St. Katherine and Mt. Sinai (Jebel Musa)

The town of Saint Katherine is famous for the Monastery of St. Katherine and Mt. Sinai (Jebel Musa), and these two sites are what most visitors see. However, there is much more in the area right around town, and even on the Mt. Sinai range itself. 

The Monastery of Saint Katherine
: The Monastery of St. Katherine is the oldest continuously inhabited monastery in the World and its library has the largest religious collection after the Vatican. It was built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the 6th century AD, although there was already a church at the site of the Burning Bush erected by the Empress Helena in 330 AD. Byzantine Orthodox monasticism has even earlier roots, and the area is sacred to all three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
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Visitor Centre
: Located at the roundabout before town, the Visitors Centre offers excellent displays on the Protectorate, natural history, archaeology, Bedouins and the Monastery. It is supposed to be open the same hours as the Monastery, but if you find it closed, you might ask for the caretaker in the little settlement of Kharazin just across the road.
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The Golden Calf
: Not far from the Visitor Centre in Wadi el Deir, at the base of the towering Jebel Safsafa, you can see a rock formation what locals believe is the mould which was used to make the Golden Calf. The area, including the Visitor Centre, is called Nabi Harun, after Aaron who Muslims consider to be a prophet. There are a little chapel and mosque on a hill dedicated to Aaron/Harun.
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Mt. Sinai (Jebel Musa)
: Mt. Sinai is revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims as a holy place, where a covenant between God and His people was established. Apart from the Old Testament it is alsomentioned in the Quran. Although its exact location has been disputed, for most people it is not the mountain but the message which is important. It is one of the highest mountains around town, and it’s described in more detail in the high mountains section.
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Wadi Arbain
: Wadi el Arbain provides an alternative to head for Mt. Sinai from the town of St. Katherine, and is also on the route to Mt. Katharina, Egypt’s highest peak. It is also home to the Monastery of the Forty Martyrs and the Rock of Moses. The rock that is believed to be from which Moses fetched water. The twelve clefts on it, according to local tradition, represent the twelve springs described in the Quran.
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Rock of Moses
: (Hajar Musa): At the beginning of the walk there is a Bedouin Wishing Rock, where locals throw a pebble on the flat top of a big boulder. If it stays on top the wish will be granted they say. Halfway in the valley is The Rock of Moses (Hajar Mousa), with the Chapel of the Birth of the Holy Virgin built right next to it. The rock with 12 clefts is believed to be the rock from which Moses fetched water. Locals believe the twelve clefts on it represent the twelve springs mentioned in the Quran (Sura 2:60). It is also mentioned in the Exodus as the rock which sustained the children of Israel (1 Cor. 10:4). According to Swiss orientalist Johann Ludwig Burkhardt the Jebeliya Bedouin believe that by making female camels crouch down before the rock the camels will become fertile and yield more milk1. Next to Hajar Mousa is a Bedouin marriage proposal rock. Lovers came here in the past and they marked one foot on the rock surface next to the other’s. If the two footprints are encircled, it means they eventually got married.
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Monastery of the Forty Martyrs (Deir el Arbain)
: At the upper end of the valley is the Monastery of the Forty Martyrs with a big garden, olive groves and cypress trees. The Monastery was constructed in the sixth century in honor of the forty Christian martyrs who died in Sebaste (central Turkey). Monks relate that forty Christian soldiers from the Roman Army in the third century were commanded to worship pagan gods. They refused and were put to death by being exposed at night to the bitterly cold winds off a frozen lake. Those who survived until morning were killed by the sword. In the grounds of the monastery is a chapel dedicated to the hermit Saint Onuphrius. Coming from Upper Egypt, he was said to have lived for seventy years in the rock shelter at the northern end of the garden, until he died in AD 390.2
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Wadi Itlah
: A huge boulder marks the start of Wadi Itlah shortly after Wadi Quweiz and Wadi Talaa merges into it. There is a stone road in this upper part of the valley leading to Chapel of Saint John Klimakos. Along the road on a plateau there are the ruins of a Byzantine monastic setlement.
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The Chapel of Saint John Klimakos
: locally known as Galeli Max, was built in 1979 in Wadi Itlah to commemorate his devotional work in the 6th century AD. Also spelled St. John Climacus or Climax, the saint spent forty years in solitude in a cave above the existing chapel. During this time, Klimakos was elected Abbot of Sinai and asked to write a spiritual guide. He composed The Ladder of Divine Ascent which likens spiritual life to the ladder seen by the Patriach Jacob extending from earth to heaven (Genesis 28:12-17).1
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Wadi Tala
: it is a beautiful wadi very near the town of St. Katherine, approachable from Wadi Quweiz, with a few gardens belonging to the Monastery and one to a Bedouin family. In the biggest garden there is a lesser known ancient Greek monastery named after Kosmas and Damianos. At the bottom of the wadi there is a spring at a deep cliff known as Ein Abu Tufaha. At the top of the wadi, a steep gully known as Sid Daud leads up to the high mountain wadis, the tricky path disappearing under a boulder at one point. A pass known as Naqg el Raheb connects Wadi Tala to town over a smaller granite range.
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The Monastery of Kosmas and Damianos (Deir Rahab)
: is named after the martyred brothers who were doctors and treated local people free in the 3rd century AD. – A beautiful wadi with one of the best orchards, belonging to the Hussein family, at the upper end. At an elevated point not far there is a leopard trap and some Bedouin rock shelters built under boulders. Down in the wide valley floor there is the Monastery of Cosmas and Damianos with big olive groves and tall cypress trees. Giant boulders dot the huge garden and the gracious stone monastery building is in the middle. Further down there are some smaller but just as beautiful gardens which also belong to the Monastery and are looked after by Bedouin people.
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Bustan el Birka
: A big stone walled Bedouin garden, called bustan, with a water tank, called birka, under a massive granite cone, close to where Wadi Freah and Wadi Abu Zeituna meet. There is a mulberry tree next to the garden and a rock shelter made under a flat rock. There are many Byzantine ruins, many of them in excellent shape, in the area scattered around the hills.
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