While vacationing in the resorts of Egypt on the Sinai Peninsula, tourists have the opportunity to see one of the world’s oldest Christian monasteries and “touch” the history of the Old Testament. To do this, you need to go on an excursion to the monastery of St. Catherine.
Attention! Since August 2020, restoration work has begun at the Monastery of St. Catherine. The completion date for the work has not been determined. Now (September 2021) the work is not finished yet. While some buildings may be closed. In addition, the monastery may be closed on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Come from Monday to Thursday, so you will definitely get inside.
Where is the monastery and how to get here
The monastery is located at the foot of Mount Moses in the center of the Sinai Peninsula. It is best to come here as part of an organized tour, although you can also get there by taxi. The trip will cost around 700 Egyptian pounds one way.
See a map of Sinai with resorts, airports and attractions.
Taxis in Egypt are quite cheap, but the distance is long, and it turns out that only a one-way trip to the Monastery of St. Catherine is more expensive than a full-fledged excursion for one person. If you are a four of you, then a taxi ride becomes profitable.
Traveling on your own has some advantages, but we’ll cover that later. Now let’s stop on the excursions.
You can visit the monastery during several excursions. The most popular is a trip to Mount Moses, and tourists visit the Monastery of St. Catherine “in addition”. If you are resting in the resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, then the price is from 25 to 50 dollars.
This excursion has a big drawback, because you will see the monastery after the night ascent to Mount Moses and descent from it. At this moment, tourists are already very tired, and to watch the monastery there is no longer any strength or mood.
The second excursion is a combined trip to the monastery with a visit to the Dahab resort. If the monastery of St. Catherine is your main goal, then choose this option. The price is also between $ 25 and $ 50.
Who is St. Catherine and the history of the monastery
Those tourists who are far from religion say that they have not heard of this saint. In fact, almost everyone has heard about her, they just do not remember.
Remember the film “D’Artagnan and the Three Musketeers” with Boyarsky in the title role. Remember the girl Kat’s song: “Saint Catherine, send me a nobleman”? This is the very Saint Catherine of Alexandria, who in many Christian traditions is the patroness of marriage and family. For tourists with family problems, this excursion is recommended first of all. We also recommend to residents of Yekaterinburg, because St. Catherine is the patroness of the city.
Catherine lived in the late third and early fourth centuries in the Roman Empire. She was a very educated woman and converted to Christianity. In 305, Gaius Maximinus became the Roman emperor, he began to persecute and cruelly deal with all Christians. Rather, it is more active to persecute and more cruelly to crack down on than his predecessors.
The Romans forced her to renounce her faith, but they did not achieve anything. She was persuaded, kept in prison, tortured, but nothing helped. The wife of the emperor tried to convince her, but Catherine converted her to Christianity. For Catherine, they made special instruments of torture in the form of wheels, but they were destroyed by an angel.
Emperor Gaius Maximinus executed his wife, one of his generals and his soldiers, as Catherine converted them all to the Christian faith. After that, he offered Catherine to become his new wife, but she refused. Catherine was beheaded. Catherine’s body disappeared, the angels carried him to Mount Moses.
And after that, the clergy are surprised: why are more and more people turning away from the Christian faith? This is not surprising, in almost every Christian story someone is crucified, beheaded, tortured to death, or killed in some other way.
The chapel appeared on this place a very long time ago; it is mentioned in the stories of the traveler Egeria in the 4th century. Later, during the Byzantine Empire, in the 6th century, a monastery was built by order of the Emperor Justinian.
The most interesting thing is that the monastery initially had nothing to do with the relics of St. Catherine, and it was called the “Monastery of the Transfiguration”. It was built around another Christian shrine – the “Burning Bush”, which we will talk about a little later. After the construction of the monastery, the monks climbed Mount Moses and found the relics of St. Catherine of Alexandria.
The Arab conquests took place in the 7th century, but the monastery was not destroyed. The prophet Mohammed himself bestowed his protection on this place, about which the corresponding letter was issued. A copy of it is still kept in the local museum, while the original is in Istanbul, Turkey. However, the period of Arab rulers’ reign left an imprint on the monastery – in the 10th century one of the chapels was rebuilt into a mosque.
The monastery has remained intact to this day. Nothing has changed here, except for the gate, which was hollowed out in the fortress wall. Previously, it was possible to get inside only on a special lift, the remains of which can be seen on the northeastern wall.
Now the monastery of St. Catherine is not only an ancient monument, but also a repository of ancient books, scrolls and icons. Also, there are shrines associated with the life of the prophet Moses. This place is sacred to both Christians and Jews.
How the excursion goes and what to see
The first thing that amazes tourists is the mighty walls of St. Catherine’s Monastery. Fortunately, the monastery was never besieged by large enemy armies. The walls were created to protect against local nomads. During the Byzantine Empire, a permanent garrison of soldiers was on duty here, but in subsequent eras, the monks themselves were engaged in the protection of the monastery.
What to see – Burning Bush
The main attraction inside is the Burning Bush. It is a thorn bush that played a large role in the Old Testament of the Bible.
Let us recall this story. The Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, where they were forced to hard work and oppressed in every way. At one point, the Egyptians began to kill the male Israelite babies. One of the women gave birth to a son and hid him for three months. When it was no longer possible to hide it, she put it in a basket and let it down the river.
The basket was caught by one of the Pharaoh’s daughters and took the child to her, calling him Moses. When Moses grew up, he saw the overseer beat a Jew. Moses killed the overseer, but was forced to flee and go into exile.
On the way, Moses stopped at a well. The girls came to the well to water their sheep, but other shepherds began to drive them away. Moses stood up for the girls, for which their father sheltered him. Moses stayed with these people and soon married one of these girls.
One day Moses was tending the flock and saw a very strange phenomenon – a bush of thorns was burning, but did not burn. He came up to see this miracle and heard the voice of God from the bush. God ordered Moses to take off his shoes, and then ordered him to go to Egypt to free his people from slavery.
This bush, which burned but did not burn down, is called the Burning Bush. It was near this bush that the first chapel was built, and then a monastery was rebuilt around it. The chapel was rebuilt into a large temple.
What to see – the well of Moses
We mentioned a well near which Moses met seven girls. This well is now located on the territory of the monastery, and tourists also watch it during the excursion.
From the moment of construction to the present day, it is the main source of water for the inhabitants of the monastery. Of course, he already looks completely different than during the life of Moses.
Strange, but there are no legends about the miraculous properties of water from this well. We are talking about official sources. The guide can tell you any “fable”.
If we are talking about Egyptian guides, then it is worth mentioning the peculiarities of their work. They tell the story so that tourists are interested, and the problem of reliability is considered insignificant. We advise you to be careful and not take all their words “for granted.”
What to see – Basilica of the Transfiguration
This temple was built on the site of a chapel back in the 6th century. There are many interesting things for tourists here, but the most important thing is the mosaic of the Transfiguration and the relics of St. Catherine.
The vault above the altar is decorated with stunning mosaics that have survived from the foundation of the temple from the 6th century. In the 20th century, it was cleaned and restored by American specialists.
Many tourists do not notice this mosaic, as it is covered by a part of the iconostasis. You need to walk forward through the temple to look at it.
Several unique icons are also kept in the Basilica of the Transfiguration, but we will not talk about them in detail. This is a topic for articles on religious sites, and our site is for tourism purposes. Just walk, look, everything is very beautiful.
The basilica contains three elements from the relics of St. Catherine. The finger of the martyr is always available; it lies near the icon of St. Catherine on the left side of the church.
The other two parts are much more difficult to look at. They are kept in two silver caskets at the altar. These beautiful caskets were donated to the monastery by Emperor Alexander II. The first casket contains the hand of the Great Martyr Catherine (pictured on the right), the second contains her skull. The skull is almost completely covered with cotton wool, and only a small part of it is open. The hand is fully open and decorated with rings and bracelets.
The relics are opened on Saturday after the liturgy, and tourists do not see them on excursions. Remember at the beginning of this article we said that traveling alone has its advantages? This is the first advantage.
The second advantage is the opportunity to visit the local museum, which is also called the “gallery of icons”, where ancient icons and scrolls are collected. Tourists also do not look at it on excursions due to lack of time, and more often because of the desire of the guide to get rid of you as soon as possible.
All other buildings in the monastery are closed. Do not forget that this is still a functioning monastery, respect the private and spiritual life of the monks. Icons and other religious items can be bought at the local store, thereby supporting the monastery financially.
The monastery is open from 9-00 to 11-45 from Monday to Thursday.
On Friday, the opening hours are from 10-45 to 11-45 (the museum is completely closed for visitors).
On Saturday working hours – from 9-00 to 11-45.
On Sunday the monastery is completely closed.
Also, during religious holidays, the monastery is closed to tourists.
– To negotiate with taxi drivers, see the official rates. From Sharma a good price – 800 pounds in both directions, from Dahab – 500, from Nuweiba – 450, from Taba – 750.
– The monastery is located in the very center of Sinai, and it is hotter here than on the coast. The most comfortable way to travel here is in winter. In summer, don’t forget to protect yourself from the scorching sun. Details in our articles “What to take to Egypt” and “Dangers in Egypt”;