St Katherine's Monastery

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St Katherine's Monastery

St Katherine's Monastery
This ancient monastery traces its founding to about AD 330, when the Byzantine empress Helena had a small chapel and a fortified refuge for local hermits built beside what was believed to be the burning bush from which god spoke to Moses.Today st Katherine's is considered one of the oldest continually functioning monastic communities in the world, and its chapel is one of early Christianity's only surviving churches.
The monastery which together with the surrounding area, has been declared a Unesco World Heritage site is named after St Katherine, the legendary martyr of Alexandria, who was tortured on a spiked wheel and then beheaded for her faith.Tradition holds that her body was transported by angels away from the torture device (which spun out of control and killed the pagan onlookers) and on to the slopes of Egypt's highest mountain peak, which lies about 6km south of Mt Sinai, subsequently became known as Gabel Katarina. Katherine's body was found about 300 years later by monks from the monastery in a state of perfect preservation.
In the 6th century Emperor Justinian ordered a fortress to be constructed around the original chapel, together with a basilica and a monastery, to provide a secure home for the monastic community that had grown there, and as a refuge for the christians of southern Sinai. 
Since then the monastery has been visited by pilgrims from throughout the world, many of whom braved extraordinarily difficult and dangerous journeys to reach the ewmote and isolated site. Today a paved access road has removed a popular day trip from Sharm el Sheikh and Dahab.
Travellers visiting should remember that this is still a functioning monastery, which necessitates conservative dress no one with shorts is permitted to enter, and women must cover their shoulders.
Inside the walled compound, the ornately decorated 6th century Church of the transfiguration has a nave flanked by massive marble columns and walls covered in richly gilded icons and paintings. At the church's eastern end, a gilded 17th century iconostasis separates the nave from the sanctuary and the apse, where St Katherine's remains are interred (off limits to most visitors).High in the apse above the altar is one of the monastery's most stunning artistic treasures, the 6th century mosaic of the transfiguration, although it can be difficult to see it past the chandeliers and the iconostasis.To the left of and below the altar is the monastery's holiest area, the Chapel of the Burning Bush, which is off limits to the public.
Its possible to see what is throught to be a descendant of the original burning bush in the monastery compound, however, due to visitors snipping cuttings of the bush to take home as blessings, the area surrounding it is now fenced off. Near the burning bush is the well of Moses, a natural spring that is supposed to give marital happiness to those who drink from it. 
Above the well of Moses is the superb Monastery Museum, which has been magnificently restored. It has displays (labelled in Arabic and English) of many of the monastery's artstic treasures, including some of the spectacular Byzantine icons from its world famous collection, numerous precious chalices, and gold and silver crosses.
Although it contains a priceless collection of ancient manuscripts and illuminated bibles, the monastery's library is unfortunately closed to the general public.
Outside the monastery walls you will find a gift shop selling replicas of icons and other religious items (there's also a branch inside the monastery compound just near the entrance) and a cafe with an array of cold drinks and snacks. least crowded days for visiting the monastery are generally Tuesdays and Wednesdays, Saturdays and Mondays tend to be most crowded.

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