Friday, 9 October 2009

The Sacred and Imperial Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount of Sinai

My father-in-law is a photographer, and one of the great things about 'have camera, will travel' is that he occasionally gets to go on some fantastic trips. A while ago he was invited to visit the Eastern Orthodox St Catherine's monastery in the Sinai Desert of Egypt by a friend who's a scholar and restorer of old bookbindings (he works on incunabula, or books printed before 1501 - a lovely word, if a bit difficult to pronounce).

St Catherine's - or 'The Sacred and Imperial Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount of Sinai', to give it its full Orthodox title - is a fascinating place and staggeringly old and precious. It was constructed in the 6th century making it the oldest working monastery in the world. It also houses one of the greatest collections of ancient documents in the world, second in size only to the Vatican. It's a quite remarkable survivor: a priceless repository, a miraculously intact relic, but also a living institution.

It managed to attain its great age in such pristine condition as it's never been sacked. This is down to its remoteness, its great defensive wall, and the political cunning of its monks. It's probably also due to it sitting on ground that's holy to all the religions of the book.

It's reckoned to have the descendant of the original Burning Bush growing in its bounds. The Ten Commandments emanated from the neighbouring mountain, a revelation recognised by Muslims, as well as, of course, by Christians and Jews. A sign of this inclusivity is the presence of a mosque within the grounds of the monastery. (By the way, William Dalrymple's From the Holy Mountain is an excellent if depressing source for further information on Eastern Christianity's remaining sites).

The colony of monks has enjoyed plenty of patronage over the centuries. They were great favourites of the Tsar. But the most charming example of generosity is that of two English spinsters who, feeling the monks needed a bit of pampering, fitted out for them a little retreat-cum-library, the Sisters' House. After masses on saint's days and holy days the monks can gather here to indulge themselves with sweet coffee and honeyed cakes. They have also been known to take a nip of illicit brandy. One of those small pleasures that helps life roll along pleasantly enough, I'm sure.

Norbert's photo of this ritual treat is at the head of the post (spot the sticky buns). I've also included below a shot of local mounted Bedouin, who provide most of the labour to support the monastic foundation. These are two examples taken from what is a stunning portfolio collected during his stay at the monastery. Others can be viewed at Norbert's site (click on 'Calendars' and 'Corporate') - it includes a great shot of an ossuary too.

I think they'd make terrific, interestingly alternative Christmas cards: the bright light, crisp blue skies and stony landscapes are more reflective of the first Christmases than our snow and robins. If anyone is interested in pursuing this please feel free to contact Norbert via his site.


Sophie King said...

Wonderful pictures - well done to Norbert.

Speaking of eastern Christianity, I made my first visit to Aya Sofia last weekend. Also 6th century, although knocked about a bit by earthquakes and Ottomans, and much buttressed and minaretted. However, the massive early church stucture still survives intact. In spite of the huge crowds of cruise liner tourists, I found it a profoundly moving experience. It's so big, so old and so permanent. I really wasn't expecting to react as I did.

Gaw said...

Funnily enough T and were just saying this morning how lovely it would be to go to Istanbul. I visited once when I was 19 and inter-railing (remember that?). I remember being taken aback by Aya Sofia - its scale alone was breathtaking. Also had the best shave and haircut I've ever had nearby!

Sophie King said...

Indeed, I do remember inter-railing. I got fleas in Greece.

This weekend I went to Istanbul with four girlfriends from university days. We go to a different city once a year in early October. We are all mid-fortyish, respectable (ish) and reasonably well-off compared with our younger selves. We traversed the city, with those who had been before exclaiming things like "Ooh, look do you remember we used to steal loo rolls from the Hilton?" or "Surely this is the cafe where only two of us could afford coffee and the rest sat on the pavement?" I feel only a very slight twinge of nostalgia for the days when I could contemplate sleeping on the floor of the Magic Bus all the way from Athens back to London.

Gaw said...

Sounds fun - give me clean linen and en suites every time now too. But there should be some memorial to the inter-rail trip. It was an amazing institution and a real rite of passage for our generation. Attempting something like that now would probably finish me off though.

Sean said...

I am off to Egypt next March, So i might give StC a go this time.

Nothing beats the pyramids, driving thru Cairo north to south, over the river, past the endless squatter graveyards ,after a couple of hours you see Giza sticking out above the sink tower blocks of Cairo. 20th centruy Versus BC 2560ish.

That image has never left me, and I am going back to hopefully take a picture of it. I was in a bus last time.

Istanbul is a real treat at Christmas time btw. snow is not uncommon there.

Nige said...

Lovely stuff Gaw - did you know that incunabula means swaddling clothes?

Gadjo Dilo said...

A "Sisters' House" where one indulges oneself with sweet coffee, honeyed cakes and brandy - mmm, I'm joining!

Your father-in-law's surname is (almost) the same as that of a charcter in that book by Gregor von Rezzori - did you read that, by the way?

I also remember Inter-railing - I got robbed in my sleep in Amsterdam.

Gaw said...

Sean: Never been to Egypt. Can't say I'm desperate, particularly when it looks so good on TV. Istanbul and Christmas though sounds a treat - I imagine at the very least you avoid the commercialism.

Nige: I didn't but it's a lovely source for the word. The contents of a book being as valuable as a baby - I think a little bit of that awe is still hanging around, albeit furtively (Dan Brown anyone?).

Gadjo: The book is in my Amazon basket, waiting for the next despatch. Looking forward to it.

Ah, the inter-rail robbery - golden days.