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Biography of a holy mountain

28 October 2016

Geoffrey Rowell on the many-layered religious history of Mount Sinai

author’s collection

“The Crescent and the Cross”:
a wood engraving of the bell tower and mosque minaret within St Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai, by Harry Fenn/F. W. Quartley, from Picturesque Palestine, Sinai and Egypt by C. W. Wilson (NewYork, 1881-84), reproduced in Mount Sinai

“The Crescent and the Cross”:
a wood engraving of the bell tower and mosque minaret within St Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai...

Mount Sinai: A history of travellers and pilgrims

George Manginis

Haus Publishing £20


Church Times Bookshop £18



Now telle we of the Mount of Synai,

A full denote place sicurly,

In that Mount upon hy

Is a Mynstor of our Lady:

The Mynstor of the Busche men call hit,

Wher in the body of Sent Katheryne was put.


THIS quaint, anonymous, English verse witnesses to medieval English pilgrims to the holy place of Mount Sinai. There they found the place of the Burning Bush, which in Chris­tian devotion had become a type of the Virgin Mary, whose womb held God incarnate, without being over­whelmed by so great and immense a mystery.

There, too, they found the place where God gave the Law to Moses, and the cave to which Elijah came and discovered God, not in the earthquake, fire, or storm, but in the still small voice (literally the sound of “thin silence”). But there was also the burial place of St Catherine of Alexandria, believed to have been miraculously transported to the summit of Jabal Kathrin, and whose name has become the dedication of the ancient monastery at the foot of the Sinai massif.

In this detailed and meticulously researched account, George Manginis traces the history of Sinai as a holy place, and the succeeding generations of travellers and pilgrims who came there. In this holy wilderness we find early Christian anchorites, so that by the fifth century there were thriving monastic communities.

Jabal Musa was identified as the biblical Sinai. It was visited by the indefatigable Spanish pilgrim Egeria, in 383, who tells us that “impelled by Christ our God and assisted by the prayers of the holy men who accompanied us, we made the great effort of the climb.”

The Emperor, Justinian, built a fortress and basilica church at the foot of the mountain, the site of
the Burning Bush, and another basilica on the summit. Both were immense building projects. Drawing on an impressive range of pilgrim ac­­counts, and archaeological evid­ence by the early seventh century, Manginis writes that this “once remote wilderness was pullulating with holy men busy leading devout lives which revolved around Jabal Musa”.

One of the most notable was St John Climacus, the author of The Heavenly Ladder (Klimax). Only a few decades later, this monastic wilderness was incorporated into the Islamic Empire, but the monks of Sinai, though fewer in number, remained, and pilgrims continued to come, including Muslims, and mosques were constructed alongside Christian churches.

Ancient tradition forbade anyone to sleep on the summit of Jabal Musa, where Moses had met God, and this tradition continued until the 19th-century. The Reformation, with its hostility to traditional pilgrimage, meant a diminution of European pilgrims. In the 19th century, they were replaced by travellers, who were often Protest­ants concerned to find the true biblical Sinai and dismissive of monastic traditions that they saw as superstitious and useless.

It is a pity that in the midst of prodigious references from trav­ellers, Manginis does not have any reference to Bishop Colenso’s “mathematical” commentary on the Pentateuch, where, in discussing how Moses addressed the multitude of Israel from Sinai, he calculated that the crowd would have receded several miles into the distance, and, Colenso asked, how, then, would he have been heard?

The quest for the biblical Sinai was part of the influence leading to the Ordnance Survey of Sinai in1868, underwritten by the rich and devout Baroness Burdett-Coutts.

Among those who visited was the German Tischendorff, who suc­ceeded in removing the monastery’s greatest treasure, the early-fourth-century manuscript of the New Testament and part of the Septua­gint, the Codex Sinaiticus, which he presented to Tsar Alexander II (it is now in the British Library). Since then, the richness of the library at St Catherine’s has become widely recognised.

This fascinating and thorough “biography” of a holy mountain is an illuminating reminder of the power of a holy place of pilgrimage which has endured for almost the whole of Christian history. As the author concludes: “What makes Jabal Musa interesting for the scholar, fascinating for the visitor, and hallowed for the believer is the layering of worship, the stratigraphy of devotion.”

This book will surely both inform and encourage pilgrimage, as well as tell a rich and intriguing story.


The Rt Revd Dr Rowell is a former Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe.

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