Finding Christian roots in the Sinai

1.jpgWhile Egypt is in upheaval, some things in that country stay the same, in particular the Sinai – that vast desert in the southern half of the Sinai Peninsula that gives new meaning to the word sere.

Geographically, the Gulf of Suez and Suez Canal border the Peninsula’s west and the east by the Gulf of Aqaba – a destination for Lawrence of Arabia.

There is nothing romantic about the Sinai. Just ask Moses, although he did meet his wife, Zipporah, there. Moses had fled to the Sinai from Egypt after he killed an Egyptian who was brutally beating an Israelite. It was during this time in the Sinai that God spoke to him from the burning bush and told him to go back to Egypt to free the Israelites. This Moses did.

That was only the beginning. His parting of the Red Sea was a piece of cake compared to crossing the Sinai desert with some 400,000 people. No wonder they grumbled when Moses brought them to this barren place.

They were tired, hungry, and thirsty. On top of this, Moses left them with Aaron to climb Mount Sinai where he stayed for 40 days meeting with God.

He finally came down with the Ten Commandments but when he found his followers worshiping the golden calf, he threw down the tablets in anger breaking them. He then had to go back up the mountain to get new tablets. You know the story.

You can visit Mount Sinai and you can climb it. To do so you ride a camel for the first hour radically uphill and then climb 750 vertical rock “steps” fashioned by a monk centuries ago to reach the summit. One youthful climber told me that there was no way Moses could have made it up that mountain in sandals. That was probably the least of Moses’ problems. God had given him his marching orders.

At the foot of Mount Sinai, or Gebel Musa (Mount of Moses), lies one of the most unique, remote and important monasteries in the world – the massive walled Christian Orthodox Monastery of St. Catherine, erected by the Emperor Justinian around 557 AD and now a World Heritage site.

The Prophet Muhammad promised to protect the monastery and he put that in writing now in the British Museum. The monks continue to enjoy a good relationship with the surrounding Bedouins.

You have to really want to go there. You travel a grueling three hours on difficult terrain but at least on a paved highway and not on camelback.

In 1892 Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson, Scottish twin sisters, organized an 11 camel caravan for a nine-day journey to the monastery where they discovered the four gospels dating to the 2nd century. Linguistically talented, Lewis recognized they were written in Syriac on vellum underneath other writings on the lives of saints (Syriac is an Aramaic dialect, the language of Jesus).

Paper hadn’t been invented yet so scribes would scrape writing off vellum and write over it for reuse. These manuscripts are called palimpsests. The sisters traveled to St. Catherine’s three more times by camel making us all look like wusses.

I was privileged to meet the current monastery librarian – a tall priest from Texas who makes use of modern technology to study palimpsests and the monastery’s famous treasury of ancient manuscripts open to visiting scholars.

Getting to St. Catherine’s involves crossing the Red Sea by ship from Hurghada on the west shore to Sharm El-Sheikh on the southern point of the peninsula where former President Mubarek has a home. Sharm, as they call it, is a resort area bursting with new high-end construction (at least it was last December). The Red Sea along this coast has world-class diving and spectacular reefs.

Approaching the Sinai Peninsula from the sea, you are surprised to see it’s mountainous. Once you leave the sea behind you enter the Sinai desert – a stark landscape of rocky wadis, twisted cliffs of wind carved stone, craggy mountains, and an occasional oasis. The mountains are not high.

Mount Sinai rises 7,496 feet whereas the highest, Mount St. Catherine, rises to 8,625 feet. But it’s the timelessness of this place that haunts you.

How did the monastery get its name? Circa 300 AD, St. Catherine, a young scholar and Alexandrian aristocrat, was executed when she refused to give up her new Christian faith. According to her legend, her body was flown by angels to Mount Sinai as she had wanted.

Around 800 AD, a monastery monk prompted by a dream found her remains there. Today they rest in a sarcophagus by the altar in the Church of the Transfiguration, a Byzantine treasure in itself.

The compound also includes a priceless art collection and the Chapel of the Burning Bush where the original burning bush from which God spoke to Moses still thrives – the monastery’s holiest area.

You cannot overstate the importance of this monastery. In the mid-1800s, Constanin von Tischendorf, a European scholar, under the pretext of a loan for copying, basically stole from the monastery one of the world’s most important books: the Codex Sinaiticus that the monks had preserved for more than 1,600 years.

The Codex is a 4th century Christian Bible handwritten in Greek that also contains a copy of the New Testament. Von Tischendorf presented the Codex to Tsar Alexander II, a patron of the monastery, who kept it. In 1933, Stalin needing hard cash sold the Codex to England for £100,000. It now resides in the British Library, priceless.

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Posted in Fashion-and-style, Local on Friday, April 1, 2011 10:00 pm Updated: 3:43 pm. | Tags: Bible, Geography, Sinai Peninsula, Moses, New Testament, Mount Sinai, God, Burning Bush, Sinai, Saint Katherine City, Egypt, Red Sea, Sinai Desert, Margaret Gibson, Suez, Suez Canal, World Heritage Site, Gulf Of Aqaba, The Golden Calf, Christian Orthodox Monastery, Mount St. Catherine