04 May 2004

Web’s literary pilgrims find
oasis in iconic desert monastery

Letter from Sinai
Patrick Comerford

Despite the rapid growth of tourism in Egypt and the development of resorts such as Sharm el-Sheikh, the Sinai Peninsula has long been a remote region. It takes six or seven hours to travel from Cairo to Saint Catherine's Monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai, and for generations the Sinai Desert remained the wilderness it must have been when the Children of Israel trekked through here for 40 years after they fled across the Red Sea.

Today, the Sinai Peninsula continues to command the spiritual awe of followers of the three main monotheistic faiths, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. On Mount Sinai, God spoke to Moses through the Burning Bush and gave him the Ten Commandments, here Elijah hid in a crag in the rock, and here Muslims believe Muhammad was a visiting trader prior to the beginnings of Islam, perhaps even visiting Saint Catherine’s Monastery.

Saint Catherine’s Monastery, dating to the fourth century, is the principal tourist attraction in the desert.

“We have three types of tourists visiting us,” the monastery’s abbot, Archbishop Damianos, recently told the Greek journal Odyssey. “There are the devout, there are art lovers who came to see our treasures, and then there are the worst kind – those who come because they consider a daytrip to Saint Catherine’s to be the cultural part of their beach holiday.”

For many visitors, the monastery is the starting point for a daunting three-hour climb to the 600-metre summit of Mount Sinai. The daily trek, led by Bedouin camel drivers, sets off before 3 a.m. so climbers on the rough, steep path are saved from the burning sun. Later in the day, the monastery is open to tourists only for 2½ hours, from 9.30 a.m. to noon, and remains closed on Fridays, Sundays, and all Greek Orthodox holidays.

Egypt was once the intellectual and spiritual powerhouse of the early church, and the dogmatic debates in Alexandria helped produce the Creeds. But Egypt also gave Christianity the Desert Fathers and the monastic tradition.

In this remote corner of the Christendom, the monks of Saint Catherine’s continue to value the desert silence but are also acquiring some of the benefits of 21st-century technology.

The most visible legacy of the Desert Fathers at Saint Catherine’s is a unique library and collection of icons, textiles and religious artefacts. The Icon Gallery includes rare sixth-century icons that survived the ravages of the iconoclast controversy in the eighth and ninth centuries. The library includes 3,500 bound manuscripts, 2,000 scrolls and fragments, and more than 5,000 early printed books, of an age and linguistic diversity matched only by the Vatican Library.

In the monastery library, Father Justin explains that the most valued treasure was once the Codex Sinaiticus, dating from the fourth century. It was “borrowed” in 1865 by a visiting German scholar, Constantin Tischendorf, who promptly presented it to the Tsar; Stalin sold it for £100,00 to Britain in 1933, and the codex now rests in the British Museum. Fifteen missing folios were found in the monastery’s north wall in 1975, leaving the monks with part of the oldest existing copy of the New Testament.

The library also proudly retains a copy of the achitames – a document with the imprint of Muhammad’s hand, guaranteeing Saint Catherine’s protection under Islamic rule. In AD 635, the monks of Mount Sinai sent a delegation asking for Muhammad’s patronage and protection. The request was granted and was honoured when the Muslims conquered the Sinai in 641. Later, in 1009, the mad Caliph al-Hakim built a mosque within the monastery walls, with an unusual qibla pointing towards Jerusalem rather than Mecca as the direction for prayer. The monks continue to keep open the only mosque to survive within the walls of a monastery, and Father Justin describes it as one of the “many examples of tolerance, respect and affection” between Christians and Muslims in Egypt.

The monks admit they would find it difficult to survive without the support and kindness of their local Muslim neighbours. The local Bedouin, from the tiny Jabiliyya tribe, claim descent from 200 Greek soldiers brought by the Emperor Justinian from Alexandria and Thrace to fortify and guard the monastery in the sixth century.

Although they are Muslims, Father Justin says they join in many of the monastery festivals and look to the abbot, who is also Archbishop of Sinai, as their community leader, protector, judge, and even as their “grandfather”.

The Church of Sinai is the smallest self-governing Christian denomination in Egypt – its only members are Archbishop Damianos and his 25 monks, who have come mainly from Mount Athos and other parts of Greece.

But despite their long history and their tiny numbers, the monks are planning for the future of Saint Catherine’s. With the support of international donors, the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Courtauld Institute in London, they are assessing the state of the library collection as part of a programme of refurbishment and conservation.

Father Justin points out that without this outside help, the resources of the monastery would have been overwhelmed by the task of safeguarding its treasures. The droves of tourists may disturb the morning peace of one of the most isolated monasteries in the world, but the west’s generosity has brought benefits too.

In the calm of the Sinai afternoon, Father Justin is busy digitising the ancient scrolls, manuscripts and books. “Our goal is to digitally reproduce the entire library,” he says without betraying any tiredness.

Once again, thousands of ancient manuscripts will be available to modern scholars, but this time without the threat of theft or misappropriation.

This feature was first published in ‘The Irish Times’ on 4 May 2004

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