St. Catherine’s Monastery: Friendship between Christians and Muslims
By Evan Ploeckelman / Arab America Contributing Writer
Located in the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt, about 200 kilometers away from Sharm El Sheikh, lies St. Catherine’s Monastery. Built by the Byzantines in the 500s, the site is significant to Christians, Muslims, and Jews as the supposed location of Moses’ encounter with the burning bush, as well as being situated in the shadow of the mountain where God revealed the Ten Commandments to Moses. It also contains the oldest continuously operating library in the world. While the structure was originally built by Christians, people of other faiths, specifically muslims, have also made their impact on the Monastery up until the current day.
History of St. Catherine’s Monastery
The first known people to inhabit this area for monastic purposes comes from a journal written in Latin by a female pilgrim known as Egeria sometime between 360 and 370 AD. This was particularly common in the area at that time, as Christians known as Desert Fathers would practice monastic life, especially asceticism, or the giving up of worldly pleasures, in the rural areas of Egypt. Under the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (527-565), a monastery at the site was built surrounding St. Helen’s Chapel, or The Chapel of the Burning Bush, named for the biblical and quranic story of the burning bush. The monastery itself was named after the martyr Saint Catherine of Alexandria, who was beheaded by the Roman Emperor Maxentius for converting others to Christianity.
The monastery was taken over during the Islamic conquests and the subsequent caliphates. During the Fatimid Caliphate, a mosque was built on the site of one of the chapels of the monastery. It was used through the length of the Fatimid Caliphate and into the Mamluk Sultanate, but was left abandoned during the Ottoman era. It was rebuilt in the 20th century and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002.
Christians and Muslims
Ever since the muslim conquest of the region, the monastery has had interfaith relations between Christians and Islam. The earliest interaction between these two groups is recorded in the Ashtiname, which translates to “Book of Peace” in Persian. This treaty, supposedly written by Ali, a cousin of the prophet Muhammad, and ratified by Muhammed himself, allowed for the monastery to continue to exist under the newly established caliphate. According to certain stories, Muhammad actually visited the monastery to pray. However, the legitimacy of the Ashtiname has been called into question, as certain details of the document do not line up. For example, the document contains images of minarets, which were not used in Islam until after the death of Muhammad. Nevertheless, this document shows the early relations between Christians and Muslims in the Sinai Peninsula.
Most notable about the monastery, however, is the relationship between it and the local bedouin tribes. The first accounts of bedouins inhabiting the area come from Eutyches, the ninth century Patriarch of Alexandria, who describes families brought from Alexandria and Anatolia to defend the mosque. While they have over time converted to Islam and began speaking Arabic, these tribes have continued to have reciprocal relations with the monastery.
The bedouin are responsible for taking care of the monastery in various ways. For example, in 1971, when a fire broke out in the monastery, the bedouins helped the monks put out the flames. The bedouin are also employed by the monastery to perform basic duties, such as cleaning. In return, the monastery provides the bedouins with medicine, food, and serves as a mediator when conflicts arise. One notable tradition between the two groups is the weekly breaking of bread with both the monks and the bedouins, with the bedouins receiving a larger share of bread than the monks. While both the monks and bedouins generally lived without much for many centuries, greater interest in the region by the Egyptian government has increased the living standards for bedouins in the area.
In the modern era, the monastery, maintained by the Greek Orthodox Church, continues to serve as a bridge between Christianity and Islam in a region so often marred by conflict. While recent events such as a terrorist attack in 2017 committed by Islamic State members, killing one police officer and wounding three others, has broken this peace somewhat, the reciprocal relationship between the two faiths at the monastery is admirable and something that we should strive to accomplish.
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