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
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
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
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
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.