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Saint Catherine's Monastery And The World’s Oldest Library

Deep in the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt, in a region of wilderness made up of granite rock and rugged mountains, lies the town of Saint Catherine. It was here, at the foot of Mount Sinai, that Moses is believed to have received the Ten Commandments from God. Naturally, this region is sacred to Christians, Jews and Muslims alike.

Between 548 and 565, the Eastern Roman emperor, Justinian the Great, ordered the construction of a monastery dedicated to Saint Catherine at this site. The monastery has never been destroyed or looted in all its history, making it one of the oldest working Christian monasteries in the world. It also contains the world's oldest continually operating library, where is preserved the world’s second largest collection of early codices and manuscripts in a variety of languages, outnumbered only by the Vatican Library.

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Photo credit: Berthold Werner/Wikimedia

The monastery is surrounded by a massive wall, the original one, erected by Emperor Justinian in the 6th century. Until the 20th century, access was through a door high in the outer walls. The entrance is now through a smaller gate to the left of the main gate.

The holiest part of the monastery is a large living shrub that is said to be the very burning bush that was seen by Moses. In the 4th century, Empress Consort Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, built the Chapel of the Burning Bush here which the monastery incorporated within its grounds. The bush is a rare species of the rose family called Rubus Sanctus. A native to the Sinai region, the plant’s extremely long life span has helped lend credibility to the site.

A great treasure of the monastery are its icons and mosaics on walls and church buildings as well as on liturgical objects, representing the best collection of early icons in the world. Most of these icons date to the 6th century, with a few possibly dating to an even earlier period.

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The burning bush. Photo credit: Christopher Chan/Flickr

The monastery's library is its other big treasure. Some of the rare manuscripts in its collection includes the missing parts of Codex Sinaiticus, a 4th-century handwritten copy of the Greek Bible; the Syriac Sinaiticus, a 4th-century manuscript of the four canonical gospels of the New Testament in Syriac; and the Ashtiname of Muhammad, in which the Islamic prophet Muhammad is claimed to have bestowed his protection upon the monastery. Also included in the library are the first editions of Homer (1488) and Plato (1513, the Comedies of Aristophanes (1498), the Great Etymological Lexicon of the Greek Language (1499), and Suidae’s Lexicon (1499).

Aside from Saint Catherine's Monastery and Mount Sinai, there are hundreds of places of religious importance in the area, such as the Chapel of St. Catherine on the summit of Mount Katherine, the mountain where the body of the saint from Alexandria was supposedly placed by angels; the Rock of Moses, where Prophet Moses fetched water; several churches and hundreds of ruins of Byzantine monasteries and monastic settlements in the area.

The monastery was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2002. It draws more than a 100,000 visitors annually.

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Photo credit: Shawn Clover/Flickr

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Photo credit: Marc!D/Flickr

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