T HE SINAI DESERT IS ONE OF THE MOST BARREN PLACES ON EARTH. The wilderness where Moses led the Israelites after the Exodus is a giant peninsula wedged between Africa and Asia that is sometimes referred to as 23,500 square miles of nothing. Crossing into the Sinai recently on a journey to revisit biblical sites, I was reminded that Moses tells the Israelites that God sent them into the wilderness to “learn what is in your hearts.”
But at the southern tip, hundreds of miles from civilization, comes unexpected relief a 1700-year-old monastery that monks believe contains the actual Burning Bush where Moses heard the voice of God. Scholars dismiss the bush as a curiosity, but recently they’ve begun turning to its desert hideaway for a different reason.
Today, St. Catherine’s Monastery is at the center of a high-tech global effort to shore up its priceless heritage—considered the second most valuable collection of religious manuscripts in the world, after that of the Vatican—for the Internet Age.
The unlikely spearhead of that movement is a 56-year-old native of El Paso, Tex., who was raised a Baptist, converted to the Greek Orthodox Church and nine years years ago became the first American monk in St. Catherine’s fabled history.
“It’s amazing to live in a place that is so historic,” said Father Justin Sinaites (“of Sinai”), “Yet to be involved in something so modern. I can sit at my own computer, look out my window, and there’s Mount Sinai to my left, a 6th - century basilica to my right, and it’s 33 centuries between me and Moses.”
A soft-spoken man, Father Justin stands 6 feet 2, with flowing black robes that accentuate his otherworldliness. His face is gaunt, with thin round spectacles and a gnarled black beard dusted with gray that seems like a piece of Spanish moss. With deep-set eyes and a black skull-cap, he looks like a character out of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.
Born into a family that worked in religious book publishing, Father Justin developed a passion for Byzantine history at the University of Texas. At 22, he joined the Greek Orthodox Church, which split from the Roman Catholic Church in the 11th century, in part over the authority of the Pope. Today the church has 250 million believers worldwide.
I N 1974, FATHER JUSTIN ENTERED A MONASTERY IN BROOKLINE, MASS., where he supervised publications. About 20 years later, determined to draw closer to Byzantine history, he trekked uninvited to St. Catherine’s and told the arch-bishop he would like to become a member. “He just gave me this icy look,” Father Justin recalled. “Then that night he left for Greece.” Three weeks later, the archbishop returned. “Now that you’ve seen the monastery without rose-colored spectacles,” he said, “do you still want to become a member?” Father Justin said “yes.”
One of the most spectacular compounds in the Middle East, St. Catherine’s —named after a martyred Egyptian saint—was founded in the 4th century based on a local tradition that said the Burning Bush was located at the base of the area’s second tallest mountain, Jebel Musa, or Mount Moses. Though only one of dozens of mountains labeled the actual spot where Moses received the Ten Commandments ,Jebel Musa became known among pilgrims as “Mount Sinai” once the monastery was built. Emperor Justinian expanded the small monastic site in the 6th century, surrounded it with granite walls 60 feet high and built the basilica . Monks claim the basilica’s doors are the oldest functioning ones in existence and that they lead to the world’s oldest continually operating monastery. Seven services are held three times a day in Byzantine Greek.
The monastery’s signature curio is an enormous fountaining shrub, about 6 feet tall. Large branches sprout from its center and dangle like those of a weeping willow The bush grows behind the chapel, near a well that marks the spot where Moses is said to have met his wife, Zipporah. A fire extinguisher sits off to one side. The first time I visited. I thought the device was an eyesore, but then I realized the unintended humor. Was this in case the Burning Bush caught on fire?
Monks claim the plant is unique and has been growing in the same spot since the time of Moses, around 1300 B.C.E . Are they right? The Bible does not give an exact location, and few scholar s these days engage in pinpointing natural phenomena from the text , which many consider passed down from oral tradition. Clues, though, suggest that the bush is rare. it belongs to the species Rubus sanctus, a kind of wild raspberry that grows primarily in the mountains of Centra l Asia and in the eastern Mediterranean. Few specimens have been found in the arid areas of the Middle East . As to location, even the monks say the bush was moved several hundred years ago to accommodate a new chapel.
Does it matter to FatherJustin if this is the actual Burning Bush? “ I believe what’s important is not where the revelation happened but that it happened,” he told
me~ “God said to Moses, ‘The place whereon thou standest is holy ground.’ It was the identification of that very place that led the first hermits to settle here, and that has been the focus of everything here since that time.”
B UT EVEN MORE THAN THE GROUNDS OF ST. CATHERINE’S —which contain a refectory, a handfitl of chapels, even a mosque built in the 12th century for local Muslims—the most precious facility maybe the library lt is here that Father Justin has begun to bring the millennium-and-a-half-old institution into the 21st century.
St. Catherine’s library contains 4570 manuscripts (many illuminated), 7000 early printed books and 6000 modern ones. Texts include some of the world’s oldest Bibles and mint copies of the first printed editions of Homer and Plato. The monastery’s most famous manuscript was the Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest complete Bible in existence, written in Greek in the 4th century. It resided here for 1500 years, until a German scholar “borrowed” it in 1844 for copying, then sold it to Russia (43 leaves, previously removed, remained in Germany). Russia later sold most of it to the British Museum Library. A few leaves were found hidden in a wall in St. Catherine’s and are on display there in an archive designed by New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The rest of the manuscripts, though well preserved by the dry climate, are largely inaccessible to scholars. Documents that could unlock precious clues to the birth of the Bible, the rise of Christianity, the spread of monotheism and the ability of this lone desert monastery to survive in a hostile environment have been seen by only a handful of people.
Father Justin came up with the idea of using advanced digital technology to photograph the collection and post it on the Internet. With a grant of $50,000, he began shooting manuscripts with a Swiss-made Sinar camera that can make images of up to 75 million pixels . (Consumer cameras typically shoot 4 million pixels.) He uses lights that filter out ultra-violet rays and a custom made cradle so the manuscripts are not unduly strained. “We have excellent equipment,” he says, “and we are gratified at the assistance we have received.” His funds are about to run dry, however, putting the 10-year project at risk. But Father Justin seems to relish such hurdles—and his dedication already has reaped unimagined rewards. In March, the 25 monks of St Catherine’s elected him Librarian, a prestigious position giving him access to manuscripts previously off-limits . And plans have been drawn to reconstruct the library, adding digital-conservation rooms. Also in March, an agreement was signed to allow all existing pages and fragments of the Codex Sinaiticus to be photographed, in effect reuniting the priceless manuscript geographically in the monastery s collection.
During a tour of the library, I asked Father Justin if living in such a place had affected his faith. “Living here, you become intensely aware of the history of the area,” he said. “You see how many times the church came close to being destroyed, how many times it came close to being abandoned. There’s been an amazing continuity that defies all human explanation. The only explanation is that it’s a place protected by God.”
And what about his personal struggle to confront the traditions of the monastery and to open its gems to the world?
He smiled ruefully and pointed toward the summit behind him. “I think the ascent of the mountain is the perfect image for faith,” he said. “Sometimes the ascent is very arduous, as every pilgrim experiences climbing Mount Moses. But in the very midst of the labor, that is when we are purified. That is why Moses remains a paradigm for us all: because, as the Bible says of him, ‘And the Lord spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend.”’
PARADE Contributing Editor Bruce Feller
is the author of “Walking the Bible” and
“Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three
Faiths. “ He has been crisscrossing the Middle
East, visiting sites of biblical history that
resonate in our Western culture.
May 15, 2005. (Pgs. 4-6)
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