Thursday,18 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1375, (4-10 January 2018)
Thursday,18 April, 2019
Issue 1375, (4-10 January 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Restoration at St Catherine’s

The St Catherine’s Monastery Library and Mosaic of Transfiguration have been reopened to the public after restoration, reports Nevine El-Aref 

The library

After three years of restoration work the Library of St Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, considered the second after the Vatican Library in Rome in terms of the importance of its manuscript collections, has been reopened to the public along with the Mosaic of Transfiguration in the main church.

The opening ceremony was attended by Minister of Antiquities Khaled El-Enany, South Sinai Governor Khaled Fouda and St Catherine’s Monastery Archbishop Dimetriose Damyanos.

During the ceremony El-Enany described Sinai as “a source of inspiration that has radiated across civilisations, both regionally and globally”. 

“St Catherine’s Monastery combines Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This is what we could call the genius of Egypt and its reflection of the harmony between its religious components and its great people,” he said.

Mohamed Abdel-Latif, assistant to the minister and head of the Coptic and Islamic Antiquities Sector at the ministry, explained that the conservation work had started in 2014 and been carried out under the supervision of the ministry with funds provided by the monastery. 

It included the development of the eastern side of the library, upgrading the architecture of the library façade, and consolidating and conserving the Justinian Walls dating back to the sixth century CE.

According to Archbishop Damyanos, the sixth-century library houses thousands of centuries-old manuscripts including a hand-written copy of the New Testament as well as thousands of ancient books and scrolls that date back over 700 years.

The restored eastern side of the library, he said, houses the world’s second-largest collection of early codices and manuscripts. “The renovation work has not yet been completed as what has been opened is only the first phase of the project,” advisor to the archbishop Tony Kazamia said.

During the restoration, a sixth-century CE medical recipe by the renowned ancient Greek physician Hippocrates was found. 

The manuscript is a palimpsest written on leather and bears parts of a medical recipe attributed to Hippocrates and three other medical recipes written by an anonymous scribe, one of which contains drawings of medicinal herbs. The second layer of writing on the manuscript is a text from the Bible.

The Mosaic of Transfiguration

Abdel-Latif said that palimpsests were often written on leather and are manuscripts in which several layers of writing are present on top of each other. In this case, the first layer of writing was erased in order that the leather could be used again.

“This was due to the high cost of leather at the time,” he said. The monastery library contains many palimpsests in addition to its 6,000 other manuscripts, among them 600 written in Arabic, Greek, Ethiopian, Coptic, Armenian and Syriac. They are mainly historical, geographical and philosophical, with the oldest dating to the fourth century CE.

Ahmed Al-Nimr, a member of the Scientific Office of the Ministry of Antiquities, said that the Mosaic of Transfiguration that has been newly restored is one of the oldest and most beautiful in the Middle East. It dates to the ninth century and covers a surface of about 46 square metres painted with precious materials such as gold and silver.

The mosaic depicts Jesus and the prophets Elijah and Moses. It is surrounded by 31 medallions containing pictures of other prophets, in addition to two medallions representing Jonah and the Virgin Mary.

Over the centuries, the mosaic has suffered damage from earthquakes and intense visitation by pilgrims from all corners of the world. The Greek Orthodox Monastery of St Catherine, one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world and home of the biblical burning bush, is located on Mount Sinai, the place where God appeared to Moses and gave him the Ten Commandments. 

It has also attracted Christians of all sects who make the difficult journey to see the Bible’s holiest mountain. Mount Sinai is of religious significance to Muslims, who believe that this was where the Prophet Mohamed’s flying horse Al-Boraq descended from heaven. Mount Sinai, also known as Mount Moses, holds an important place in the hearts of all Egyptians.

The St Catherine’s Monastery contains a distinguished basilica built in 530 CE by the Byzantine emperor Justinian on the site of an earlier chapel founded by St Helena, mother of the emperor Constantine the Great. The monastery’s long existence and virtually intact collections of icons and manuscripts can be attributed to the security of its location, tucked away in the barren rocky landscape of South Sinai.

In 2002 the site was placed on the World Heritage List overseen by the UN cultural body UNESCO as a “mixed property, cultural and natural”, meaning that the monastery and the area around it are protected because of their heritage value. The area encompasses some 601 square km within the 5,750 square km area of the St Catherine’s National Park.

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