A medieval party of 800 Armenians at the top of Mount Sinai suddenly found themselves surrounded by fire. Their pilgrim staffs shone like candles but, wisely chanting ‘Kyrie Eleison’, they were relieved that after an hour or so the fire abated and not an eyelash of theirs was harmed.
The top of Mount Sinai is no place to be stuck in an electrical storm, even less exposed to the fire of God’s presence. A steep mass of weathered granite 7,616 ft high overlooking the Red Sea, it could be climbed on foot (but not on mule-back) with the help of 3,700 steps built into the rock. The slog was worth it because this was the Mountain of the Law where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments — hence its Arabic name Jabal-Musa (Mount Moses), which George Manginis uses for the summit.
Despite the name of the book, he refers to the whole mountainous mass as Horeb, reserving Sinai for the peninsula. A second focus of holiness, perhaps just as holy, lies at the foot of the mountain, where Moses saw the Burning Bush, and God told him his name: ‘I Am Who Am’. There stands the Monastery of St Catherine behind its 40 ft walls in an enclosure of 80 by 90 yards.
It is astonishing that the monastery has survived since the first centuries of Christianity, when it acted as a focus for desert hermits or anchorites. I had got it all wrong about St Catherine’s. I thought it was a guest, as it were, in a sea of aliens. But the monks were able to thrive in the midst of Muslim territory because the monastery was the greatest power in south Sinai. The Bedouin depended on the monastery, not vice versa.
Not that there haven’t been awkward moments. Dr Manginis insists that massacres and the odd murder of an abbot were the exception. But at the beginning of the 11th century, under the caliph al-Hakim, who had just destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a commander was despatched to do the same for St Catherine’s. A delegation of monks met him some way off and suggested that he might perhaps like instead to have the gold and silver vessels that the monastery possessed. It was a close shave.
A striking element of monastic life that Manginis brings out was the hospitality to Christians of different rites: Greeks and Latins, Syrians and Armenians. He doesn’t say so, but there is a parallel with the openness of Mecca to Muslims of all kinds who might ordinarily be at each other’s throats.
At St Catherine’s there was even a mosque set up within the monastery, in the old refectory, and one built on the holy summit, where once a glorious basilica had been constructed in about 560 by the Emperor Justininan, decorated with marble and mosaic (tessarae from which archaeologists recently found carefully buried for re-use in more fortunate days). The basilica fell down, probably because of an earthquake, some time before the 11th century.
These things are not always easy to pin down. Pilgrim records are uneven. There is a charming account by Egeria, a dauntless pilgrim who clambered to the summit on Sunday 17 December 383. But the only evidence of the visit by the English knight Sir Thomas de Swinburne in 1392 is the graffiti he left in the new refectory.
In the 19th century, pilgrims grew fewer and snootier. British and American Protestants tended to think the monks ignorant, lazy, greedy and isolated, though it was the westerners who were ignorant of the monastery’s chain of priories stretching to India, which kept them in the swim of Orthodox religious and political currents.
The great 19th-century crime against St Catherine’s was the theft of the Codex Sinaiticus, the fourth-century biblical manuscript, by Constantine Tischendorf, who coughed politely and said he’d just like to borrow it to study in Cairo. He never came back.
To add insult, the Victorians began to ask whether this really was Mount Sinai after all. But if it’s not, one might reply, where is?
Anyway George Manginis, with a scholarly knowledge of Islamic history and experience of digging archaeologically on the dangerously electric summit of Mount Sinai, gives an engrossing account of the effect of the belief that this is indeed the Mountain of the Law. Its future, as waves of political earthquakes continue to afflict the Islamic world, no one can call secure. The Foreign Office’s advice is not encouraging, but visit while you can.