“Here We Pray Together”, the fourth annual St Catherine’s International Peace Forum, started this evening at St Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, to be followed by Muslims and Christians praying together at the monastery on Friday.
As the call to Friday noon prayer sounds at the Sacred Valley Mosque, the bells of St Catherine’s will also ring, calling Christians to prayer.
With delegates from all over the globe participating in the forum, including more than 20 foreign ambassadors to Egypt as well as the ministers of antiquities, culture and tourism, the event is intended to highlight Egypt’s peace and security.
South Sinai Governor Khaled Fouda said the forum aimed to spread a message of peace and security across the world from one of the most sacred areas where the three scriptural religions meet.
The forum will last for two days, with exhibitions displaying a collection of photographs, paintings and Bedouin handicrafts also being organised along with a tour around St Catherine’s.
The minister of endowments will deliver the Friday sermon at the mosque, and archbishop Dimetriose Damyanos will be preaching to Christians.
Minister of Antiquities Khaled El-Enany described Sinai as “a source of inspiration that has radiated across civilisations, both regionally and globally.
St Catherine’s Monastery combines Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This is what we could call the genius of Egypt and the reflection of a harmony between the followers of different religions,” he said.
St Catherine’s Monastery contains a distinguished basilica built in 530 CE by the Byzantine emperor Justinian on the site of an earlier chapel founded by St Helena, mother of the emperor Constantine the Great.
The monastery’s long existence and virtually intact collections of icons and manuscripts can be attributed to its naturally well-secured location, tucked away in the barren rocky landscape of South Sinai.
In 2002 the site was placed on the World Heritage List overseen by the UN cultural body UNESCO as a “mixed property, cultural and natural”, meaning that both the monastery and the area around it are protected.
Gamal Mustafa, head of the Coptic and Islamic Antiquities Sector at the Ministry of Antiquities, explained that last year the Library of St Catherine’s Monastery, second only to the Vatican Library in Rome in terms of the importance of its manuscript collections, was reopened to the public.
According to archbishop Damyanos, the sixth-century Library houses thousands of centuries-old manuscripts including a hand-written copy of the New Testament as well as thousands of ancient books and scrolls that date back over 700 years.
The restored eastern side of the library, he said, houses the world’s second-largest collection of early codices and manuscripts. “The renovation work has not yet been completed as what has been done is only the first phase of the project,” advisor to the Archbishop Tony Kazamia said.
During the restoration work in the monastery, a sixth-century CE medical recipe by the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates was found.
The manuscript is a palimpsest written on leather and bears parts of a medical recipe attributed to Hippocrates and three other medical recipes written by an anonymous scribe, one of which contains drawings of medicinal herbs. The second layer of writing on the manuscript is a text from the Bible.
The Mosaic of Transfiguration in the main church at the monastery has been receiving visitors after restoration. The library conservation work started in 2014 and has been carried out under the supervision of the ministry with funds provided by the monastery.
Ahmed Al-Nimr, a member of the scientific office at the Ministry of Antiquities, said that the Mosaic of Transfiguration was one of the oldest and most beautiful in the Middle East. It dates to the ninth century CE and covers a surface of about 46 square metres painted with precious materials such as gold and silver.
The mosaic depicts Jesus and the prophets Elijah and Moses. It is surrounded by 31 medallions containing pictures of other prophets, in addition to two medallions representing Jonah and the Virgin Mary.
Over the centuries, the mosaic has suffered damage from earthquakes and intense visitation by pilgrims from all corners of the world.
The Greek Orthodox Monastery of St Catherine, one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world and home of the biblical burning bush, is located on Mount Sinai, the place where God talked to Moses and gave him the Ten Commandments.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 18 October, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Praying for peace