walls is the Church of the Transfiguration. This church is home to the Chapel of the Burning Bush, which is considered by many to be the holiest spot in the Sinai and is also the location of the special sarcophagus in which St. Katherine’s remains are kept.
Next door to the church is a small mosque built in the 11th century for Muslim visitors.
The Monastery of St. Katherine remains a working institution and is home to around 20 Orthodox Christian monks who live much like previous generations of their predecessors, building their daily chores around periods of prayer and reflection.
The Bedouin Jebeliya tribe (Arabic for Mountain People) has played an important role in the monastery’s history and survival. Some clans within the tribe claim descent from European Christian soldiers sent to protect the monastery by the Emperor Justinian; and although they converted to Islam long ago, they have remained close to the monks to the present day. Many Jebeliya tribesmen are still employed by the monastery and have guarded it faithfully through recent periods of turbulence, honoring the same vow of protection their ancestors took in ancient times.