The Sinai Peninsula and especially its summit of Mount Sinai, is considered as one of the most religiously significant places in three Abrahamic faiths – Christianity, Judaism and Islam. Suffice it to say, much like its ‘northern’ counterparts in Levant and Jerusalem, the area is home to a bevy of historical legacies. And one of the prominent (and still existing) ones among them pertains to Saint Catherine’s Monastery, situated by the gorge at the foot of Mount Sinai. Considered as one of the oldest functioning Christian monasteries in the world, the UNESCO World Heritage site also holds on to an arguably greater honor – it proudly houses the world’s oldest continuously operating library.
Founded sometime in 6th century AD (possibly between 548-565 AD), the monastery was probably constructed on the orders of Eastern Roman emperor Justinian I. In fact, according to some traditions, this building was built so as to enclose the older Chapel of the Burning Bush, a structure originally patronized by the mother of Constantine the Great, Empress Consort Helena. Given such ‘antiquated’ credentials, it is generally believed that the king post truss of the Saint Catherine’s Monastery is the oldest surviving roof truss in the world.
As for the ancient Roman monastery’s extant library, the establishments boasts the world’s second largest collection of ancient codices and manuscripts, after just Vatican City. To that end, the most important literary specimen arguably relates to the Codex Sinaiticus — the oldest known complete Bible (circa 345 AD) that was discovered inside the premises of Saint Catherine’s Monastery in 19th century by biblical scholar Constantin von Tischendorf. The impressive collection also includes a range of works composed in Syriac, which in itself pertains to a literary language derived from an eastern Aramaic dialect. The Syriac-based literature entail specimens like a 5th century copy of the Gospels, a copy of the Lives of Women Saints (from 779 AD), and a copy of the Apology of Aristides (the original Greek version is still lost).
These are further complemented by other Arabic manuscripts from early middle ages, including the copy of the Ashtiname of Muhammad, in which the Islamic prophet is claimed to have vouched for offering his protection to the monastery. Other ‘points’ of the Ashtiname (‘Holy Testament’) alluded to granting exemption from taxes and military service for the Christian monks of the monastery when under Muslim rule. Though it should also be noted that some scholars have presented their viewpoint regarding how the Ashtiname was possibly forged by the medieval monks of Saint Catherine. In any case, irrespective of the document’s authenticity, in rare situations, Muslim soldiers from 11th century Fatimid Caliphate were even called upon to protect the monastery and provide the monks with logistical aid.
Now since we brought up the ambit of literary works, the good news for history aficionados is that UCLA Library is all set to reproduce digital copies of some 1,100 rare and unique Syriac and Arabic manuscripts from Saint Catherine’s Monastery (with their dates ranging from 4th to 17th century AD). This fascinating restorative project is the fruit of the collaboration between the fathers of Saint Catherine’s Monastery, UCLA Library and non-profit Early Manuscripts Electronic Library (EMEL), while being funded by the recent grant offered by The Ahmanson Foundation.
Lastly, coming back to the impressive historical legacy of Saint Catherine’s Monastery, the establishment additionally boasts a myriad religion-inspired artworks and artifacts, including possibly the best collection of early icons and Crusader-style art. Since the monastery was relatively safe from the rigors of Byzantine Iconoclasm, many of these preserved icons housed here date from 5th-6th centuries, while the oldest icon on an Old Testament theme is also conserved in its original state.
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