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Mountain of the Lord

Beyond the war zone, Mount Sinai remains a refuge in a landscape of strife

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Behind the bush the monastery looms. Constructed also to function as a fortress at the farthest limit of Justinian’s empire, the monastery’s walls, punctuated with slits for raining arrows down on attackers, are up to 45 feet high and 3 feet thick; they have never been breached. Within this redoubt, monks pray and conduct their services, as they have for almost 1,500 years, surrounded by gifts showered on St. Katherine’s by the pious hands of Justinian, the impious hands of Ivan the Terrible, and scores of other benefactors.

There are resplendent mosaics of biblical scenes, made in the workshops of the imperial palace in Constantinople. A collection of 2,000 icons, the largest in the world, constitutes a living, blazing history of Orthodox Christian iconography. The library, where learned monks copied and illustrated manuscripts for centuries, contains more ancient texts, says Father Justin, “than any other library, except at the Vatican.” Travelers can now view a selection of the most significant books, manuscripts and icons, housed in the refurbished sacristy. This gallery, according to experts, “takes its place among the finest small museums in the world.”

In the entrance corridor of the monastery hangs a copy of a document said to have been dictated by the prophet Muhammad, who once, according to legend, was welcomed here. In it, he enjoins his followers to respect the sanctuary: “If any person violates the protection . . . he foregoes the protection of God.” The Sinai’s Muslim overlords, with few exceptions, have honored the monastery’s inviolability. In return, the monks allowed a mosque to be erected next to the basilica bell tower within their walls during the turbulent 12th-century Crusades.

The monastery’s greatest treasure reposes in a golden casket inside a marble chest. Opened on the holiest of days only, it holds the remains of St. Katherine, who was martyred in Alexandria, Egypt, in the fourth century. Angels, it is said, transported her body to the top of what is now Jebel Katarina, or MountKatherine. According to legend, a monk discovered the remains there in the 11th century; they exuded a sweet-smelling oil with curative powers. In about the year 1025, when the abbot of a monastery in Rouen, France, touched the oil and other relics, his excruciating toothache stopped hurting. Other cures followed, and vast numbers of pilgrims began flocking to the saint’s Mount Sinai shrine.

Because reaching it was almost impossibly arduous—devout travelers faced voyages over seas teeming with pirates, followed by jolting camel rides through hundreds of miles of desert—St. Katherine’s became the most exalted, outside Jerusalem, of Christian pilgrimage destinations. It took, so the saying went, “good intentions, stout heart, ready tongue and fat purse.”

Less than a century after the monastery was built, the armies of Islam, emerging from Arabian deserts, quickly conquered the Middle East, North Africa and, within a hundred years, a portion of Europe. St. Katherine’s was transformed into a windblown outpost in the middle of a vast Islamic sea.

The monks suddenly found themselves negotiating with victorious sultans and their soldiers, making peace with Bedouin tribes and maintaining good relations with potentially helpful Christian potentates a thousand miles away.

Today, the community numbers less than 25, down from hundreds in Justinian’s day, the smallest independent church within the Orthodox union, ruled by their abbot, Archbishop Damianos. “St. Katherine’s remains the most perfect relict of the 4th century left in the world,” says historian Adrian Fortescue. But it does so, as scholar Joseph Hobbs points out, with the help of “a diesel generator, a telephone, a fax, a photocopier, tape cassette stereos and short-wave radios.”

The modern world burst in with a vengeance during the Six-Day War of June 1967, when Israeli forces pushed the Egyptian Army back across the Suez Canal. The victors introduced such amenities as roads and airports. Seaside resorts soon followed. By 1979, some 50,000 visitors a year were arriving to enjoy the beaches of the Gulf of Aqaba.

After the Yom Kippur War of 1973, and the signing of the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel in 1979, the Sinai peninsula was restored to Egyptian control and became an integral part of that country. A well-equipped hospital, new schools, farms and hotels provided jobs, and a commodity the Bedouins, whose economy was based on barter, had little need of before—cash.

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