The word Sinai has been variously derived from the Semitic word sen, meaning “tooth”, in reference to the numerous mountain peaks of the area, or to the word sin, the goddess of the moon venerated in prehistoric times. Diodorus Siculus derives the name of Mount Serbal, in the area of Pharan, from the name of Baal. Jethro, the priest of Median, worshiped el-Elyon, God Most High.
Mount Saint Catherine is the highest point in the Sinai peninsula, reaching a height of 2,646 meters. One begins the ascent to the peak from the Chapel of the Forty Martyrs (Arbain), from where it is a four hour climb to the summit. The peak is surmounted by the Chapel of Saint Catherine, which is adjoined by two cells and a small kitchen area for the aid of pilgrims. From the summit, it is possible to view the Red Sea and the distant mountains of mainland Egypt.
The mountain to the north of the monastery derives its name from Saints Galakteon and Episteme, who lived in asceticism at Sinai before their subsequent martyrdom in the reign of the Emperor Decius (250-252 AC). The hermitage dedicated to their memory is a small complex with a chapel of that period, two cells, and a kitchen area, located some forty-five minutes from the monastery. From the complex, the pilgrim has a commanding view of the summit of Sinai opposite.
Modern visitors reach Sinai by the road that passes from Cairo through Suez. The road passes through Ras Sudr, the place where Moses turned the bitter waters into sweet. It continues through Abu Samina and the Valley of Wadi Garandil to Abu Rudeis, where the road divides. The road to the south leads to el-Tur (ancient Raitho), and on to the modern resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh. The road to the east passes by Mount Serbal and the Oasis of Pharan, and from there to Tarfa, and the Monastery of Sinai. In earlier times, it was also common for pilgrims to reach the monastery from Jerusalem, traveling south through Joppa (modern Jaffa) or Gaza, and from Eilat, down to coast of the Gulf of Aqaba, and then west to the Monastery of Sinai.
The fortified walls surrounding the monastery enclosure were constructed in the 6th century at the command of the Emperor Justinian. The architect was Stephanus of Aila, which is modern day Eilat. The walls provided the monks with protection from hostile forces that would cross the area, and enshrined within the church built at the site of the Burning Bush. The height of the fortress wall varies from between ten and twenty meters, while its thickness varies from between two and three metres. The north wall of the monastery was badly damaged in 1798, and repaired by French soldiers at the time of Napoleon Bonaparte.
The great basilica of the Transfiguration was begun in AD 542, and completed nine years later. It incorporated the site of the original Chapel of the Burning Bush. The catholicon is a three aisled basilica that faces exactly east. It has a narthex at the western end, and a spacious apse at the east. The large four-leaved doorway at the entrance to the nave has been preserved from the 6th century. On these is carved the same verse from the Psalms that is carved over the entrance into the monastery, “This is the gate of the Lord, into which the righteous shall enter.”
The Chapel of the Holy Bush is the most ancient shrine in the monastery, and it was around this site that the first community of Sinai anchorites gathered. The bush was mentioned by Egeria, who came to Sinai in 383-384 AC. The chapel is standing at the eastern end of the great basilica. Pilgrims enter this most holy place without shoes, in keeping with God’s command to Moses.
North of the catholicon there is preserved to this day the well at which Moses met the seven daughters of Jethro, as it is recorded in the scriptures (Exodus 2:15-22). The water is used by the community to this day, by means of a pump.
When the original refectory was transformed into a mosque in the 11th century, a new refectory was built, to the east of the basilica, adjoining the ancient kitchen area in the northeast corner of the monastery. The arches of this structure were constructed from limestone blocks, and the lower reaches are covered with coats of arms and inscriptions in Latin, French, and German, the record of pilgrims who came from the West during the time of the Crusades and in the centuries subsequent to that time. Quite a number of these have been identified by modern scholars.
The mosque is located inside the monastery, just to the west of the catholicon. The structure was modified in the eleventh century. Originally it seems to have served as the monastery refectory. It is composed of three parts, with access between the three areas by means of large arched openings. In the course of recent renovations, under the plaster there were found crosses carved into the crowns of the arches.
The area adjoining the fortress walls includes the monastery garden, which to this day is used to grow fruits and vegetables for the sustenance of the monks. The cultivation of such an extensive garden in this arid and hostile climate is a witness to the dedication and labour of the monks. Water drawn up from the ground is held in cisterns, from where it is distributed to the trees and plants.
The Holy Summit of Sinai, also known as Jebel Mousa, is the place where Moses received the Law from God. Here are to be found the Chapel of God in the Highest, surrounded by the ruins of the larger Justinian basilica, and in addition, the Rock of Moses, and a mosque. The peak is at an altitude of 2,285 meters, and can be reached from the monastery by two different routes. The older is the Steps of Repentance, consisting of some 3,750 steps that ascend to the very summit, constructed in the 6th century. In the middle of the 19th century, Abbas Pasha I created the alternate Camel Trail, a more circuitous and more gradual ascent, that coincides with the Steps of Repentance for the last ascent of 750 steps.
The Cave of Prophet Elias
At a natural basin below the summit of Sinai there is a double chapel. The first chapel one enters is dedicated to the Prophet Elisseus (Elisha). From there, one enters into a second chapel, dedicated to the Prophet Elias (Elijah). This latter chapel is built at the site of a cave that is identified with the revelation of God to the holy Prophet, as it is recorded in III Kings 19:9-18 LXX (I Kings 19:9-18). “And, behold, a great and strong wind rending the mountains, and crushing the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire the voice of a gentle breeze.” There was already a chapel at this site in the 4th century.
Raitho (the modern el-Tur) was a port on the Red Sea dating back to Phoenician times. Its name means “land of fruits”, on account of the numerous date palms in the area. Today it has evolved into a large urban centre that serves as the administrative capital for the South Sinai. Here is also to be found a small flock of Greek Orthodox Christians belonging to the Archdiocese of Sinai.
The Pharan Oasis (in modern Arabic, “Feiran”) was the largest urban centre of the Sinai peninsula in late Roman times, as well as being the site of the Bishop of Sinai. In recent times, the Holy Monastery of Sinai has undertaken the burden of funding excavations in the extensive complex of ruins in the area. These are being carried out by the German Archaeological Institute of Cairo, under the authorization of the Egyptian Archaeological Service. These excavations have revealed parts of an early Christian city and no less than seven churches, including a five-aisled basilica, that are dated between the fifth and seventh centuries.
At a distance of some twenty-five kilometers from the monastery, and at a distance of some three kilometers from the Village of Targa, lies the small hermitage of Tarfa, with its chapel dedicated to All Saints of Sinai. This area is associated with the Biblical Rephidin. The hermitage has been successfully incorporated into the surrounding granite landscape.
Besides the Dependencies that operate in the South Sinai region there is also another one that functions in Cairo. The presence of the said dependency may be considered as being sufficiently old. During the Ottoman Sovereignty, this was considered by the holy monastery as indispensable for serving the lodging needs either of the fathers or of His Eminence the Archbishop whenever they were obliged to go there in order to settle the monastery’s matters with the local authorities.