Moses in the Land of Midian
At the age of forty, Moses fled into the wilderness to escape the wrath of Pharaoh, and came to the land of Midian. Here he met Jethro, the priest of the Most High God, and married his daughter Zipporah. They had two sons. Moses called his firstborn son Gershom, saying, “I have been a stranger in a strange land” (Exodus 2:22), and his second son he named Eliezer, which means “God is my help,” saying, “the God of my father was mine help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh” (Exodus 18:4). It was here that God appeared to him in the Burning Bush, and here that he received the Ten Commandments and the whole of the Law. 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 Beginnings of Sinai Monasticism
The history of Sinai Monasticism begins in the 3rd century. The first monastics came to the Sinai in their yearning to draw nigh to God in the midst of profound silence, isolation, prayer, and holiness. Centered at the site of the Burning Bush, the early anchorites settled throughout the south Sinai, where the traces of their chapels and cells can be seen to this day. They were moved by the same mystical longing that attracted monastics to the deserts of Scetis and the Wadi Natrun, or to the deserts in the Judaean wilderness.
Saint Catherine, Patron Saint of the Holy Monastery of Sinai
Saint Catherine was born in Alexandria towards the end of the third century, and was educated in philosophy, rhetoric, poetry, music, mathematics, astronomy, and medicine. She was renowned for her beauty, her aristocratic birth, and her wide learning. Rejecting all offers of marriage, she was converted to Christianity through a Christian hermit who lived in the outlying deserts, and took Christ as the true Bridegroom of her soul. During the persecutions of Maxentius in the early fourth century, she confessed her faith in Christ and condemned the worship of idols. The emperor appointed fifty rhetoricians to argue with her, but her presentation of Christianity was so brilliant, and her condemnation of the pagan religion so devastating, that they were themselves converted to Christ. Saint Catherine resisted all the emperor’s promises, threatenings, and tortures, and was at last beheaded for her faith. Her memory is celebrated on November 25.
According to the tradition preserved at Sinai, Mohammed both knew and visited the monastery and the Sinai fathers. The Qoran makes mention of the Sinai holy sites.
The Patent of Mohammed Granted to the Holy Monastery of Sinai
In the second year of the Hegira, corresponding to AD 623, a delegation from Sinai requested a letter of protection from Mohammed. This was granted, and authorized by him when he placed his hand upon the document. The Letter of Protection is known as the Ahtiname, from the Arabic words ahd, which means “obligation,” and name, which means “document, testament.” The document has been instrumental in the protection of the monastery, and as a means of ensuring peaceful and cooperative relations between Christians and Moslems. The continuous existence of the monastery during fourteen centuries of Islamic rule is a sign of the respect given to this Letter of Protection, and the principles of peace and cooperation that it enshrines.
Napoleon Bonaparte conquered Egypt in 1797, and placed the monastery under his protection, granting the monastery a document bearing his signature. He also provided for the renovation of the north wall of the fortress, which had been damaged by floods in 1798. The second half of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries proved to be more difficult for the monastery, as the collapse of empires and the emergence of modern states resulted in the loss of most the Sinai dependencies.
The Holy Monastery of the God-trodden Mount Sinai which is situated in the South Sinai region is a purely religious institution that is dedicated to the protection of the Sinaitic pilgrimage sites. In parallel with this, the Sinai fathers are, on the one hand, dedicated with the maintenance of the history of Sinai, the values of the great religious tradition of the monastery with its equally important Helleno-Roman cultural heritage, but principally they tend to cultivate the development of the exalted moral life through the exercise of the Christian virtue that derives from the first commandment: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God . . .” Likewise, the active and generous love which Christ ordered to his disciples through his second commandment led to the propagation of the Gospel’s preaching and to the founding of schools, almshouses, orphanages, and to many other forms of social charity. The Sinai fathers, up to this day, continue with religious devotion to hold fast to these two Christian commandments as the basis of their exercise and ministry.
The long history of Sinai, extending as it does over eighteen centuries, is evidence of the esteem in which the monastery was held by a succession of states and rulers. Each sustained the monastery in one way or another. This is particularly evident in the support of the monastery given by the Empress Helen in the 4th century, and by the Emperor Justinian in the 6th. The Emperor Justinian was responsible for the construction of the great basilica and surrounding fortress walls. In addition, he granted the Abbot of Sinai a document so called 'Neara', granting him certain honors. These honors have been confirmed by patriarchal decrees which respect the autonomy of the Holy Monastery of Sinai.
Egeria visited Sinai around the year 380, and describes the valley with its garden, and in the midst of the garden, a church next to the bush. The monks of the area ministered to the pilgrims, escorting them to the various sites, reading the scriptural accounts connected with each, and offering the pilgrims vegetables from their own gardens. Many pilgrim accounts concerning the Sinai have been preserved, and these are of the greatest importance in reconstructing the history of the area. Earlier visitors came as pilgrims, eager to pray at the various shrines. Later visitors have often come out of scholarly interests or curiosity.
The accounts of pilgrims and visitors are supplemented by paintings, engravings, and lithographs made by artists. In the nineteenth century, and to the present day, important photographs have been made of the area and its inhabitants.