St. Catherine, legend has it, was well educated and of noble birth. While still a teenager, she admonished the Roman emperor Maximianus, violent persecutor of the Christians, for his cruelty. She also debated with his court’s pagan philosophers and converted them to Christianity. The new Christians were immediately martyred, as was the emperor’s wife on accepting baptism. Catherine was then broken on the wheel, which has become the symbol identified with her, and was beheaded, after which angels solemnly carried her body to Mt. Sinai, according to early accounts.
The Byzantine emperor Justinian founded a Greek Orthodox monastery on Mt. Sinai in 527, reportedly at the prodding of his wife. It resembled a Byzantine military structure, with thick granite walls. At that time, many religious establishments were constructed like fortresses; otherwise they would have no chance against raiders. In 570 A.D. a monk described the setting as “the abode of a multitude of monks and hermits who came to meet us bearing crosses and singing psalms and falling upon the ground to reverence us. And we did likewise, shedding tears.” In 628 the Prophet Muhammad granted a Charter of Privileges to the monks of St. Catherine’s Monastery, assuring them of protection, freedom of worship, and movement. The charter said, “No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims’ houses …. If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray.”
The monastery has always had a symbiotic relationship with the local Muslim community. A small mosque, still used today, stands on its premises, and its guards historically have been local Bedouin Arabs, supported by the monastic community.
During the Middle Ages, Catherine became a cult figure, and pilgrimages were made from all over Europe to her resting place. But gradually interest waned, and the resident number of religious dwindled. Only a few aged monks remain as guardians of this once-popular international shrine, which distributed daily food for four hundred persons and bread for another thousand. A priceless collection of icons, some of them dating to the eighth century, are housed on the premises, as are thousands of manuscripts containing texts of the early church.
Almighty God, by whose grace and power the holy martyr Catherine triumphed over suffering and was faithful unto death, strengthen us with your grace, that we may endure reproach and persecution and faithfully bear witness to the same through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
–Celebrating Common Prayer, 484
This article is reproduced, with permission, from African Saints: Saints, Martyrs, and Holy People from the Continent of Africa, copyright © 2002 by Frederick Quinn, Crossroads Publishing Company, New York, New York. All rights reserved.