The fire is out now, but the burning bush still flourishes. No voices either, nor is there any sign of the golden calf or the Ten Commandments. For Biblical atmosphere, however, it would be difficult to beat St. Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai Desert.
As I wound my way up Gebel Mu sa (Mount Moses) just beyond the monastery -- tumbled boulders and gnarled crags as far as I could see in every direction -- I had the eerie notion that I might still stumble over Commandments 11 through 15.
The Greek Orthodox monastery and environs are, quite simply, my favorite place in Egypt, even after spending a year roaming across most of the country. Luxor and Aswan, Cairo and Alexandria -- their rewards are great if one can detect them through the veil of tourists. But the St. Catherine's area -- about 220 miles southeast of Cairo in the southern part of the desert -- combines extraordinary natural scenery and fascinating sites with an absence of tour buses.
The same isolation that today preserves the area from hordes of Bermuda shorts is responsible for many of the monastery's treasures. Built about 550 A.D. as a fortress with 40-foot walls to keep out raiding Bedouin, the monastery is one of the few early Christian sites to have survived intact. And when the iconoclasts of the eighth and ninth centuries were destroying Christian icons everywhere else, their messages did not reach St. Catherine's or were ignored. Consequently, the monastery's collection of 2,000 icons may be the finest in the world.
Likewise, the library -- which the monks claim is the oldest continuously functioning one in the world -- contains possibly the finest collection of early manuscripts after the Vatican. Priceless illuminated manuscripts litter the room, and a monk will casually pluck from an unlocked drawer a 1,000-year-old volume to show off the dazzling illustrations. (Officially the library -- and church services -- are off-limits to tourists, but an expression of interest to a friendly monk may work a miracle.)
The location of this monastery was determined by early Christian pilgrims who were searching for the site where God spoke to Moses from a burning bush, and for Mount Sinai, where God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. Scholars say it is impossible to be sure that the location is correct, but by the fourth century the pilgrims had generally agreed that Mount Moses was the Biblical Mount Sinai, and that an unusual bush at its base had been the burning one.
The Roman emperor Justinian established the monastery two centuries later and endowed the library with a book that is still on display. The monastery is named after St. Catherine, a pious young woman of Alexandria in the early fourth century who, according to legend, had a vision in which she was married to Christ. When the Roman governor found that the woman spurned his attentions, he had her executed.
Centuries later, a monk near the burning bush had a vision that angels had carried St. Catherine to the summit of a nearby mountain, and that if he dug there he would find her. He did. Her miraculously preserved body secreted a fluid that was given to pilgrims for its curative powers, but the secretions stopped in the 14th century. And unfortunately, the entrepreneurial monks sold many of her relics in Europe, so that today all that is left in the monastery is her skull and one hand.
Dominating the monastery is the original, basilica-style church with a famous, riveting mosaic of the Transfiguration. The nave is crowded with extraordinary works of art, and right behind it is the burning bush. It is a thriving shrub, almost a tree.
On the other side of the church, appearing strangely out of place, is a small mosque complete with minaret. The story is that around the year 1,000, Caliph al-Hakim set out to destroy the monastery, prompting the wily monks to transform a building into a mosque. They then explained to the caliph's army that this was a holy site for Islam, and the soldiers were sufficiently impressed to spare St. Catherine's.
Nearby is the remarkable ossuary -- a room in which stacks of skulls stare wanly back at visitors. The bones of deceased monks are put in the ossuary: skulls in this pile, arms in that pile and so on. There are only a few graves at the monastery, so when a monk dies, the oldest grave is dug up and the bones sent to the ossuary. Then the more recently deceased monk is buried in his place.
In a corner of the ossuary are the remains of Saint Stephen. He is slumped in a chair, fully dressed, head lolling on his chest. Since he is about 1,400 years old, but looks only about 1,000, he may be said to look miraculously young for his age. His hands and feet are slightly mummified as a result of the warm, dry climate, but basically he is a skeleton.
Though the monastery is a treasure, the most awesome aspect of St. Catherine's is Mount Moses looming above -- the presumed Mount Sinai of the Bible. Two trails lead up from the monastery, converging at a grassy oasis two-thirds of the way to the summit. The mountain is steep, with crags jutting every which way, but the monks graciously and laboriously have built some 3,000 stone steps to help pilgrims negotiate the worst sections.
At the 7,300-foot summit is a small area with a chapel, legions of mice and a spectacular view. In every direction are only red granite mountains and cliffs, magnificent in their desolation. I sat on a ledge, my feet dangling over the precipice: a solitary human dot in the twisted granite infinity. The calm was eerie.
After watching the mountains blush an even more fiery crimson under the setting sun, I stumbled down the trail in the dark. The descent took 90 minutes, half the time of the ascent. Sunrise and sunset are the best times to be at the summit, but these are also the times when other tourists are most likely to be present.
If you are not prone to sleep-walking, you can stretch out a sleeping bag and sleep at the summit -- catching both sunset and sunrise. But bear in mind the explanation of Byzantine historian Procopius that the monastery was built below the peak because at the top "constant crashes of thunder and other terrifying manifestations of divine power are heard at night, striking terror into man's body and soul."