May 25, 2012

The Convent of St. Catherine, 1871| Walking Through Egypt

The Convent of St. Catherine, 1871
Samuel Manning

The convent was founded by Justinian (A.D. 527), and was higher up the side of the mountain, perhaps even on the summit. It now lies at the base ofjebel Mousa, in a narrow part of the valley surrounded by gardens, which are cultivated by the monks and their Arab servants.

Until recently it resembled a beleaguered fortress rather than a convent. The only admission to it was gained by means of an aperture high up in the wall. Visitors were hoisted up by means of a crane, the windlass being worked by the monks inside. The most dignified person had thus to submit to be treated like bales of goods. Recently, the Bedouins having become friendly with the monks, and the number of visitors having increased, a gateway has been opened, though the strong iron-clamped door is still jealously guarded.

Entering the Convent, 1871 
E.H. Palmer
Proceeding up the valley, you pass, on your left, the hill on which Aaron is supposed to have set up the golden calf, and which is still called after him; next by some old monastic ruins, and the now deserted barracks of Abbas Pasha’s soldiery, and, then following the path which they constructed, in a few minutes reach the convent walls. As you approach, your Arabs set up a shout of Yd Musa (for the porter’s name is Moses), a little wicket in the wall opens, and a turbaned head appears and asks your business at the convent. A rope is let down, to which you attach your letter of introduction from the branch convent at Cairo, and, as it is drawn up, other faces white, handsome, and vacant appear and salute you, either with pantomimic gestures, or in a language of their own composing, fondly imagined by the community to represent Arabic.

Presently there issues forth from the gate at the side an old gentleman, reverend though fuddled in mien, dignified though unsteady in gait, with a patriarchal beard, and the most mediaeval of serge costumes, who, if such attention be not dexterously avoided, will fall upon your neck and greet you with a paternal kiss.

This is Brother Jacobus, the ceconomos, or bursar, of the convent, once a flourishing Smyrna merchant, but now, either because he is tired of the world, or, more probably, because the world is tired of him, brought here to end his days in the Convent of Mount Sinai. “I was an unbeliever,” said he to me one day, “until I came and saw what a holy place this is. For, when the earthquake shakes the mountains round, it never moves a thing within the convent walls; and that convinced me.” As an earthquake has not taken place here within the memory of man, this test of the sanctity of the establishment can hardly be called a crucial one.

It was by this worthy that the members of the Sinai Expedition were ushered into the Convent of St Catherine.
Relations between the Monastery of St. Catherine and the peoples of Sinai were not always easy, but when the whole peninsula faced a problem, the communities came together for the common good.

A Problem Shared, 1897
Agnes Lewis Smith
The inhabitants of the Sinai peninsula were at that time almost at their wits’ end as to how they could obtain water for their camels and their flocks. Nothing less than a famine was threatened, for not a drop of rain had fallen since March or April of the previous year in fact, since the flood of which our young Oxford friends, Messrs. Cowley and Stenning, were witnesses. This had been only too evident during our journey from Suez. The torf-trees at Ghurundel and the palms at Feiran had all looked miserable; there was hardly a plant alive in the Convent valley; the olives and almond-trees in the garden were drooping; and the fine old cypresses had dropped their leaves, so as to resemble scaffolding poles. The monks lamented the lowness of the water in their wells, and one morning we were surprised by the arrival of three sheikhs, who had come a long four days’ journey as a deputation from the tribes of the Tih, for the purpose of requesting the monks to pray for rain. This was sufficiently remarkable as between Moslem and Christian,' but still more curious was it when they preferred a like request to our dragoman. “But it will be of no use,” they said, “unless you put on a white dress and go to the top ofjebel Musa about midnight, and pray there.” Joseph excused himself by saying that the great thing was for people to pray for themselves. “If you don’t do that,” he said, “my prayers won’t help you much.” When we spoke to the monks of the drought they always said, “It is for our sins.”

It will readily be understood that in these circumstances the face of the sky was to us a never-failing source of eager interest; especially in the afternoons. Every cloud we saw sailing above the summit of the Ras Sufsafah, or gathering over our own valley towards sunset, we earnestly hoped might grow and give us the coveted blessing.


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