St Catherine’s lies below Mt Sinai, on the summit of which Moses received the Ten Commandments. The monastery itself is on the spot of the Burning Bush, where the Angel of God appeared before Moses (a venerated shrub still grows, which tradition has it to be the original bush). A community of anchoretic monks had settled in the area by the early fourth century and the oldest surviving remains are those of a tower, probably erected at the end of that century. In response to the monks’ requests for protection, the Emperor Justinian ordered the construction of the present walls and the church was finished around 550. Justinian also sent mercenary troops to guard the monastery. They intermarried with the Bedouin, and today the local tribe, the Jabaliya, claim to be their direct descendants.
According to tradition, the Prophet Muhammad visited the monastery when he was a merchant in the late sixth century, and, thanks to the generous hospitality offered by the monks, he later promised them protection. In 620 the monastery sent a delegation to Medina, where the Prophet issued a firman confirming their rights (the original document is said to have remained at St Catherine’s until 1517, when it was taken to Constantinople). For nearly five centuries following the Muslim take-over of Sinai in 640, the firman was observed. However in 1106, the monastery came under threat and the monks hurriedly converted their refectory into a mosque, thereby making the site holy to Muslims. This ploy proved successful and the ancient mosque still stands, just a few paces away from the church. Its minaret remained taller than the church, until a campanile was erected in 1871.
The monastery, which was originally dedicated to the Virgin, was renamed for St Catherine after the saint’s bones were discovered in around 800 AD, lying on the nearby summit of Sinai’s highest mountain, where they were said to have been carried from Alexandria by an angel. The remains of her body were then taken down to the church, where they exuded a holy oil. The cult of St Catherine became increasingly popular in Europe, particularly after three of her finger bones sent to Rouen in the early eleventh century produced a series of miracles. Most of the rest of the saint’s body was gradually dispersed, and all that is now brought out for veneration are a small section of her skull and a single hand. These are housed in a pair of ancient silver reliquaries, kept in a tomb near the altar.
Isolated in the desert, and with its own archbishop, the monastery fell outside the orbit of Byzantium and remained a bastion of Christianity in the Islamic world. It therefore was not directly involved in the ecclesiastical schism between Rome and Constantinople in the mid eleventh century. Attracted by St Catherine’s relics, pilgrims made the hazardous journey from western Europe, particularly France, Holland and England. Their donations ensured that the monastery prospered. In 1517, after the Turks conquered Sinai, the monastery strengthened its links with the Orthodox churches of Russia and Greece, with the Czar becoming its major outside supporter. Since the eighteenth century most of the monks have been Greek.
After Napoleon occupied Egypt in 1798 he offered protection to the monks, ordering his general to help rebuild the Justinian walls. Shortly afterwards, Egypt reverted to Ottoman control, but the country was subsequently occupied by the British from 1881 to 1922, with control of the Canal Zone being retained until 1952. Following the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, Sinai assumed great strategic importance, and was the scene of bitter battles during the Arab-Israeli wars of 1956, 1967 and 1973. Sinai fell under Israeli occupation in 1967, forcing the monastery to acknowledge yet another ruler, until, in 1982, the peninsula was handed back to Egypt. As in past eras, St Catherine’s succeeded in preserving its basic independence throughout the twentieth century, while making necessary compromises with a succession of political masters.