After taking the flights from Dubai to Cairo and from Cairo to Sharm El Sheik, and then the 2½ hour drive into the barren Sinai desert surrounded by equally barren and rugged hills, my one thought made me feel guilty: If the Israelites wandered 40 years in this, no wonder they grumbled.
But with a destination like St. Catherine’s monastery, it was worth every effort. There is no other place on the planet you can visit that transports you as far back into redemptive history. For here we have the place where, second only to the incarnation itself, God made Himself most clearly known – first, through a burning bush on the side of a mountain and then, later, descending in power and glory on to the top of the mountain itself to write His law onto stone tablets for humankind.
The construction of St. Catherine’s was commissioned by the Byzantine emperor Justinian in 530, though Christians had been coming there to escape persecution or as anchorites in pursuit of a monastic life, since the 300s. It was built as a result of its proximity to Mt. Sinai, but also to protect Christians in the area and what is purported to be the bush that drew Moses to his first encounter with the living God. It is very much like a castle, with high walls and a fortress-like appearance. Mt. Sinai itself is just behind the side of the mountain on which St. Catherine’s is built, reached by a winding trail behind and to the left of the monastery. The trail to the top is often taken by pilgrims at hours of the day that allow reaching the top by sunrise or sunset. Local Bedouins eagerly offer camel rides to those less inclined to make the long walk, particularly the final 3,750 Steps of Repentance carved by monks.
The famed bush (whether the actual one or not) is certainly there. It lies within the oldest part of the monastery in a small, roped-off courtyard at the end of a narrow walkway. Intriguingly, it appears dead on the bottom but alive on top. It looks something like a large hanging plant. I’ve been told that its age has been determined to be in the hundreds of years, and that no cutting from it will take root. I won’t comment on the bright red fire extinguisher in the corner next to it.
The oldest and most sacred part of the monastery is the small chapel built next to the bush, the Chapel of the Burning Bush, which dates back to the 4th century. It is filled with icons (it is an Orthodox monastery) and hanging candle lamps with ostrich eggs on top. I’ve never seen anything quite like them; they are truly beautiful. St. Catherine’s is also home to an incredible library, closed to the public, but second only to the Vatican in terms of treasures and ancient manuscripts, particularly iconography. While I was there, I was able to see on display two of its treasures: the “Christ Pantokrator” and the “Codex Sinacticus.”
The Christ Pantokrator dates back to the first half of the 5th century and is the classic picture of Christ that dominates ancient Christianity and, to this day, Orthodox faith.
The Codex Sinaiticus, which dates from the mid-4th century, is among the oldest manuscripts of the Bible and the source for modern translations to this day. The one I viewed is thought to be one of the 50 sent to Constantine, who likely donated it to the monastery upon its founding. The original codex, considered at the time to be the only copy, was taken by the Russian entrepreneur Tischendorf in 1844 and 1849 under dubious pretenses through trusting monks, who then sold it to the British Library in London where it remains to this day. Certain folios were found later by the monks but, needless to say, they continue to want their codex back.
You may wonder how St. Catherine’s has survived with all of its treasures, particularly as a Christian stronghold in the midst of the heart of Islam. Thank Mohammed himself. The monastery is protected by the “Patent of Mohammed,” which Mohammed granted to the monks in 623 giving it rights and privileges in perpetuity. A copy of the patent still hangs prominently in the monastery to this day.
This is why I was so concerned to learn of an attack last week by a group of gunmen on a checkpoint on the road near St. Catherine’s. One security officer was killed and four others were injured. The Islamic State group has since issued a statement claiming responsibility.
It seemed part of a coordinated series of attacks on Christians, coming just over a week after suicide bombers attacked churches on Palm Sunday in the Nile Delta city of Tanta and the coastal city of Alexandria, killing 45 people.
If so, it signals a shift away from lashing out at the West in general and toward Christians in particular.
Perhaps the Patent of Mohammed will prevent attacks on St. Catherine’s Monastery itself. I will certainly pray to that end.
But my larger prayer is for those Christians who do not live within its walls, and seemingly have little or no protection at all.
James Emery White
James Emery White, A Traveler’s Guide to the Kingdom (InterVarsity).
Jane Arraf, “Gunmen Attack Popular Religious Tourism Site in Sinai,” NPR, April 18, 2017, read online.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.