The Sinai

Saint Catherine’s Monastery (A Quick Guide)

Credit: BiblePhileTim

In the heart of the Sinai Peninsula, at the foot of Jebel Mousa/Mount Sinai, Saint Catherine’s Monastery is the oldest-running Christian Monastery in the world. It is also the home of the world’s oldest operating library.

When the monastery was founded, it was called the Monastery of the Transfiguration. Since then, it has been called the Monastery of the Burning Bush, The Monastery of Elijah, the Monastery of Saint Catherine, and the Monastery of the Sinai. Today it is officially known as the Sacred Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai yet is usually referred to as Saint Catherine’s Monastery.

The Monastery is said to have been built on the site where the LORD spoke with Moses from a burning bush about fulfilling his promise to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, to bless their descendants and make them into a blessing for the whole world.  It was also the place where Elijah ran to after challenging the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel and being threatened with death by Queen Jezebel.

An old painting of history at Saint Catherine's monastery
Artwork depicting the life of the Monks at Saint Catherine's Monastery
Painting of burning bush at saint catherines monastery
Moses shepherding and encountering the LORD in the 'Burning Bush' at Mount Sinai

The library at Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai, is one of the oldest and most important libraries in the world. It contains thousands of manuscripts from the early Christian period with translations in twelve languages.

Saint Catherine of Alexandria

Saint Catherine of Alexandria is a saint who is revered as a courageous martyr and a virgin. She was born into a noble family in the early 4th century CE and converted to Christ at an early age. She is said to have been very devout, a brilliant scholar, philosopher, and a powerful apologist who debated with pagan intellectuals. Catherine is said to have been martyred by the Roman Emperor Maxentius after she converted a group of his philosophers and refused to marry him.

Catherine was considered one of the fourteen saints who were venerated for their powerful intercession for illness and distress in the mediaeval period. She is the patron saint of scholars, philosophers, and young women.

During the 7th century, Saint Catherine’s Monastery offered refuge to Christians fleeing from the Muslim conquests that were sweeping across the region.

The Library at Saith Catherine’s

The library at Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai, is one of the oldest and most important libraries in the world. It contains thousands of manuscripts from the early Christian period with translations in twelve languages. These documents cover many subjects such as theology, philosophy, medicine, science, history, and literature.
A monk at Saint Catherine's monastery handles a manuscript.
A monk at the library

The Codex Sinaiticus 

One of the most famous manuscripts found at the Monastery is the Codex Sinaiticus, written in the 4th Century. It contains the complete text of the New Testament, the Pentateuch, and the Psalms. 

The Codex Sinaiticus was discovered at St. Catherine’s by Constantin von Tischendorf in 1845.  Tischendorf persuaded the monks to allow him to take 129 leaves of the Codex to Leipzig, Germany. In 1859 under the patronage of Russia’s Tsar Alexander II, Tischendorf managed to borrow a further 347 leaves of the Codex from St. Catherine’s library. These he took to Cairo and then onto St. Petersburg. 

In 1933 when Stalin’s government was seeking to raise foreign capital, they sold the documents to the British Library for £100,000, where it can be seen today.

The Codex Sinaiticus displays the great technological breakthrough of writing on leaves gathered in a book, rather than on rolled-up parchments.

The manuscript is known for its exceptional quality and accuracy in preserving the original text and has been used as a primary source for many modern translations of the Bible.

The Syriac Sinaiticus / Sinaitic Palimpsest 

The Syriac Sinaiticus, also known as the Sinaitic Palimpsest, is a late 4th-century, or early 5th-century, translation containing all four Gospels and the book of Acts written in Syriac. 

It was discovered at Saint Catherine’s Monastery in 1892 by two British sisters Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson. Their book Sisters of Sinai is an extraordinary read.

The sisters discovered that the original books had been overwritten in the 6th Century with accounts of female saints and martyrs. The original gospel text was retrieved through the careful use of chemical agents, exposing the original text that can be seen today.

The sinaticus syriac at Saint Catherines Monastery
The original Syriac Sinaiticus can be viewed today in St. Catherine’s Monastery Museum. 

The Monks

The Monastery is managed by the Greek Orthodox Church. The number of monks is limited to 36 including those who live in Cairo and Suez. Some Arab Christians are employed by the monastery alongside Bedouins from the Jabaliya Tribe who act as guards. The abbot is also the archbishop of the Sinai.  He is elected by the brotherhood and consecrated by the Greek Orthodox patriarch of Jerusalem. The monks are generally contemplative. Some of them may get tired from the steady trickle of visitors. 


Each day between one and several hundred people from Egypt and every imaginable nation come to the Sinai and the Monastery as tourists and pilgrims.  The Monastery is usually open from 8am to 6pm except for Sundays and holidays. The museum and church are only open from 9:30am – 11:30am.  In 2002 the monastery became a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Question for Thought:

Though the Syriac Sinaiticus and a copy of the Codex Sinaiticus are displayed, the tour guides rarely explain their importance and significance to the tourists who pass by each day.

What would it take for Egyptians to own the Codex Sinaiticus and Syriac Sinaiticus as national treasures and to teach their children and tourists about their story and significance?

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