Mount Sinai: A History of Travellers and Pilgrims
Haus Publishing 320pp £20
Mount Sinai holds a special place in the imagination as the place where Moses saw God and received the Tablets of the Law. Few who have visited it will forget its grandeur; its vulnerable situation today in a highly sensitive part of Egypt brings it all the more to our attention. Add to this a greater awareness of the treasures of St Catherine’s monastery, especially its incomparable collection of icons, fostered by loans to several recent exhibitions. Meanwhile, the St Catherine’s Foundation is sponsoring an extensive programme of restoration and conservation in the monastery’s library, with its thousands of manuscripts in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Arabic and other languages.
St Catherine’s monastery, however, which dates back to the sixth century AD, is not the main focus of George Manginis’ book. Rather, he sets out to emphasise the remains on the summit above the monastery, known by its Arabic name of Jabal Musa. Excavations in the 1990s revealed a substantial basilica constructed over an earlier church building. Manginis carefully explains that the term Sinai denotes the peninsula, while Jabal Musa is part of a mountain cluster known as Horeb, also associated with Elijah. Though there can be no certainty, he argues for Jabal Musa the Biblical Mount of the Law associated with Moses, as the buildings on its summit seem to indicate.
There are many Nabataean graffiti on the rocks of Sinai, wrongly assumed by scholars of the 17th century and later to be in Hebrew, and Christian ascetics were living in remote parts of the peninsula from an early date. Justinian’s monastery, which Manginis, following Procopius, always terms ‘fortress’ and whose impressive walls enclose what is believed to be the original Burning Bush, protected these holy men as much as it acted as a defence against invasion; the basilica atop Jabal Musa seems to belong to the same period. Unlike the monastery and its church, which survive and function today, the basilica on the summit collapsed sometime between the eighth and 11th centuries, possibly after an earthquake.
The monks of St Catherine’s (the name and dedication are much later than the sixth century) have managed to weather many vicissitudes over the centuries until the present day. Manginis is interested in the pilgrims, travellers and scholars who visited it from the medieval period to the 19th century, when the rise of Biblical scholarship under the influence of Protestantism brought a new wave of enthusiasts to Sinai, but also disapproval from the monks when the Russian Tischendorf removed the fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus to St Petersburg (though much of it is now in the British Library). Unlike most existing literature, Manginis’ book does not discuss or illustrate the unique collection of manuscripts and icons in St Catherine’s. Instead it offers a different perspective and a fascinating story of the enduring appeal of Sinai over a period of nearly two millennia.
Averil Cameron is Professor Emeritus of Late Antique and Byzantine History at the University of Oxford.