St. Catherine's Monastery

Mount Sinai, the Holy Monastery of Sinai and its surroundings. Paper printed icon, 1727/1736, Venice, private collection. Private collection

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A place of divine revelations, an ark of relics, a field of ascetic struggles, Sinai has been attested as a pilgrimage center since the fourth century. In 362-3, Saint Julian Saba, “making trod the untrod desert”, reached the Holy Summit and dwelt there, praying in stillness.

The sites of the Holy Bush (Exodus 3, 2), enclosed in the fortress of Justinian’s Monastery in the sixth century, of the Giving of the Law at the peak of Mount Sinai (Exodus 19, 18), and of the cave where God consoled the prophet Elijah (III Kings 19, 12), have formed from the outset the core of a pilgrim itinerary, based on the sojourn of the Children of Israel as recorded in the Old Testament.

Apart from the Mother of God “of the Burning Bush”, and of the prophets Moses and Elijah, hymnography attests also to the veneration of Saint Catherine – the bride of Christ from Alexandria, third patron of the site in sequence – that had been established in the Monastery of Sinai since at least the year 800. The topography of the Sinai pilgrimage had gradually widened, to include both the ascent to the summit of Mount Saint Catherine (where, according to tradition, her incorrupt body had been deposited prior to its translation to the Monastery of Sinai), and the visit to hermitages, such as the caves of Saints John Climacus and Onufrios. The veneration of Sinai Martyrs, such as the couple Galaktion and Episteme, and the Holy Fathers of Sinai and Raithou, and of local saints, among them the abbot Georgios Arselaites, also contributed to the enrichment of the pilgrimage tradition of Sinai.

The desert of Sinai itself has been the indisputable attestation for the divine revelations and the miraculous events which had taken place in the area. The monastic communities that initially lived in proximity to the Burning Bush, and from the sixth century till now have been residing in the monastery that Justinian built, have uninterruptedly until today preserved intact and, above all, maintained these shrines.

Greek, Armenian, Georgian, Slav, and Arabic-speaking Christian pilgrims have highlighted, over the years, the imperishable fame of the shrines of Sinai, honored by the other Abrahamic religions as well. Evidenced by written sources (mainly pilgrim accounts and guides), represented in works of art depicting the landscape of Sinai, documented by inscriptions and graffiti. Sinai pilgrimage is furthermore considered by scholars as one of the several channels through which objects that comprise the ecclesiastical inheritance – such as icons, manuscripts, vestments, objects of ecclesiastical metalwork, and the minor arts in general – have reached the Monastery of Sinai.

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