Stories of Sinai

Fr. Justin Sinaites Speaks about St. Catherine’s Monastery

At a recent lecture hosted by the (proposed) Institute for Orthodox Thought and Culture, an old monk with a long beard told the tale of an ancient monastery.

Father Justin Simaites, head librarian of St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mt. Sinai, Egypt, oversees some of the oldest Christian artworks and manuscripts in existence. Seventeen centuries worth of texts, icons, engravings, embroideries, and a sundry host of artifacts and relics lie under his care – even several fragments of the Codex Sinaiticus, which contains the oldest complete copy of the New Testament. In recent weeks Fr. Justin has been traveling around the U.S. to speak at various prestigious conferences, and Dr. Gary Jenkins, head of the Institute, was lucky enough to nab him for this special lecture. “It’s happened so fast,” said Jenkins at the event, “I haven’t had time to be nervous.”

Throughout the lecture, Fr. Justin portrayed the monastery in two ways: as a symbol of continuity, and as an emblem of peace.

The story began in late antiquity. In the 6th century, the Emperor Justinian built St. Catherine’s atop what was thought to be the site of the burning bush. Since then, a tradition of prayer, study, and spiritual devotion has continued at Sinai without interruption. Even through the iconoclasm controversies of the 8th and 9th centuries, St. Catherine’s remained untouched. With both reverence and a touch of humor, Fr. Justin added, “at Sinai today, it’s as though the 6th century never ended.” Still carved into a support beam of the basilica is the inscription, “for the salvation of our most august emperor Justinian.” Still available for devotional purposes are 1,500 year old icons. “Sometimes,” said Fr. Justin., “we use a 10th century manuscript in the service of the Divine Liturgy – but no one notices, because the language and the liturgy haven’t changed since then.” One audience member, who had been to the monastery herself, later added, “you don’t just see old books at Sinai. You see the Living Tradition.”

But Christianity is hardly alone in Sinai today. According to Fr. Justin, when Emperor Justinian commissioned the construction of the monastery, he settled beside it some 200 Bedouin families who had previously agreed to guard and assist the monks however possible. When those Bedouins’ descendants later converted to Islam in the seventh century, the agreement did not change. To this day, the Muslim Bedouin and the Christian monks coexist in peaceful harmony. “We’ve differed in all the things that cause conflict,” said the father. “We’re celibate, they have families. We speak Greek, they speak Arabic. We are Christians, they are Muslims. But despite it all, we support each other.”
According to the father, Mohammed himself both knew and visited the monastery. He even wrote the monks the quasi-legislative letter, called the Ahtiname, which guaranteed peace between them and all Muslims. The letter is now housed in Constantinople, but the Monastery still displays a copy for public viewing.

One story in particular caused a stir of intrigue in the audience. Recalling the period in 2013 when Egypt entered a state of emergency due to violent political upheaval, Fr. Justin recounted that the Bedouin leaders came to the monks of the monastery and said, “we have been with you all these years – we are not going to abandon you now.” “The emperor commissioned the Bedouin to protect the monastery,” he said. “It is heartening to see their descendants still doing just that.”

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