Monastery a must-see for Sinai visitors

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MOUNT SINAI, Egypt -- The recent visit of Pope John Paul II to Egypt turned the spotlight on St. Catherine's monastery, located deep in the interior of the southern Sinai Peninsula at the foot of Mount Sinai, which towers 7,495 feet above the desert plain.

Built at the order of the Emperor Justinian in A.D. 537, this walled complex of church, chapels, orchards and dormitories was originally created as a bulwark against Muslim influence.

A lamplighted chapel rests on the site of the Burning Bush, where God is said to have spoken to Moses.

The chapel, with its Oriental carpets, walls of faience tiles and precious icons, is the holiest place in the monastery and a spectacular natural setting for priceless works of art.

St. Catherine's art treasury is superb and vast, and its collection of illuminated manuscripts is the second largest in the world, after the Vatican's. While most manuscripts are not viewable by visitors, dozens of the brilliant icons are, although dimly lighted.

Also on display is a startling chamber filled with the skulls of monks, piled up high over the centuries. Once there were some 300 monks in residence here, but the number has dwindled to about 20 holy men.

The monastery even has a small 10th or 11th century mosque, built to appease the Islamic authorities of the time.

The St. Catherine desert outpost is not only a place of pilgrimage for the Pope, his followers and other Christians, but a favorite day-excursion for visitors staying at Red Sea resorts or an overnight excursion from Cairo via Taba on the Gulf of Aqaba.

Additionally, there are fine lodgings near the monastery, and many guests set their alarm clocks for 3:30 a.m. in order to make the climb up Mount Sinai to catch the sunrise on the mountain where Moses is supposed to have received the Ten Commandments.

For believer and skeptic alike, the view from the top is spectacular.

For more information, contact the Egypt Government Tourist Offices in New York, (212) 332-2570; Chicago, (312) 280-4666, or Los Angeles, (213) 653-8961. The tourist office Web site is at www.touregypt.net.

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