Descriptions of the buildings in St Catherine's Monastery
Chapel of the Burning Bush
The holiest part of the Monastery is the large living shrub that is said to be a direct descendent of the burning bush that was seen by Moses. The bush itself was transplanted to permit the construction of the altar of the Chapel of the Burning Bush, which was built over the roots of the bush and incorporates the 4th century chapel built by Empress St Helena. The bush is a rare species of the rose family called Rubus Sanctus; it is native to Sinai and extremely long-lived, which helps lend credibility to the site.
The Basilica of the Transfiguration (or Katholikon), which is the main church of the Monastery, was built at the same time as the defensive walls. The church structure, the roof and the carved cedar doors are the originals from 527 AD. The Basilica has a broad main nave (the central part of the church), two side aisles, an apse (a semicircular or polygonal termination or recess in a building, usually at the end of a choir in a church) and a narthex (an enclosed passage between the main entrance and the nave of a church). The nave is bordered by huge granite columns decorated with Christian symbols. Next to the main altar is a sarcophagus (stone coffin) with the relics of St Catherine (head and hand). The ceiling, marble floor and elaborate iconostasis (a partition or screen on which icons are placed, separating the sanctuary from the main part of the church) date to the, the 18th century icons, mosaics and artwork inside span many centuries, and the doors of the narthex were added by the Crusaders in the 11th century.
The Bell Tower
Well of Moses
The Monastery is provided with a continual supply of fresh water from the Well of Moses, which taps an underground spring. According to tradition it is on the very spot that Moses saved his future wife and her sisters from an aggressive group of shepherds (Exodus 2:16-21).
The monk’s cells are constructed along the inner faces of the defensive walls. Also known as the “Crusader’s Church”, the rectangular Old Refectory has a Gothic roof, whose arches are decorated with symbols of the Crusader knight and murals that date from the 16th century. The
central feature is a a long table with fine carvings, brought from Corfu in the 18th century.
Completed 1106, the Fatimid mosque on the site of a Crusader chapel, is located to the southwest of the Basilica. It is rectangular (7m by 11m) and 7m high. There is a small courtyard in front which forms the roof of a well restored olive press and mill. The inside has a flat wooden roof, circular arches and small high windows. One theory holds that the monks themselves hastily built it to appease an angry caliph threatening to attack; another argues that it was built by a Muslim detachment defending the monastery during the crusades.
The Monastery Garden lies outside the walls, and has been created over many years by the monks. Soil was brought in from elsewhere and tanks were made to store water for irrigation. It contains fruit trees such as olives, apricots and plums, and produces a variety of vegetables.
When the monks die, they are buried, and then once they have decayed their bones removed from the ground and placed in the Charnel House, next to the garden. The bones of the abbot-archbishops are kept in special niches. Visitors to the monastery can see the great pile of skulls of thousands of past monks. This solves the problem of limited space and reminds the monks of the inevitability of death.
St Catherine's is surrounded on all sides by a massive wall 2.5m wide and 11m high that was provided by Emperor Justinian in the 6th century. It is made of huge granite blocks, except for the upper sections which were restored by Napoleon using smaller stone blocks. Christian symbols are carved on the wall in various places. 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.