The Ungraspable Mystery: St. Katherine Monastery in the Sinai…
“My soul has thristed for Thee; how often hath my flesh longed after Thee in a land that is barren and untrodden and unwatered” Psalm 62
The desert is an overwhelming place. Miles of miles of nothingness. It is in the empty lonely spaces that one feels the presence of God. I am overwhelmed by my own precariousness. Clutching a copy of the Quran and the Bible in my lap, dressed in a black traditional Palestinian dress, I mutter the Jesus prayer “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me” while glancing now and then from the corner of my eye at the middle-aged taxi driver to my left dressed in all-white jilab and then to the right at the golden-brown hills and . The taxi is at least 15 years old. The passenger door does not open from the inside. The glove compartment snatch unhitches every time we go over a pot hole. Ibrahim, the cab driver, has brown teeth but he smiles incessantly. Luckily, he perceives me as a “hajina” I am on a pilgrimage to St. Katherine’s monastery, the first monastic community to be founded in the world 19 centuries ago, so he does not try to flirt or ask me to marry him. “Santa Katerina,” Ibrahim says with his emphatic English, “number one in Sinai.” He keeps repeating this mantra pointing his index finger in the air and smiling. He plays the same bedouin song with wild flutes in the background, a love song between an adrous and a dreez, for the entire two and a half hour journey to the monastery.
There is no emergency service in the Sinai desert; if the dilapidated taxi has an engine malfunction, no AAA, no emergency phone at the side of the road, no ambulance, no gas station. I found the hard way there is no ATM either. I had less than $70 on me. It has to last me until tomorrow and cover my accomodations at the monastery and the long cab ride back to Taba, the Egyptian-Israeli border. In the desert, one relies entirely on the mercy of God. The stretch of overwhelming desert that threatens to engulf us, the heat radiates from every direction, from the car engine, from the sweltering sun, from the ground, from the mountains. In the black gold-embroidered dress, I feel the trickles of sweat channeling down the ditch of my spine. I think of Hagar. When Sarah gave her a couple of loaves and a jug of water and sent her on her way, she was really giving her a death sentence. And she was carrying a baby in her belly. From experiencing this desert, Sarah was a cruel, cruel mistress. But Hagar relied on the mercy of God and she became the mother of many (she is still breeding given that on average one Arab woman has eight children.)
My only prayer is to arrive at the doors of St. Katherine’s, nothing else. I swear to myself I will prostrate at its doors. I know it has to be a sanctuary. One day fits just enough worry for its fullness. Saint Katherine’s is part of a National Parks protectorate as I have to pay 11 Egyptian dollars to enter into the village of St. Katherine’s. I have to flash my passport at least ten times by the time we reach the village while Ibrahim explains that I am a hajina to Santa Katerina. The village is little more than two or three central streets horseshoed around the security/customs booth. Three thousand bedouins of the Jabalea tribe make up the majority of the inhabitants of Saint Katherine’s village. Shimmering sequined silks wallpaper the suqs advertising bedouin jewelry, guide books about the monastery in five different languages, alabaster stones, wooden crosses and incense. Busloads of Coptic Egyptians from Cairo hustle to remove suitcases from the hood of the bus that looks like a throwback to Lawrence of Arabia times. They are gaggling in frenetic Arabic as they flock in tens to pass through the customs doorway.
I feel sorry for Ibrahim. He will have to drive back two and a half hours to Taba and drive back the next day to pick me up. I tell him to stay the night and he can take me tomorrow. He smiles, his olive-brown skin glistening against the white of his Egyptian cotton tunic, and says, “OK, OK, tomorrow here 12 o’clock.”
I cannot prostrate in front of the gates of the monastery as there are none. St. Katherine’s is surrounded by a large fortification wall of orange clay. It reminds me of a medieval castle with Bedouin servants bustling about. A row of low-lying rooms to the right house a few old “haj”. One is sitting on a wooden chair, hanging on to a walking stick, and staring with that dumb-wise stare the extremely elderly have. To the left is a hand-made sign in blue lettering, “Coffee Shop, Reception, Book Store” with an arrow pointing to a walkway with stairs that leads to another level. It is a busy place St. Katherine’s. It is a miraculous place. It has remained unchanged for close to 19 centuries. The woman responsible for the largest sacred construction project in history, St. Helena in 330 BC had the first finger in the birth of this holy place. St. Helen dedicated the first monastery on those grounds to The Transfiguration. From the remains of that monastery, another monastery dedicated to the Holy Bush of the Virgin was built. However, the church and the familiar monastery radiating around it that we see today were built during the reign of Emperor Justinian (527-565 AD), who largely expanded in glory and beauty what St. Helena had started. In the 11th century the monastery was dedicated to St. Katherine of Alexandria, who had died in 310 AD. Her remains, reportedly found by monks on a mountain peak next to Mt Sinai, are buried in the monastery’s Basilica. Ironically, St. Katherine had little to do with the original site but disputes between rival churches forced the early Fathers to move the remains to the highest peak in Egypt to put an end to the bickering. The church lies at the foot of the Gabal Muses or Mt. Moses, the site where Moses received the Ten Commandments.
I am shocked that it took the World Heritage Site committee until 1985 to recognize the value of this treasurehouse of sacredness and exquisite beauty. Ducking through a low doorway, I am led through a walled concave passage that leads explodes into a wall icon of the Mother of God of the Burning Bush. The colors of the fire, ochre, vivid red and yellow contrast with the brown of the Virgin’s gown. The Messiah sits delicately on her lap and greets the pilgrim with the sign of benediction. Moses is in the act of removing his sandals, stands to the left while St. Katherine, her head lowered in humble reverence stands to the right.
The interior grounds of the monastery spotted with cypress tress, fragrant jasmine juggling over walls, ceramic oversized planters with lemon tree plants, remind me of Greece. This could be Mt. Athos. Descending a series of steps on both sides of the central church, the thick wooden carved doors stand ajar. Father Nektarios, one of two monks that stand as security in the central church making sure visitors do not touch the exquisite 6th century icons or use flash photography, tells me the Emperor Justinian commissioned craftsmen to carve them from two cedars of Lebanon that he had specially shipped here. “Everything you see in this church,” he explains, “comes from somewhere else. There are no materials in the desert, no wood, just granite and rocks.” The walls of the church are adorned with precious examples of Byzantine iconography. This is one of the finest collections of iconography the world will witness.
Father and I embark on a theo-philosophical discussion about iconography and capturing reality. “It is very clear to see from the object of creation the way this particular human being or this procession of human beings imagined a face which evidently wanders from a realistic rendering,” he explains. “In an icon, light comes from within. It breaks with reality because what you perceive as reality can only go so far. The ‘realism’ the Europeans talk about is a myth. It is only a partial perspective. The icon attempts to take away the chondroidi superfice which obstructs our ability to see from the inside. There is a subtraction of the external details so that the essence, the truth of the image can be revealed.”
There are dusty perimeters on the walls of the church where icons have been removed for shipment, conservation, or safe-keeping. I ask Father Nektarios opinion, what is his favorite piece. He points to the tholos over the altar of the church. It is a mosaic from the 11th century of Christ in the Transfiguration. The Emperor Justinian was responsible for that one as well. It is unique first because it is a mosaic, second because of its depiction of the Transfiguration as opposed to the Virgin and Child in glory, and third, because its placement on a curved dome surface of a wall makes its very existence ethereal. “Do you know what the Apostles saw when they gazed on Christ during the Transfiguration?” he asks me. “Bright white light,” I answer. “A glow.” “Yes,” he corrects me, “but behind that light they saw the ancient ‘kalos’. They saw an icon of how God had formed our body. They saw the body as it had been created in full glory, not in its corrupted form as it appears now, the body which is subject to pain, hunger, sickness, death. This is not the body God had originally fashioned for man, but a consequence of the Fall which alienated the body from its former glory. An icon is a way of revisiting the untarnished image of man, of returning to the garden.
He shows me two marble carved sarcophaguses dating from the 1st century, curiously unique because of the images of the shepherd with grapevines, early Christian semiotics. The narthex of the church originally was not elevated from the nave as it is now. Father Nektarios gives a sweeping description of the treasures in the church: two oversized coffins made of silver, a gift from the tzars of Russia, a Psalter in gilded cover studded with jewels, mosaics around the perimeter of the church dating back to St. Helen’s craftsmen. Twelve Corinthian-topped columns made of granite commemorate the twelve apostles, the pillars of the early church. Each column bears an antique icon of the apostle and the name of the month of the year with images of three categories of saints–those recognized in the Bible, those by Church tradition, and those known locally. The dry heat of the desert has preserved these treasures for millennia. “Please, do not touch the icons,” Father the everlasting watchdog yells to the back of the church at some tourists with curiously wandering children. The heat does more than just preserve the icons. Father tells me how the early Desert Fathers would search for caves to live in ascetic isolation but would find other monastics who had died kneeling or standing up in prayer. The living monks could not move the dead monks who were left to pray without ever getting disturbed for eternity.
Without warning, he leads me to a chamber beyond that reveals another small chapel, basically an iconostasis with two golden candleholders. Before I know it he is telling me to take off my sandals; he draws back heavy red velvet drapes and we enter a hidden chamber. Its marble floors are covered by red flokati rugs. Here it is, the site of the Burning Bush. I am taken completely off-guard. I bow in front of the sacred space; it is a room perhaps 22’X16′. The site of the Burning Bush is commemorated by a marble half-moon on the ground with a chasm that leads deep into the earth. Here is where Moses heard the voice of God; here is where he was handed the Law; here is where he received his calling to lead his people to the promised land. I prostrate fully with my forehead smashed against the flokati rug. It is not what I had expected. I do not know what I expected. It seems to humble an site to be where God revealed His presence. Father explains the second holy site of the Burning Bush is at the pinnacle of Mt. Sinai where there is a church. Pilgrims start the journey up the mountain at 2 a.m. and walk up for 2 and a half hours to reach the top in time for the sunrise.
I thank Father Nektarios with his sharp, dry wit and go outside. Flocks of tourists surround an overgrown bush that is growing from within a chasm in the ground. It is a remnant of the original Burning Bush supposedly. It scrambles over the wall and the plot of ground the monks have created for it. Its trunk is surrounded by a metal grate through which pilgrims push pieces of paper scribbled with prayers and the names of loved ones. There is a stray photo of a child, a young man or woman, or even a middle-aged man around the base of the bush. The noonday sun is so bright and scorching I can see the veins of each waxy leaf of the bush and even the crumbs within the cracks of the earthly-clay wall. Tourist guides profess the wonders of the Bush to tourists absorbed by their telling in English, French, German, Spanish, Arabic. Even if it is not burning, it is a miracle enough that such an overpowering bush is growing in such a dry desert.
I need to meet with the Igoumen of the monastery, Father Damianos, for a blessing and for some answers. I saunter back to the pilgrims’ hotel, a recent addition to the monastery grounds, having been built just 30 years ago to meet the demands of the constantly appearing faithful. The rooms, although sparse, are clean and tidy. Individualized water heaters grace each white marbled bathroom. There is centralized heating and a mahogany closet filled neatly with hand-woven woolen blankets by the women in the village to counter the cold desert nights when temperatures drop to less than 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Musa , the manager of the hotel, tells me that currently on any given day the monastery averages 1,000 to 1,500 visitors. Most come here as a day trip from Sharm El Sheik or Cairo. However, before the turbulence it was customary to have over 3,000 people visit the monastery on any one day. The monastery employs 90 full-time workers mostly as porters, kitchen staff, cleaners, who live in the town of St. Katherine’s. Most are Bedouins from the Jalelebi tribe. “The Bedouins love St. Katherine’s,” Musa explains, “They have grown up together for over a thousand years.” He himself is half-Greek: his father was a merchant from Thessaloniki and half-Egyptian, his mother was an Arab from Cairo.
By grace, I couldn’t have met with the Igoumen of the monastery more easily than had I made an appointment with him. There on one of the sofas of the reception hall of the Pilgrims hotel was a benevolent-looking, hearty gentleman with thin grey hair tied back in a bun. His ruby-studded oversized Crucifix protruded conspicuously from the bulge in his belly. Throughout our conversation, a busy line of Arab Christians from Cairo would approach him and ask for his blessing. He had by now become a master at kissing and crossing all sizes and levels of pilgrims.
“Den iparchi kalitero pragma apo tin pisti sto anthropo,” he tells me, “Pisti precede apo ton sebasmo tis agapis.” He is a wise man of course and deeply spiritual so he tells me things such as “To pan eine o Christos” and “Metanaia eine aparetati kathe stigmi.” He also tells me about the long-standing relationship between Christians and Muslims at St. Katherine’s. Although he cautions at the times we find ourselves it is very important to keep close “t a dika mas” without diluting them with other faiths, but we cannot not say “Kalimera” to our neighbors even if they are of a different faith. Many Muslims, Father Damianos remembers, have had their health restored by praying to St. Katherine. Many Muslims are found praying at the monastery as they acknowledge the saving power of our saints. Muslims and Christians have co-inhabited at Sinai for thousands of years, he says. Even though the concept of the Holy Trinity is hard for a Muslim to understand, there have been some conversions, not many as it is a crime punishable by death to convert to Christianity from Islam. During the time of the Desert Fathers at the 1st century, when St. Katherine’s was founded, many Christian Arabs were at the vanguard of ascetism and monastacism. He lists St. Anthony the Great, St. John the Damascene, St. George of Damascus, St. Paranius, St. Macarius, St. Cyprian of Carthage. But the one true faith is Orthodoxy. “Go talk to Father Justinian,” he directed me. “He’s an American convert. He works in the library.”
I walked around the horse-shoe shaped monastic cell quarters, climbed to the second story , wound my way around the wooden balcony, and walked into the manuscript library, the world’s second most important after the Vatican for sacred manuscripts, especially in the Greek. A tall lanky monk, soft-spoken but exuding with scholarly erudition, greeted me at the door. He is in the middle of overseeing a digital reproduction project. Each and every one of the library’s 3,300 manuscripts will be digitally copied, page by page, and made available to scholars and faithful through the virtual galaxy. This particular manuscript is a service to the Holy Archangels, a special request from Dochario monastery on Mount Athos, dedicated to the Holy Archangels. It is one of four important but unpublished manuscripts of the service dating from the 14th century. The monastery on Mt. Athos wants a copy to make a service book. The methods of duplication might have changed but the fundamental job of copiously copying sacred texts has not for over 19 centuries. Father Justinos’ assistant is a young Bedouin with a stubby beard and glasses; he is also a computer scientist. Hamid Sobhy is the first university graduate of the entire Jabalea tribe, the tribe that has been living and working with St. Katherine’s for centuries. The manuscript to the Holy Archangels is held in a cradle of canvas under the eye of a big dig camera. Each page is turned gingerly for a digishot. The entire apparatus is behind a glass enclosure.
Father Justinos leads me into the inner confines of the library. Two digital experts from Greece, funded by a large grant from the Flora Family Foundation, are busy transferring jpeg files to a virtual manuscript library on a server. The library is small, too small, for one to understand the significance of its holdings. Wooden bookcases wedge themselves in “L” formations. A second story balcony harvests another layer of manuscripts. Hippocrates’ “Medicus Appendicus” in gilded letters is sandwiched between slowly unraveling leather spines of The Iliad. In order of volume, the manuscripts are written in ancient Greek, Arabic, Syriac, Georgian, and early Russian Slovanic. There is an ocean of information here, no one librarian monk can sort through it all. Father Justinos relies on scholar-researchers to shift through the collection and uncover nuggets. “Two weeks ago,” Father recounts, “a visiting scholar let me know we had the oldest Gospel printed in Arabic dating from 846 AD.” Apart from manuscripts, the library holds codexes and incunaba (books printed up to 1500.)
The monastery has a close connection with Crete, he explains. St. Katherine’s shares a metochion in Crete. Because Crete was under Venetian domination in the Renaissance, and the first Greek printer was located in Venice in 1472, it was very easy to transfer books from Crete to Sinai. As a result, the library after the church, became the spiritual center for the monastery as it contained spiritual writings, homilies, scriptures, scriptural commentaries, saints’ lives, and the like.
“Can you show me a secret treasure, Father?” I ask him. He walks over to a metal office filing cabinet and pulls out a heavy bulky golden-carved Gospel. He places it lovingly on a wooden table whose legs end in a lion’s claw and says, “Look” (like Gandolf revealing a secret passage in the mountain side.) I catch my breath. On the first page after turning over the membrane of tissue as protection–Christ the Pantocrator standing in robes of royal purple, a golden halo framed in an intricate brocade of sinuous inks, stands with the Book of Life in one hand, his other in the gesture of blessing. It is not a Gospel, but a Lectionary, a collection of the Scripture readings for the church year. This one is one of the three or four that still survive in the world, a work of the Imperial Scriptoria of Constantinopole. It includes seven stunning illuminations and each and every page is written in gold letters. It is magnificent! A masterpiece of the Macedonian Renaissance which was the classicizing of the art of Constantinopole that flourished at the end of Iconoclasm.
Father is writing the introductory essay for the catalogue of the first ever exhibit dedicated exclusively to the iconography and manuscripts of St. Katherine’s monastery at Mt. Sinai. The exhibit will open at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles this coming November 4th. Certain other manuscripts will be featured in the Smithsonian Institute’s exhibit, “In the Beginning: Bibles Before the Year 1000” starting from October 17th ending January 7th.
“The daily cycle of the way of life in the monastery,” Father Justinos reminds me, “has been preserved for 19 centuries. We can take a 10th century lectionary from the manuscript library, take it down to the service, and follow it word for word. It’s an astonishing continuity. As much as the outside of the monastery has changed, the inside has preserved the traditions of early Christendom.“
From Justinian’s time, the monastery has remained a still point in the turning world, especially the turbulently gyrating world of the Middle East. The waves of change have pounded through its valley–the Mohamedian caravans, the Persian invasions, the charge of the Crusaders, the galloping of Marmulkes, Ottomans, Germans. However, its remoteness and the gruesome trek it took to arrive to it have provided it with sanctuary from the shifting sands of time. It would have taken a pilgrim ten whole days to come from Suez on camel back with a driver, and even then he/she would have to face the austerity of the desert, wild animals, marauding Bedouin thieves and robbers before arrival. It was nearly inaccessible to pilgrims up to 50 years ago; motorized transport only started in the 1970s. As a result, its remoteness imbues it with a holy air. St. Katherine’s has remained an oasis of unchange, a still point in a turbulent world due to its inexorable isolation. Even today with a car, the ruggedness of the desert, the emptiness of the mountains wells a soul with piety and awe, all-consuming awe of the place.
As Father Nektarios notes, “This here that you see is so great that your mind cannot grasp it, cannot fit around it. It is so big of a miracle that we cannot understand that it is.” ***