Al-Ahram Weekly Online   9 - 15 April 2009
Issue No. 942
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Builder and persecutor

AMIDST raids, looting, and murder by Justinian's troops in Egypt, the emperor gave orders in 530 for Egyptian builders to be sent to Sinai to construct a fortification to protect the original chapel built by St Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, on the site of the Burning Bush. He despatched Wallachians from Bosnia to serve the monks as servants and guards, and it is certain that he also sent his finest craftsmen to construct a large new basilica, the Church of the Transfiguration. We know this because foundation inscriptions in Greek on three of the wooden beams of the nave of the church bear the names of Justinian, Theodora, and the architect Stephanos.

Here is an impressive example of Byzantine ecclesiastical architecture and adornment, and the vault of the apse above the altar is adorned with the monastery's greatest treasure, an astonishing sixth-century mosaic. It is today totally obstructed by chandeliers and a gilded 17th-century iconostasis, but originally it would have been visible for the full length of the nave of the church. It is one of the earliest and most beautiful mosaics of the early Christian period, and is similar in style to that in the Church of Haga Sofia in Constantinople. The figures stand out in exquisite shades of blue, green and red against a background of dull gold glass. The central theme is the transfiguration of Christ witnessed by the apostles Peter, James and John in the presence of Moses and Elias. Around the central group are 30 roundels portraying John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary, Old Testament prophets, and New Testament evangelists and apostles. Two angels hover above.

The monastery, isolated and dwarfed by the massive peaks of South Sinai, gained international importance when St Gregory of Tours, patriarch of Antioch from 570 to 589 served as a monk there, and later St Gregory I the Great (540-594) sent a letter to John, the spiritual leader of the monastery at the time, offering to provide furniture for a rest house for pilgrims and travellers, at a time when Egyptian Christians were being hounded by imperial forces, and churches and monasteries raided -- it was the very moment in history when the Coptic Orthodox Church was founded and was establishing its own style and identity.

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