I and my former editor-in-chief traveled 230 kms to St. Katherine’s Monastery last year to uncover the secret between two religions thriving within its stone fortress. Upon arriving at the entrance of the monastery, a large pack of tourists were waiting in line to go through a narrow entrance cut through granite walls. Without much difficulty, we were able to squeeze ourselves inside; whereas had we been alive during the 18th century, we would have entered through the wooden elevated gate by rope and pulley.
At the foyer is a white rectangular Fatimid Mosque and the church’s bell tower. On the surrounding of the mosque are inscriptions stating that Prince Anoshteken Al-Amer built the Mosque in 1106 for Caliph Al-Amer Be Ahkam Allah as a shelter for pilgrims journeying towards Mecca and as protection for the Monastery. While the door of the Mosque has been locked since its completion, the keys to it are nevertheless held by the Jebeleya (mountain people) Bedouins as their rightful honor, as well as to use in special occasions. It is interesting to know that not only do the Bedouins call for their own prayers, but they also ring the church bell for the Christian masses.
Immediately past the Mosque is the doorway of the Church of Transfiguration. Built by Emperor Justinian in 557 AD, the Byzantine church transmits a sense of strong devotion and faith of the Greek Orthodox monks to the Almighty for securing the church’s esteemed interior and important relics safe and preserved from obstructions of the last 15 centuries. Around its monolithic marble columns are some of the monastery’s chief icons, such as impressively carved thrones of past patriarchs and bishops, the most-prized gold-etched mosaic of The Transfiguration of Christ on the apse above the main altar, and to its right-hand side, the crowned skull and left thumb of St. Katherine of Alexandria, which were found on Mt. St. Katherine during the 9th century.
No monks were visible inside the church yet, not until noon when all 25 of them gather in daily mass. Hoping to find a monk whom we could talk to, we exited through the southern end of the church and climbed up the wooden staircase to the Icon Collection.
At the reception area, we met Father Nilos, the monk responsible for over 2000 great treasures displayed in the Icon Collection from the 6th to 9th century AD. However, since he was not authorized to answer unsolicited questions, he suggested us to wait inside the church for Father Porphyrios, the Guardian of Treasures.
We retreated to the main grounds, stopping shortly in front of the Burning Bush, which is currently undergoing restoration. The site believed to be the backdrop of Moses’ historical conversation with God contains a lush bush, enclosed with a high stoned wall and a fence, also standing as a witness to the pilgrims who have prayed and written their wishes on rolled-up papers stuck through its crevices.
Back inside the Church of Transfiguration, we found Father Porphyrios surveying the precious nave with his Egyptian assistant. He approached us as we neared the nave and was kind enough to answer our questions regarding two diverse religious sites existing inside the monastery. His assistant translated his Greek reply for us, stating that “We live in harmony with the Jebeleya Bedouins who come and work with us, as well as with other Muslims visiting our monastery because of the respect we give to both religions. We also have in the Icon Collection a covenant written by the Prophet Mohamed recognizing the significant practices of both as different forms of worship to the same God.”
The kind monk then led us to an area further away from the Church. Much to our surprise, the area that we were shown into was the vault of skeletons. The Charnel House, which is now restricted to tourists, holds the skeletons of monks and bishops that have been exhumed from the cemetery. It stores each skeleton part in separate piles and the bishops apart from the monks. But its main attraction is the skeleton of a 6th century monk, Stephanos crunched inside a vertical glass casket with a purple robe and cap and long nails sticking out from his boney fingers. He was believed to have stayed in contemplation on Mt. Sinai in the years prior to his death in 580 AD. His corpse was later found on the holy mountain preserved by Sinai’s dry cool climate.
Having accomplished our goal and meeting a friendly monk who showed us something we had only read about in books, we took off for another 2 ½ hour-scenic trip back to Sharm El Sheikh.
The Monastery is open Monday to Thursday and on Saturday from 10:00 to 11:30 am; on Friday from 10:45 to 11:45 am. Admission is free.