St Katherine and the Burning Bush

People, I’m going to go all philosophical here. And I’m going to talk about religion. So rein in your dogmas… The reason why I’m broaching the most unpopular dinner party conversation is my recent visit to St Katherine’s monastery, high up in the mountains on the Sinai peninsula.

The Sinai is one of those places in the world that links two continents and is therefore going to always be a flashpoint for conflict – think Constantinople, the American isthums… the Sinai desert separates foes Egypt and Israel, it’s where Moses and his folk wandered, lost, for 40 years (imagine that TV series, if you thought the current one would never end…), it’s rocky, barren and geographically inhospitable.

Perched high in the mountains is St Katherine’s Monastery, a Greek Orthodox fortress-church. Remember the Greeks were here back in the 3rd century, adding a Grecian gloss to the by now decaying Pharonic culture. Alexander popped in, liked what he saw, and when he passed on at the portentous age of 33, his general, Ptolemy, took over the reins for a new era in Egypt.

In the following centuries, becoming a hermit became deeply popular – many religions men and women took to living in caves or – spectacularly in the case of showman St Simeon, on top of a high stylus – to protest against changes in the Christian church. The remote monastery was built in the 6th century, and colonised by Greek monks. When Islam swept across the country a short decade afterwards, the prophet Mohommad wrote a letter of protection for the monastery and later, Napoleon granted the monastery a similar decree of protection in 1798 and even put some cash into repairing the walls. Throughout the centuries, the monks buried their bishops' bones in a particularly creepy charnel house, and whiled away the hours peacefully painting those sad-eyed, gold tipped icons of Christ and the Madonna.

One of these icons is St Katherine’s claim to fame – it’s the world’s oldest icon, and is displayed in the monastery museum, set up with the help of NY’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (MOMA). The tiny monastery also has the best religious library after the Vatican and is, by the way, most likely the oldest continually inhabited monastery in the world.

The other and quite possibly bigger reason to visit the monastery (especially as the events are mentioned in the Ko’ran, Bible and the Torah) is the claim that the mountain behind the monastery is where Moses climbed to receive the 10 commandments. I have to say, having climbed it twice myself, he must have been a fit old bugger.

And it’s also the spot where God appeared to Moses in a burning bush and told him to lead the Jews out of Egypt and into their own country – the land of milk and honey – following a pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of fire by night. The burning bush is no longer burning, in fact a monk told me it has some very nice white flowers in the right season.

However, I did read that accounts as early as the 13th century reported that “the bush had all been taken away by souvenir-seeking pilgrims”. Still, it’s a nice bush. And it’s the symbolism, right?

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