Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Monastery of St. Catherine

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Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), Volume 3
Monastery of St. Catherine

by Charles Moeller


Situated on Mount Sinai, at an altitude of 4854 feet, in a picturesque gorge below the Jebel-Musa, the reputed Mountain of the Law. This Byzantine convent, perhaps the most interesting of the Christian Orient, is under the Rule of St. Basil, and is well-known for its hospitality. It is chiefly famous, however, on account of its library, in which was discovered the Codex Sinaiticus, a valuable Biblical manuscript dating from the fourth century. Although now in a state of decay, the Monastery of St. Catherine is still held in great veneration by the Orthodox Greeks, both because it is believed to contain the remains of the famous virgin of Alexandria, and because of its intimate connection with some of the most sublime events recorded in Holy Scripture. In a little oratory where a lamp is kept always burning, and which is only to be entered unshod, the monks show the supposed location of the Burning Bush. The earliest known historical fact is the erection of a church by Emperor Justinian about A.D. 550. A Byzantine mosaic, which is still in existence, shows that this was formerly called the church of the Transfiguration; here were gathered the hermits who had previously lived in separate cells and caves among the rocks of Mount Sinai. It is not known when or how the monastery obtained possession of the remains of St Catherine of Alexandria and adopted her name. According to legend her body was transported thither by the hands of angels. The name, however, does not appear in literature before the tenth century. To protect the monks and pilgrims against the Saracens the monastery was fortified like a castle, the exterior wall of which forms a quadrangle resting on solid rock. The fact that a castle presupposes a military force accounts for the mention some authors make of a military order of St. Catherine, founded in 1063, which would thus antedate any other military order. No trace has been found, however, of the rule of any such order, or of a list of its grand masters. From the Crusades the monastery of St. Catherine attracted many Latin pilgrims, who gradually formed a brotherhood, the members of which pretended to the knighthood. In return for a vague promise to protect sacred shrines and pilgrims, they were granted the coveted St. Catherine's Cross, a cross inserted in the wheel of St. Catherine. See Catherine of Alexandria; Sinai; MSS. of the Bible.

Palmer, Sinai to the Present Day (London, 1878); Wilson and Palmer, Ordnance Survey of Sinai (London, 1872); Roehrichts and Meisner, Deutsche Pilgerreise nach dem heiligen Lande (Berlin, 1880); Stanley, Sinai and Palestine (London, 1882); Julian, Sinai et Syrie (Lille, 1903).

CH. MOELLER