Behold the world’s oldest continuously operating library – Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai


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.


16th century copy of the Ashtiname of Muhammad.


The oldest known icon of Christ Pantocrator, encaustic on panel.


Sources: Sinai Monastery / UNESCO / Sacred-Destinations / StCatherinesMonastery

  • Geoff Kieley

    finally! you do a profile of a place I’ve actually been! This place really is amazing – and it’s great to see that icon – just the other day I was talking to a Russian friend about it. and I didn’t know what it was called. It has a lifelike quality that you don’t usually see in icons, it seems to me, a quality that I was struck by when I saw it. It was the most unforgettable thing about my visit. The ‘burning bush’ is just a stone slab on the floor with an iron grate over it – nothing impressive.

    • Dattatreya Mandal

      Good to know from the actual traveler. This site caught our attention because of a recent UCLA announcement regarding the digital reproduction of many manuscripts that are housed in the monastery.

  • Larry Larkin

    Of course, the Ashtiname of Muhammad is a complete crock, as ol Mo was well and truly dead before the muslims got anywhere near the Sinai peninsular and St Catherine’s.

    • pdigaudio

      Also, many scholars and archeologists don’t think this was the real Mount Sinai from Exodus, which more than likely was located in what is now southwest Saudi Arabia.

    • mohammed

      Unfortunately you have little knowledge as Prophet Muhammad was born in 570AD and was given Prophethood in 610AD. I hope that helped in increasing your knowledge.
      Thank you

  • Breogan O’Moal Dougnaic

    It Should Be Mentioned That The Monastery Of Saint Patrick At Armagh In Northern Ireland As Well As Other Sites In Britain And The Western Continent Contributed Extensively To The Preservation And Copying Of Manuscripts And Reliquaries And The Foundation Of Christianity In A Post Roman Europe (Fourth-Fifth Century). The Flame Of Faith Was Thereby Kept Alive In A World Where The Established Pagan Rule Was Crumbling And Chaos Ensuing…….These Hermitic Enclaves Were A Light In The Dark Ages.

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