As I stood in front of the bush that burned in Exodus 3:2 but was consumed not, a voice shouted loudly to make itself heard. It was the guide. And he spake unto me (and my tour group), and said, “That is the holy burning bush. It grows nowhere else on the Sinai Peninsula. All attempts to grow cuttings elsewhere have failed!”
“What species is it?” I asked him.
“It’s the holy burning bush species,” he responded looking piqued.
“What’s the Latin name?” someone else asked. “I saw one just like it from the bus.”
Then lo! We were engulfed in Italians, and what could have been a very interesting discussion was lost in a scrum of elbows, cameras, and sheer foot-stompin’ tourist tonnage that was nothing short of miraculous to behold.
Being trampled flat in a 6th-century alley by what seems, at the very least, to be the entire population of Western Europe is a real St. Catherine’s Monastery problem. What makes one’s spinal injuries so perplexing is the fact that St. Catherine’s is so out of the way, so off the beaten track. Where, one wonders, as one is crushed in a charnel house full of monk’s skulls by a German tour group desperate to video the skeleton of St. Stephen (died in 580 A.D., but still fully clothed and sporting a purple hat), where have they come from?
All around St. Catherine’s is Egypt’s Wilderness of the Wanderings, “1,000 sq. km of nothing,” as a Cairo engineer in exile gloomily described it to us in one of those morose “why am I here in the only bar for 1,000 sq. km around” bar sessions.
“My bath water is brown,” he lamented.
“Ours too,” we comforted him. “When there is any.”
But the man’s point was well made. Even today, with global population in excess of 6 billion, one could walk the rock world of the Sinai Peninsula’s interior for hours, weeks, 40 years, and not encounter much in the way of life beyond the occasional Bedouin camp, striped hyena or camel. In this arid mountainous isolation, in the barren shadow of Mount Sinai, St. Catherine’s Monastery is a broiling, grappling, polyglot tourist stew, overseen by rotund and grumpy monks.
Just to compound the congestion problem, here are some reasons you might consider the ordeal worthwhile.
St. Catherine’s Monastery was founded in 330 A.D. as a chapel to honor the burning bush. It is both the oldest working monastery and the smallest Christian diocese on earth. Unlike many Egyptian monasteries, it is Greek Orthodox rather than Coptic. Its library is second in importance only to the Vatican’s and its collection of 5th to 7th century icons is unsurpassed. Iconoclasm (the destruction of Christian images initiated in 726 A.D.) missed St. Catherine’s — probably because St. Catherine’s had, and still has, formidable walls with boiling oil chutes constructed to repel Bedouin raiders.
Indeed, for centuries St. Catherine’s had no door. The only way inside was to be winched up its walls in a large basket. The windlass is still visible. A small door beneath it now provides access, though latter-day iconoclasts will still find their entry slowed by wedged tourist biomass.
No one has yet proved St. Catherine actually lived, or that she was to be tortured on a spiked wheel, or that the wheel exploded at her touch (hence St. Catherine’s Wheel fireworks), or that she then had her head chopped off on Nov. 25, 305 A.D. after out-arguing 50 pagan philosophers assembled by the Roman emperor Maxentius to persuade her to abandon Christianity.
Some killjoys claim Catherine was invented to ensure a financially reliable supply of relics, particularly ampules of aromatic holy oil (which seeped from her dead body) and finger bones which (it is said) left her fragrant corpse and floated over to a monk named Simon who then took them to Rouen Cathedral.
Catherine’s name, others say, was Dorothy. I say, “Who cares?” They’re fascinating stories and if they protected the priceless icons, the bush, and continue to fund libraries and grumpy monks, I’m all for them.
Some areas of St. Catherine’s Monastery are off-limits to ordinary visitors — which is to say, visitors who are too cheap to pay an additional $15 after having come all this way. Dig deep, pilgrims! Cough up! Otherwise you won’t even see the holy burning bush species, the library, the mosque or the tiny original Chapel of the Burning Bush. All you’ll see is the basilica and ossuary.
Moses went to Egypt to rescue his Israelites after meeting the burning bush. Mount Sinai is where he then brought his wayward tribe to pass on the 10 Commandments and put a stop to them coveting, committing adultery and worshipping golden calves.
Mount Sinai (2,285 meters) looms over the monastery. Climbing it is most romantically done by camel and with a Bedouin guide. Neither are in short supply around the walls of the monastery and the price of their Herculean effort is less than your average Tokyo lunch.
Descending Mount Sinai is best done on foot. Leaning into a camel as it goes up is very definitely preferable to leaning over a camel as it goes down. Sinai, or, as the Bedouin call it Gebel Musa (Moses Mount), is big and sheer. Most people go up it at night to ensure they can see the sun rise they then descend before the sun they’ve just seen rise, rises higher and repays their efforts by giving them sunstroke.
Not unwise. Elijah the prophet was fed by God-sent ravens in the Cypress plain on the slopes of Sinai. Non-prophets who have forgotten to bring a snack might be able to sustain themselves on the honey-sweet corianderlike seeds of Tamarix mannifera, a species of acacia the Bedouin call mann-es-sama. This, scholars suspect, was the manna, the bread from heaven, that fed the Israelites.
Mount Catherine’s, or Gebel Katarina (2,642 meters), the highest mountain in Sinai, is a few kilometers from the monastery. Here Catherine’s corpse was transported by angels and lay uncorrupted for half a millennium.
The ascent is a brutal five or six hours on foot. The views, like those from Gebel Musa, are panoramic. To the west one can see African mountains, to the east, the peaks of the Arabian Peninsula, and, blue against the desert browns, the Gulfs of Aqaba and Suez. Oh my!
Every Nov. 25, the date of Catherine’s death, glorious processions are held.