Pilgrimage to St. Catherine’s Monastery

Background Information

Okay, so maybe this wasn’t a pilgrimage for us, but it was a pretty incredible site to visit. According to the Bible, Moses received the Ten Commandments from God at this sight.  The monastery was built by order of Emperor Justinian I (525-565), enclosing the Chapel of the Burning Bush ordered to be built by Helena, the mother of Constantine, at the site where Moses is supposed to have seen the burning bush (the living bush on the grounds is purportedly the original). This sight is said to be one of two of the oldest working Christian monasteries in the world (the other one, the monastery of St. Anthony, south of Cairo, is also on my list of places to visit).

Though this place is commonly known as Saint Catherine’s, the full, official name of the monastery is The Sacred and Imperial Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount of Sinai, and the patronal feast of the monastery is the Trasnfiguration. The site was associated with St. Catherine of Alexandria, a Christian martyr sentenced to death on the wheel. When this failed to kill her, she was beheaded. As the story goes, angels took her remains to Mount Sinai and around the year 800, monks from the Sinai Monastery found her remains on the top of Mt. Sinai and brought them into the chapel (you can see her coffin and a hand bone in a reliquary in the chapel).

A Fatimid mosque was built within the walls of the monastery, but it has never been used since it is not correctly oriented towards Mecca (you can still see the minaret next to the bell tower).

During the seventh century, the isolated Christian anchorites of the Sinai were eliminated: only the fortified monastery remained. The monastery is still surrounded by the massive fortifications that have preserved it. Until the twentieth century, access was through a door high in the outer walls (there’s a picture of it below). From the time of the First Crusade, the presence of Crusaders in the Sinai until 1270 spurred the interest of European Christians and increased the number of intrepid pilgrims who visited the monastery. The monastery was supported by its dependencies in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Crete, Cyprus and Constantinople.

Getting There

We were picked up again by the tour company very early in the morning. It takes about 3 hours to get to the city of St. Catherine’s and then about twenty more minutes to walk to the site. En route, we stopped for coffee and snacks at a roadside stand (thank God because we missed breakfast because it was so early and I was afraid that someone was going to get hangry again). Along the road, the landscape changed from barren looking desert to craggy mountains, similar to the Grand Canyon. There were lots of Bedouin camps in the middle of the inhospitable landscape too. Our guide was telling us the Bedouin’s don’t bury their animals remains, so there were lots of dead camels lying along the roadside.

Coffee and Snack Stop
The coffee stop

The Pit

After what seemed like forever getting to the monastery, we parked in a parking lot and were led up a slight incline to the monastery’s entrance. Of course I was dressed inappropriately (as Raj always likes to point out) and was asked to place a scarf around my scantily clad legs. Our guide had forewarned us that there was no talking and no taking pictures inside the chapel. As we entered, it was dimly lit (to protect the icons) but it was extremely difficult to see them. We were given about five minutes to look around and then we were hurried out by the priests. As we exited, the burning bush was to our right. Even more exciting to me at this point on the trip was the WC (wash closet or bathroom) that I saw off in the distance (keep in mind the drive was over three hours long). I excused myself to visit the ‘facilities,’ but couldn’t go. It was a pit toilet. As much as I had to go, I couldn’t. I exited the bathroom telling myself I could hold it (but for how long?). This lasted about two minutes and then I resigned myself to try again. I walked back in, started dismantling my skirt-scarf, which I might add fell off and onto the the WET floor. (OMG, what was the wetness???). As I walked out again, I mentioned that the floor was WET to the woman in line behind me. She said it was just water from the hose. I went back in and there was NO HOSE…Yep, you know what it was and it was now on my scarf and I had to put the scarf back on my legs to cover them up. I went back in for a third time ready to get it over with when a woman from our group (a saint, really) came running in to tell me that the guide said our lunch place had a REAL toilet. I could hold for an hour knowing this and so I wrapped my pee scarf back on and headed out. Twenty minutes later, we were eating lunch in a restaurant and all was well.

The Bell tower
Not happy about the scarf

Heading Back

On the way back towards Sharm el-Sheikh, we made one last stop in the coastal town of Dahab. We stopped at a jewelry store, made a couple of fabulous birthday purchases, and then walked along a promenade of shops. We were dropped off in the early evening, again exhausted from not much except sitting in a van all day. Next time we plan on doing the “Mt. Moses” tour (you’re picked up by the tour company at 10:00pm, brought to the base of the mountain (at St. Catherine’s), you climb for three hours, watch the sunrise (there are three coffee shops at the top of the mountain), then you walk down after sunrise and are driven back). We got back to our room and I was surprised to find a birthday cake waiting for me.

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16 thoughts on “Pilgrimage to St. Catherine’s Monastery

  1. I can’t stop laughing – hangry, the pee scarf, your expression in the picture with the pee scarf. Your blog is so great because it’s exactly how you would tell the story if you were here. I also think that since you’ve become such a history buff, you MIGHT be qualified to be a history professor when you get back. Just something to think about…

  2. I think I noticed a piece of toilet paper hanging from your scarf. Does that bring back memories of Chicago BEA to one of the most embarrassing moments of my life? Where are pictures of the cake?

    1. I wish there had been toilet paper. That was part of the issue–there wasn’t any, hence, i was looking for the hose…but there wasn’t a hose to hose myself off either. The pictures of the cake are on the slide show (come on, even our mother saw the cake).

  3. Jen, you get kudos from me for going ahead and using that “pit toilet” as I probably would have burst first. How quickly did you wash or throw away that scarf???? Like Nicole, I thought I detected a roll of white paper trailing after you, but then, there probably isn’t any “white” paper, is there? Thanks for the entertainment! Have you ridden a camel yet? Awaiting the next adventure…..

    1. Actually, you really didn’t use the pit, did you???? Just had to suffer the indignity of it with no benefit. Oh well…..

      1. I couldn’t do it. I had to use the ‘hose’ at Jerash because there wasn’t any toilet paper, but after I used the hose, I was afraid I’d get typhoid or something terrible from washing with water from God only knows where it came from. I haven’t ridden a camel, yet, but I’m sure I will soon. Thanks for reading…

  4. Hey, The bathroom stories are getting all the play, what about the beauitful stores and shopping at the Starbucks. What was that a 7/11 store selling slurpies…

  5. Jen, I did a lot of laughing while reading the bathroom stories. Even when in Paris there weren’t pits but you could’t find bathrooms to use. Your world of Amman is such a different place. Looking forward to your next adverture. I think I will chose to bypass the trip to St. Catherine’s Monestary.

  6. Oh, my, Jen, I’d have been as mortified as you were over the “restroom” facilities! And I feel your pain with your scarf. You are a true trooper. And I hope that cake was good. I rarely eat cake because I love it too much but birthdays are a must! Yummy! Raj, you better have spoiled her rotten with gifts on that trip! The “potty” incident was worthy of many, many pretty girlie things! LOL.

    1. Raj took care of me and the cake was okay, not worth the calories. I prefer buttercream with all of the FAT as opposed to whipped cream topping. Raj still owes me a cupcake from one of the bakeries over here, we just haven’t had a chance yet. I’m still working on getting brave enough for the “pit.” I guess I can practice at the mall since pit toilets are everywhere, malls included. They’re right next to the regular one’s, just in case you have a preference (I’m not kidding!).

  7. OMG, there are people who PREFER a pit toilet?? Aaaggghhh! I’m like you. If I’m going to eat cake, I want CAKE. I’d rather have an itty, bitty piece of heaven than to have a big piece of not-quite heaven! Enjoy that cupcake when you get it!! :o)

  8. Jen you will not get a lot of homor in my comments ,as my spelling would provide to much fun for you. I willtell you that your page is intresting. My heart goes out to you with the propane. We have had it for 40 yrs. You sound well. ,and i believe you will look back on this exper. as one of the best times in your life. All is well with our kids . Joe told you im sure that robt almost died with an infection.He is out of hospand doing better.Jays well also.Hope this note finds you and raj ingood spirits . Love billand al

    1. Hi, Bill. It’s SO nice to hear from you! My mom says you look at the blog, but until now, you didn’t exist because this is your FIRST, hopefully not last, comment. I’m getting better with the propane, but it’s a challenge, so I FEEL Alice’s pain, not yours because I doubt you’re doing much cooking. I’ve hear about Robert. Hows he doing now? And Laura? I heard she had a scare but all is well with her now? Glad to hear Jay is well. And Tucker? Thanks for asking, Shanti is doing very well, given the grooming challenges that he’s facing. I just keep cutting fur off of him because he looks so ugly since there aren’t any groomers to take proper care of him. We;re off to Petra today, which is about 3 hours from here. Check back for pictures. Say hi to Alice for me.
      Love, Jen

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