I am sure that everybody has a special relation to some places no matter how many times he/her visited it. For me, Sinai is one of them.
The Sinai peninsula is one of the most interesting but also strategic places on earth. Here, at the foot of Sinai mountain you will find Saint Catherine’s Monastery – one of the oldest monasteries in the world. Early Christians came here to be far away from the persecutions of the pagan Rome and to find peace, silence and isolation. The Empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, ordered to build a small chapel and tower in 337. The fortified monastery was built 200 years later by order of Emperor Justinian I. The original buildings were included in the plan. The Eastern Orthodox monastery exists till now continuing both its spiritual and cultural roles.
Climb to the top of the mountain
It was already dark when we arrived to the monastery. We did not look for accommodation in the tourist village, we preferred to stay in a simple hostel directly at the monastery site. After all, we knew that we won‘t sleep very long as we intended to climb to the summit of Mount Moses (2,285 m) in the night. This is the Biblical Mount Horeb or Mount Sinai where Moses had received the Ten Commandments.
We started at about 2 o’clock and chose the longer route with switchbacks. At every twist, there were Bedouins shouting: “Rent a camel!”. The ascent took about 2,5 hours and we learned the word camel in different languages during that time. Anyway, even lazy tourists cannot use camels for the last part of the route because there are 750 steps cut into the rock by monks.
After reaching the summit we were rewarded with a beautiful view and sunrise. We were sitting there wrapped in blankets, thick anoraks and sweaters – the absence of the sun was very perceptible. However, the view was really fascinating. The mountains around us were waving like a sea with all shades of brown. The layers near the earth were gray, while the others had rosy, orange and yellow undertones. At the moment the burning sun disc emerged above that brown ocean everything around gained a mysterious atmosphere so we started to believe the summit would quake at least for a while or manna would fall down from the heaven or at least a distant voice of a horn would be heard…
The day was wonderful and sunny while we were returning to the monastery. The clear azure sky stood in contrast to the gold-ochre colour of the mountains. No green stain anywhere.
Although there were some low small bushes here and there, they also had the colour of dry grass. Only coming down to the monastery we could see blossoming apricot, plum and cherry trees in the monastery garden. This real oasis amidst the empty desert is the result of the hard work of monks who tirelessly bring fertile soil from distant places and gather rainwater and thaw snow to use it for irrigation.
In the library of St . Catherine’s monastery
Our small group was led by Father Avxenty, a young Bulgarian priest, who spoke also Ancient Greek. Thanks to him we were allowed to visit not only the traditional sights (Fortress of Justinian, Chapel of the Burning Bush etc.) but also rooms which are not open for ordinary tourists – like the Library which preserves the second largest collection of codices and manuscripts in the world, outnumbered only by the Vatican Library. It contains manuscripts: about 2,000 in Greek, 700 in Arabic, 100 in Armenian, 40 in Slavic languages and one in Latin, some of them even written on sheets of papyrus, and about 8,000 books – mostly in Greek, among them the Syriac Sinaiticus from the 4th century, the oldest translation of the New Testament into Syriac.
It was such an unusual feeling when so far away from my home and from any civilization I showed – under the supervision of Greek priests – my hometown Zolyom (today Zvolen in Slovakia) to my Bulgarian friends on one old map in a dusty book of maps from the 14th century…
Memories are still alive
The strongest experience for me, however, was the moment when we paid tribute to the relics of St. Catherine who had been tortured for her faith and subsequently beheaded. It is said that angels bore her body to the highest peak of Sinai mountain which is now named after her. 300 years later, a monk followed a dream, found her remains and brought them down to the monastery.
Father Avxenty and two other monks took us to a small room behind the main altar. One priest held a vessel with incense, released the fragrant smoke and recited a prayer while the other one opened a chest with a female portrait and took out two small silver shrines. I found everything so unreal: the dim room, the smell and smoke of incense and the monotone voice of the priest. I thought I was in a film… I knew the others from our group felt the same. The monk opened the shrines and we leaned closer for the veneration of the holy Egyptian woman. There was a piece of her cranial bone on a small velvet pillow in the first shrine and her left hand with many golden rings and bracelets in the other one. At the end of the ceremony, each of us was given a small silver ring with the monogram of the saint by the elder monk. After that he stopped by me and with the help of our translator – Father Avxenty – he told me something which caressed my soul…
Coming back to the outside walls we were surprised that one of the towers looked like a mosque. According to the monks’ tradition, in 625 monastery monks sent a delegation to the Islamic prophet Muhammad to ask him for the protection of the monastery. The monastery still has a copy of the Ashtiname of Muhammad – the document which guarantees the protection. It is sealed with an imprint of Muhammad’s hand and is exhibited in one of the galleries. It is even said that Muhammad visited the monastery personally which cannot be excluded as there are holy places in Sinai mentioned in the Quran as well. It is really interesting that Arab caliphs, Ottoman sultans and also Christian rulers – they all had special relationships to the monastery and took it upon their protection. In its 1500-year-history, the monastery had never been conquered or destroyed. Even Napoleon, the most well-known conqueror of Egypt, guaranteed special rights and privileges to the monastery by a proclamation from December 19, 1798, which is also exhibited on a wall of the gallery.
There are places that lodge in our minds forever. For me, one of these places is Sinai and the monastery. I am returning to it at least through the internet. Searching for something not long ago, I found the blog of one of the 25 monks in the monastery community today. Father Justin caught my attention not only thanks to his blog www.fatherjustinsblog.info – a site for posting photographs of the monastery and the area with brief captions or short quotations but also because of the fact that he is a librarian in the monastery library. I could not resist and sent a message through the blog to him. What a surprise it was for me when he almost immediately answered! We started to e-mail and finally, an interview was created from our correspondence. The image of a monk with a long beard sitting in front of a computer somewhere very far away in the monastery library in Sinai and answering my questions was for me exciting the same way as our worshipping the relics of St. Catherine some years ago.
You were born in Texas, lived in Chile until the age of nine, and after that in El Paso. How does a native American find himself in an Eastern Orthodox monastery in the Sinai desert? What led you to this decision?
I didn’t go from El Paso, Texas, to Sinai, in one big step. There were lots of little steps. But even in El Paso, I read the account of Moses and the Exodus in the Bible. I saw Cecil B DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, which contains scenes filmed at the traditional Sinai, with Charlton Heston climbing up the mountain, and walking along a ridge with the Sinai range in the background. Also, El Paso is a desert. I used to wander in the desert for hours and came to love the stark beauty of the desert landscape. All of this was in the background when I began to read about the history and the theology of the Orthodox Church. I also read the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, the first Christian monks. Included among these texts are sayings by the monks of Sinai. At Sinai, the sense of a living historical continuity is overwhelming. Egeria visited the area in 383 and described a flourishing monastic community at the place where the monastery now stands. The central basilica was constructed in the year 550. At every service, we commemorate „the founders of this sacred monastery, the Sovereigns Justinian and Theodora.“ At Sinai, we become a part of this heritage and carry it forward in our own time.
I visited the monastery and its library over 20 years ago, at a time when there were neither mobile phones nor the internet. Many things have changed since then. You – for example – have your blog…
Our family lived in Chile from 1951 to 1957. During all of that time, we only called the United States once, because international telephone calls were so difficult to set up and so expensive. Today, we communicate easily with anyone around the world. I can photograph a manuscript, and send it to a scholar over the internet. He can download it in a few minutes. There is a huge amount of information on the internet. This can be helpful, but it can also be distracting. In the past, monks would go to Sinai for the isolation and the silence, and in the midst of that isolation, in the midst of hardships and deprivations, they reached great spiritual heights. Today we must find a way to preserve and continue that spiritual heritage, and try at the same time to communicate it in a world that has become so interconnected.
Do you find it a privilege to work as a librarian in this special library? What tasks do you have?
The library at Sinai is the natural depository of those books that were needed by the monks. This includes the scriptures, services, books of sermons by the Church fathers, books of inherited spiritual wisdom, and medical texts. A few of the manuscripts are splendid works of art from Constantinople, with gilded letters and breathtaking illuminations. But most of them are simple texts, created where it was difficult to find the parchment, the wood for the binding. The pages are stained from long use. Each manuscript has its history and its story. We must take care of each one as a special treasure.
When qualified scholars have received permission to come to study the manuscripts, it is my task to retrieve the ones they need. At other times, I must photograph the manuscripts, to make them available to those who cannot visit in person. We will soon be finished with the renovation of the library, and it will be my job to move the books and manuscripts into their new quarters. We will have better facilities for the study of the manuscripts, and for their digital photography.
A library is an institution where you can read and borrow books. Whom or what purposes does your library serve?
The Sinai library is exceptional for those who want to study the text of the scriptures, the history of the services, the bindings of the ancient manuscripts (they are in a great variety of styles), to list but a few of the typical areas of research. The manuscripts must be studied at the monastery. And it requires special expertise to benefit from the manuscripts. They are written in a variety of languages, in scripts that are sometimes difficult to decipher. I learn a lot from the specialists who come to Sinai, and who explain the nature of their research, and why a particular manuscript is important to them.
What is the most important exemplar in the library and why?
We have such a variety of manuscripts, written in many different languages, at different times, that it would be difficult to select one as the most important example. Of special interest, of course, would be the tenth-century Codex Theodosianus, a lectionary written in Constantinople. It has seven brilliant illuminations, and each letter on each page is executed in gold leaf. It is a splendid work of art. I have been able to study a few of the manuscripts on my own. A favorite is Sinai Greek Two, a manuscript of Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus, with patristic commentary in the margins. The commentary is drawn from a great variety of authors and seeing how they interpreted the text, how they understood the significance of the text, is very fascinating.
Preservation of the books and maintaining the library must be expensive. How do you finance it?
We have an advantage in that the climate at Sinai is very dry and stable. This has had a lot to do with the preservation of the manuscripts. Another has been the fact that the monastery has never been destroyed or abandoned in all its history. We are completing the renovation of the building. This has been funded by the Saint Catherine Foundation, which consists of affiliated foundations in London, New York, and Geneva. There is a need for funds to complete this work, as we begin with the renovation of the west wing, which will include a seminar room and workrooms for conservation. We are also expanding our program for the digital photography of the manuscripts. All of this requires funding. We pray that we will be able to find the funds, to allow these important projects to go forward.
How do you protect the Monastery and its library in these difficult times when Islamist extremists destroy many cultural monuments? I know that the Monastery was protected by a special decree of the prophet Muhammad, do you think it still holds force today?
In our own times, libraries have been intentionally destroyed by extremists who want to eliminate any record of a heritage that differs from their own. Libraries have also been the casualties of protests and riots. We would be wrong not to take these developments seriously in our responsibility for the library at Sinai. We are completing the renovation of the building in which the library is housed. This has features that make the building more secure. Sinai has been a place of peace between differing faiths. The peaceful relations between Christians and Muslims extends back to the Prophet Muhammad himself, who dictated a letter safeguarding relations between the two. This was confirmed by subsequent rulers. In recent years, there has been much interest in these documents. They address the issues of peaceful relations that are so much needed in the world today.
Text: © Copyright Ingrid, Travelpotpourri
Our thanks to Father Justin for his comprehensive answers and pictures.
More info about the monastery: here
The shorter version of this article was published in the Slovak daily SME in December 2016.