Al-Ahram Weekly Online
3 - 9 January 2002
Issue No.567
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

A lily in the wilderness

St Catherine's monastery in the Sinai, one of the most important centres of Orthodox monasticism, celebrated 17 centuries of uninterrupted asceticism last month. Iason Athanasiadis attended the event

St Catherine's monastery with Mount Horeb in the background from a nineteenth century lithograph
There is a repetitive, forlorn beeping whose shrill, electronic whine pierces the desolation of the place. Every few seconds, whenever someone enters or leaves the still monastery, the metal-detector's alert punctuates the howl of the wind sweeping across the bleak Sinai wadi. The drifting cadences of the feast-day liturgy mingle with the wind, as they have down the centuries.

Beyond the confines of the monastery's four walls lies the rocky plateau that runs down to the Watia Pass. The scenery is breathtaking: a harsh and waterless landscape out of which gigantic reddish-hued rocks thrust in untidy protuberances that grasp upwards to the misty sky. The gorges extending in between these silent behemoths are arid wastes that continue for miles, half-enveloped by the jagged shadows cast by the afternoon sun. Elsewhere, hills sculpted out of sheer stone plunge into over-lapping sand dunes. And in the distance, the mountains merge into jagged two-dimensional lines whose shadows criss-cross along the horizon.

The landscape of Mount Sinai lies beyond the comprehension of modern urbanites, those city-dwellers who descend upon it in loud and busy droves. They attempt to impose a different conception of time in a place where the passing of a century is but a blink in the ocean of eternity. As one monk remarked: "We have here the luxury of existing in a timeless vacuum. Life is only the brief interval between being separated from and re- united with our Creator."

This is the splendid isolation that was recently invaded by a remarkable coming-together of patriarchs, religious dignitaries, politicians, art-lovers, academics, and representatives of private charitable foundations. St Catherine's monastery in Sinai hosted, between 6 and 9 December, the celebrations marking 17 centuries of monasticism in the peninsula. A mix of academic, cultural and religious events vied for the attention of the assemblage, with the organisers striking a fine balance between academic discourse, entertainment, sightseeing and events of a more religious nature. Overall, perhaps, the most significant event for the long-term direction of the monastery was the opening of the renovated Treasury.

In a four-year collaboration with New York's Metropolitan Museum, St Catherine's has completely revamped one of its buildings, turning it into one of the more remarkable collections of art to be housed in Egypt today.

The Treasury houses a uniquely precious collection of Byzantine art whose beauty and importance is all the greater in that it spans 16 centuries of artistic activity. Only 150 icons, out of a collection of more than 2,000, have received the Metropolitan Museum's expert attention. Each icon a treasure in itself, they date from the late 5th century to the 16th, and cover most styles of icon- painting in currency -- from early Coptic, Greek, Georgian and Syrian to a rare 14th century Catalan icon of St Catherine in the Gothic style as well as a collection of works by the acclaimed 16th century Cretan school.

The baffling diversity of styles is testament to St Catherine's enduring presence on the pilgrimage trail. The monastery has played host to the devout since the dawn of monasticism and, in return, its visitors bestowed upon it a collection of ecclesiastical and devotional art that is characterised by Archbishop Damianos, St Catherine's abbot, as "a Noah's ark of early and Byzantine Christian art." St Catherine's plays host to the three earliest surviving Greek icons as well as to a Charles VI era chalice whose rarity centres around the fact that it was one of the precious few royal relics to survive the ravages of the French Revolution. In addition, the monastery contains the greatest collection of Middle Byzantine art.

According to Helen Evans, the Metropolitan Museum's curator of Byzantine and medieval art and a member of the team that collaborated with the monastery in setting up the Treasury, the collection shows that the orthodox world retained artistic greatness even after it was systematically looted during the fourth Crusade. Furthermore, it shows that it has held on to icons that subsequently went on to influence Italian art in the late 13th century. This is yet another piece missing from the jigsaw puzzle of the current civilisational debate and indicates that cultures are not monolithic and inflexible creatures, but subtly intertwining and reacting entities. Just as the scientific and philosophic derivatives of Islamic culture were a great contributing factor to the European Renaissance, so has Eastern Christianity proven a fertile ground for artistic inspiration in the lands of the former Roman Empire. This came about through the uniquely cosmopolitan nature of the pilgrims visiting the Sinai and the attendant cross- fertilisation of different styles of ecclesiastical art that were diffused between them.

Some things never change and amongst these are the visitors who have come to Sinai since it first gained its reputation as a centre of pilgrimage. The crowds continue to pour in today, especially after the building of the Ahmed Hamdi tunnel under the Suez Canal, linking Africa with Asia, gave the region greater accessibility. With more than 1,000 visitors a day in peak season, the monks have a hard time concentrating on maintaining their commitment to asceticism. As Archbishop Damianos says: "We are driven to distraction every day from 9am when we open our gates until midday when they are shut. We have three types of tourists visiting us: there are the devout, there are art lovers who come to see us for our treasures, and there are those who come because they consider a daytrip to St Catherine's to be the cultural part of their beach holiday -- they are the worst kind."

Undeniably, one of the attractions of St Catherine's is the reputed miracle-working character of its environs. All participants at the conference were given, amongst other mementos, a tuft of white, cottonwool-like substance which inexplicably grows from the preserved head of St Catherine. It gives off a sweet smell and is reputed to have healing qualities. The monks claim that the Burning Bush, from which Moses received the Ten Commandments, and which was enclosed within the monastery walls, cannot be replanted in any other part of the Sinai. All attempts to move it to other areas have failed. And the Burning Bush has yet another miraculous claim associated with it. The spring which gushes forth at the Bush's base is reputed to guarantee marital happiness for whoever drinks from it. In fact, on a visit made by Prince Charles to the monastery in 1996, both he and the then British ambassador partook of the spring. Just two months later, news started appearing in the press about the ending of his marriage to Diana. Sometimes, it seems, not even a miracle can save an unsuitable match.

The high number of tourists in a space that has not been designed to deal with large crowds forced the monks to apply themselves to the more mundane concerns of how to funnel several hundred tourists, at a time, around the key points of interest, without causing congestion. A ticketing system was suggested but subsequently discarded -- Greek Orthodox rules of hospitality dictate that, since any visitor to an Orthodox monastery could be Christ the Saviour returning in disguise, it is unethical to charge tourists.

Alongside the Treasury, another big draw to the monastery is its library, considered by the Met's Helen Evans to be "pretty consistently the greatest library for Greek manuscripts in the world outside the Vatican." The library contains 3,000 manuscripts, of which two thirds are in Greek, and the rest consists of a bafflingly wide array of living and dead languages: Arabic, Slavic, Syriac, Coptic, Latin, Georgian, Armenian, Hebrew and Ethiopic. The manuscripts extend chronologically from the 4th century to the 19th and, as the Treasury does with ecclesiastical art, present the reader with a narrative of the linguistic progression of the Greek language.

The library contains several first editions of literary and scientific works, something that underlines the importance that Greek Orthodoxy attaches to knowledge and education. It also aimed to continue the educational work of the Alexandrian library in expanding the cultural influence of Hellenism, after the latter burned down. The library's greatest treasure today is the Syrian Codex, dating from around 400AD, and occupying pole position amongst other valuable works since 1865 when a German-Russian researcher, Tisschendorf, borrowed on behalf of the Russian emperor the Sinai Codex, the earliest and most valuable Greek-language manuscript of the Old and New Testament in the world, and failed to return it. It was sold to the British Museum in 1933 for 100,000 sterling and resides there to this day. The next oldest Greek Testament in the monastery's possession dates from 717AD and was a present by the Byzantine Emperor Theophilus. The library also houses more than 5,000 printed books, some dating from the early decades of printing.

The monastery's manuscripts bring to life a vanished world, yet one that is not so different from our contemporary reality. There are accounts of pilgrims' journeys to the Sinai and, although they are arguably more gruelling than contemporary accounts of the taxi-charter- pullman version of the pilgrimage, both older and newer works are infused with the same devotional and descriptive elements, and give out glimpses of a temporal world that is as troubled and strife-riven as our current reality.

Monks returning to the monastery, the patriarchal procession en route to inaugurating the Treasury and the picture of religious toleration -- the minaret rises alongside the church steeple in the very heart of the monastic complex
photos: Iason Athanasiadis

The dazzling artefacts and works of ecclesiastical art that are dotted around the monastery's chapel and Treasury are, at first glance, as out of sync with their environment as with Islam's directive against capturing the human form in art. Their bewitching colours, dazzling gold and silver-plated splendour, and sheer technical intricacy contrast sharply with the muted desert that surrounds them. But the monastery is no bastion of Greek Orthodox chauvinism in the middle of a Muslim ocean, nor do the monks see themselves in this way.

Perhaps what strikes the visitor most about the monastery at first sight are the twin towers of its church steeple and mosque minaret rising in harmony alongside each other. The mosque was built for the Bedouin who work in the monastery to go and pray in and constitutes resounding proof that St Catherine's is an important cultural institution and an inseparable component of Egypt's rich religious heritage. Just as both the intricate array of artefacts in the church and the peaceful and empty spaces of the mosque are both dedicated to the one God of monotheism, so does the diversity within the monastery testify to the possibility of approaching one spiritual goal in different ways.

The monastery's presence in the Sinai, in such proximity to the peak where the prophet Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments from God, renders St Catherine a holy place to all three monotheistic religions. Despite the 1979 peace accord between Israel and Egypt, open borders between the two countries, and the concerted effort which the Israelis put, when occupying the Sinai, into developing the area touristically, Jewish worshipers have decreased sharply since 1982, when the Israelis withdrew. Muslims, however, come often and in large numbers, both to the area in general and the monastery specifically, to honour Moses, one of the prophets mentioned in the Qur'an. Thus, it is not a rare sight to see Muslims, alongside Christian worshippers, venerating the holy site. Equally, it is normal for Christians of all creeds to pray together, whether they are Greek Orthodox, Coptic or Catholics. Dogmatic differences and century-long quarrels are erased before the Sinai's awesome peaks.

This peaceful coexistence was noted by the Archbishop of Athens in the message he delivered to the conference, in which he said:

"St Catherine's monastery, in its 1,500 year presence here, has aimed above and beyond tribes, peoples and religions. At the same time, its monks have aided their fellow-men who, in their majority, have been of foreign descent and religion. We are pleased that this effort is appreciated and recognised by everyone and remain certain that (the monastery's) peace-loving presence will continue to be equally strong in the future and will contribute to the achievement of reconciliation between the peoples of the Middle East, all of whom are the creatures of the same One and Only God."

The monastery's coexistence with Islam is not the only sphere in which it promotes concord among people. There is a sizeable community of settled Bedouin living in the immediate area, the vast majority of whom depend on and benefit from the monastery. From toiling alongside the monks to organising tours and promoting tourism in the area, the Bedouin have benefited greatly from St Catherine's, the very reason which made them surrender their nomadic lifestyle in the first place. In return, they have helped make the desert literally bloom, in the shape of the green gardens and tall cypress trees that shock the first-time visitor with their proud presence in the middle of the desert.

The Bedouin even claim descent from the 200 slave families brought from Alexandria and the Caucasus by Justinian when he ordered the construction of the monastery in order to protect it from brigands and unruly tribes. Thus, despite not resembling modern-day Greeks, speaking only Arabic and being Muslim, the Bedouin claim that they are Greek, and some have even made the effort to learn the language. In addition, they have named one of their villages in the vicinity of the monastery, St Catherine, in direct allusion to where their loyalties and livelihoods lie. Despite being Muslim, they preserve some of the traditions and habits of Christianity. They celebrate the feast of Moses, Aaron, St George and St Catherine, and swear eternal allegiance to the monastery, claiming that, as with their ancestors, they are ready to lay down their lives in its defence.

By lunchtime on the third day, the assembled visitors were beginning to leave. With most of the events having taken place -- the feast day service completed, the Treasury inaugurated, the conference attended and the official meals partaken of -- the large coaches, laden with visitors, began to move their bulky metal frames out of the dusty carpark and make their way back to Cairo or to any one of the airports from which the chartered airplanes were scheduled to depart. The TV technicians loaded their cables into the satellite vans, their female correspondents smoothed back their hair and re-applied their makeup, and several hundred business cards were exchanged. Over it all, the cool December wind whistled through the high gorges and mountain peaks, snapping at the monks' cassocks, as they hurried about their business in the newly-returned calm of the Sinai afternoon.

The visitors and delegations left as suddenly as they had arrived, only with considerably less fanfare -- the pick-up loads of heavily-armed soldiers, several machinegun-toting secret police, 400 visitors and the full splendour and bustle associated with four patriarchal delegations jostling for attention. Their presence faded under the unforgiving peaks. Their shouts, whispers, laughter and gossip drifted through the bleak and rock-strewn mountain scape.

Brief History

St Catherine's monastery, a jewel in the crown of Greek orthodox monasticism, can boast more than 14 centuries of uninterrupted spiritual life. Unlike other monasteries that failed to resist adverse historical currents and were subjected to desecration, pillage and vandalism, St Catherine's has escaped unscathed. It has enjoyed the protection of a succession of temporal rulers -- the emperors of Byzantium, the Umayyads, Abbasids and Ottomans, as well as Western invaders, notably the Crusaders and, in the 18th century, Napoleon's army.

St Catherine's was founded in the 6th century by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian (527-565AD) and flourished in the decades prior to the coming of Islam. According to tradition, the birth of Muhammad and growing influence of Islam in the region led the monks to send a delegation to Medina in 625AD in order to secure protection. The Muslim prophet agreed and signed a document of protection, a copy of which still resides in the monastery and bears the outline of his handprint. It was this document that allowed the monastery's monks to travel freely throughout Muslim lands from the time of the Muslim conquests onwards, without fear of harassment.

The arrival of the Crusaders (1099-1270AD) reopened the blocked land and searoutes allowing access to the monastery from outside the Ottoman Empire, and ended St Catherine's isolation which began with the coming of Islam. Furthermore, a special regiment of Sinai Crusaders undertook to protect the monastery militarily, as well as economically. There remain, to this day, inscriptions in Latin dotted throughout the buildings and other properties.

The Mameluke period proved harsh for the monastery, but times changed for the better with the coming of the Ottomans to Egypt and the Sinai in 1517AD under Sultan Selim I. Not only was the monastery's presence safeguarded, but the respect with which the sultan held the archbishop was imitated by European rulers, prompting a renewal of interest in the monastery and a rise in its endowments from abroad. This led to St Catherine expanding its cultural and educational activity and influence beyond the Sinai so that, by the 17th century, it had founded places of learning in Greece, Egypt, Palestine, Romania, Russia, India and other countries. These Sinai offshoots gradually developed into religious and spiritual centres.

The turbulence caused in Egypt by Napoleon's arrival in 1798 left St Catherine's unruffled. Not only did Napoleon guarantee the monastery's safety in a document that remains in its library to this day, but he also took upon himself to rebuild its fortifications.

The past two centuries have largely been uneventful for the monastery in terms of political strife. St Catherine's geographical isolation, along with the consummate diplomacy practiced by its monks has ensured that the periods that followed -- occupation by the British, independence, the Nasser era, the Israeli occupation and the Sadat and Mubarak years -- have largely washed over the monastery's walls, leaving it unaffected. All this despite the emigration of the large and wealthy Greek communities of Alexandria and Cairo, forced out by the wave of nationalisations implemented by Nasser.

It remains, however, that what all four Greek Orthodox patriarchates have in common today is that the geographical locations they occupy -- Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople and Jerusalem -- have decayed into parochial backwaters in the Orthodox context. The turbulent 20th century, marked by the rise and ravages of nationalism, put paid to the indigenous Greek communities of the Middle East. The Greek-Turkish wars and accompanying population exchanges crippled the Greek communities of Turkey; three Arab-Israeli wars convinced the Greeks in Palestine to make the final and permanent pilgrimage to the new nation state; and Gamal Abdel-Nasser's nationalising socialist reforms wiped out the wealthy Hellenic communities of Alexandria and Cairo.

The erasing of St Catherine's natural constituency of worshippers has led it to reassess its role as an outpost of Greek Orthodoxy in the Middle East. And another source of succour for the region's monasteries is emerging. Wealthy private individuals, Greek and foreign, are increasingly supporting the churches and monasteries of the Middle East, providing financial backing for the repair and sustenance of these living museums of a recent yesterday. Alongside them is the Greek government which also has an interest in seeing Hellenism, in all its forms, preserved in foreign lands. All this is reflected in the Abbot's office by a series of signed photographic portraits of Prince Charles, the Greek president, and the crown prince of Yugoslavia, another Orthodox country.

The opening of the renovated Treasury has extended and diversified the monastery's appeal and added a world-class showcase to match the quality of its exhibits. The monks will surely be hoping that this will not come at the expense of the monastic tradition they have just celebrated.


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