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In ancient monastery, a stunning library

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Nestled at the foot of Mount Sinai, St. Catherine's Monastery has for centuries been almost inaccessible to the outside world. Only the most devout visited, undergoing a 10-day camel trek to reach it. So rare were deliveries of essential goods that the Greek monks there struggled daily to survive.

Built in 527 on the assumed site of the biblical burning bush, the fortress-like complex is the world's oldest continuously inhabited monastery: A Christian presence there can be traced back to the third century. Yet despite its isolated setting and the asceticism of its Orthodox monks, today the monastery is regarded as having one of the world's finest collections of manuscripts and icons.

The ancient library – containing 5,000 early printed books, 3,500 manuscripts, and 2,000 scrolls – is of an age and diversity that only the Vatican can equal. The monastery also owns some 2,000 icons, religious artifacts, and other curios, including a silver and enamel chalice from King Charles VI of France. This item was given to the monastery in 1411 and is so unusual that the Louvre Museum in Paris recently asked to borrow it for an exhibit.

The quality of the collection owes much to the arid mountain climate. The monastery's first printed editions of Plato and Homer, for example, look as if they have just come off the press; biblical fragments from the 4th century on seem untouched by passing centuries.

Today, this unique collection of religious and cultural works is being slowly opened to the public. Under the watchful eye of the monastery's Archbishop Damianos, St. Catherine's is participating in three projects that will make the collection more accessible.

The first stage has been to open a small, culturally rich museum inside the monastery walls. Known as the Sacred Sacristy, its nine rooms display some of the finest items of the collection: from Byzantine icons, including a 6th-century depiction of Christ that is linked to the monastery, and 9th-century parchments written in Syriac (a precursor to Arabic) to rare Slavonic prayer books and an illuminated copy of the Gospels from 995.

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