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Saint Catherine’s Monastery

Listed under Monasteries in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt.

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St. Catherine’s Monastery is remarkable not only for being the oldest Christian monastery still in use for its original purpose, but also for housing an exceptional collection of manuscripts, icons, and other works of art. It is reached by road in three hours or less from most of the beach resorts on the eastern coast of the Sinai including Sharm El Sheikh, Dahab, Nuweiba and Taba. A popular excursion consists in departing in the middle of the night in order to embark on a three-hour climb up Mount Sinai and admire the sunrise before visiting the monastery.

The monastery is a rather compact walled compound surrounded by gardens full of fruit trees, vegetables, and medicinal plants. The first sight, the Charnel House, is guaranteed to make a lasting impression with the skeletal remains of monks it contains. Their skulls are piled up high on one side, while archbishops get special alcoves on the other side. In the Basilica of the Transfiguration, also called Saint Catherine’s Church, the remains of the Alexandrian martyr Saint Catherine rest in a marble coffin (except for her head and hands, which were placed in separate sarcophagi on either side of the Holy Altar). Visitors exit through St. Helena’s chapel, which is dedicated to Moses’ Burning Bush. The bush in question—or its descendant—was transplanted outside where it can still be seen.

The Sacred Sacristy and Museum’s collection of manuscripts and early books is second only to that of the Vatican Library. St. Catherine’s remote location preserved its relicts from destruction at the hands of the iconoclasts, a fate that befell many artefacts in less protected sites. A 6th century encaustic painting, parchments and early codices from the 7th to the 17th centuries, and liturgical objects decorated with enamel, stones, pearls and silver gilt from the 9th to 16th centuries can all be seen. Tapestries as well as post-Byzantine sacred vestments worn by priests during the sacred office are also displayed.

The monastery is open year-round Monday through Thursday except on religious holidays.

Written by  Francoise Ohayon.

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