Late last month, I made a spiritual pilgrimage to a place that is sacred to Christians, Jews and Muslims alike while touring Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The destination was St. Catherine’s Monastery, a Greek Orthodox Church dating to the 6th century and located in one of Earth’s holiest places: the valley below Mount Sinai, where the Prophet Moses is believed to have spoken with God and where he received the Ten Commandments.
The monastery and surrounding area was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002. Opened in 565 AD, St. Catherine’s is one of the world’s longest surviving Christian monasteries. The importance of Mount Sinai and the interfaith appeal of the St. Catherine’s historic site has protected the church and fostered an environment welcoming to people of all religions.
Getting to St. Catherine’s Monastery from Sharm El Sheikh
St. Catherine’s Monastery and Mount Sinai are located inland and at high altitude on the Sinai Peninsula, about 130 kilometers from Dahab and 210 kilometers from Sharm El Sheikh. If you’re visiting one of these resort towns on the Red Sea coastline, a trip to St. Catherine’s is a must — you’ll never be closer!
Although the group tour providers don’t offer an accessible option in this region, I was able to reserve a wheelchair accessible taxi from London Cab Egypt. The round-trip journey from Sharm El Sheikh to St. Catherine’s was reserved a day in advance. We departed at 6am and the drive took a little more than 3 hours due to road construction. The monastery is open from 9 a.m. to noon daily.
Vehicles are released for departure from St. Catherine’s City at 12 p.m. We made up a bit of time on the return and arrived at the hotel at 2:45 p.m. That was 8 hours, 45 minutes from departure and the total fee for the ride was 2,405 Egyptian Pounds (~$144 USD). For Egypt, that is expensive — but for 9 hours in a private, air conditioned and wheelchair accessible vehicle, I’d pay that every time.
St. Catherine of Alexandria — Who was she?
According to church tradition, St. Catherine of Alexandria was born in 287 as the daughter of the Alexandrian governor. Catherine became a Christian as a young girl and worked to convert others to the faith. Roman Emperor Maximian’s attempts to break her faith failed, and she was condemned to death in the year 305. When Catherine survived the first attempt to execute her on the breaking wheel, the emperor ordered her beheaded. She was 18 years old.
Her example of heroic faith was later referenced by St. Joan of Arc nearly a thousand years later. St. Catherine of Alexandria is venerated in the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church and others.
The monastery in the valley below Mt. Sinai became known as St. Catherine’s after the saint’s remains were found by resident monks, in or around the year 800. Tens of thousands of pilgrims make their way to the site each year.
Wheelchair Accessibility at St. Catherine’s Monastery
The car park on the monastery grounds is more than a quarter mile from the church itself. The road is cobbled with centuries-old stones that are unfriendly to wheelchairs. When this is explained to security staff, your driver will be permitted to park directly alongside the monastery.
After parking, I had to roll for about 200 meters across dirt and cobblestones which was manageable. There were two ways to enter the grounds of the monastery: Through a gate (which was locked) or over a step measuring 3 inches on one side and 5-6 inches on the other.
No one was able to procure a key for the gate, so over the step I went. We had to lay down a few boards collected nearby for the purposes of constructing a ramp. This was only the beginning of my accessibility woes, however.
After making my way over the step, it was up a steep ramp. My power wheelchair handled the ramp well. Sadly, it was the only ramp I would see during my tour.
From the outer courtyard, visitors continue through a narrow passageway in the exterior wall that leads to a staircase up to the inner courtyard. There is no elevator and every visit must negotiate the 7 steps pictured above.
My wheelchair weighs 450 pounds, so it had to be left behind. There was no manual wheelchair that I could borrow and it looked as though all hope was lost. But, having traveled thousands of miles to Egypt to see this place, I wasn’t going to give up. Volunteers located a plastic lawn chair and I transferred out of my own wheelchair. Four Egyptians carried me and the flimsy plastic chair up the steps and into the courtyard (I later tipped them each about $5 USD for their help).
My group of helpers/lifters sat me down first in front of the Well of Moses. As described in the Book of Exodus, it is here that Moses met his wife Zipporah, daughter of Jethro. The well still produces water.
Next, I was carried about 20-30 meters to see the Burning Bush (or “Unburnt Bush”), the place where God called out to Moses and told him to bring the Israelites out of Egypt.
Some say that this bush is the original, still living since it was set afire (but not consumed by the flames) by God, while others say that it is only a descendant of the original. The bush, a bramble, Rubus sanctus, has been placed behind a fence to prevent tourists from clipping pieces of the plant as souvenirs.
Next, we went to visit the church itself, stopping first to admire the bell tower and the minaret, which was slightly obscured by the former. One reason given for the monastery’s survival across so many centuries is the Muslim mosque built within its walls. To attack or lay siege against the monastery would be an attack on both a Christian church and a Muslim mosque — an act which no one dared commit.
From the inner courtyard, there are about 7 more steps to reach the Basilica of the Transfiguration. Taking pictures inside the basilica is forbidden, but I managed to take one before being told otherwise. It has three aisles demarcated by granite pillars. A complete description of the interior design can be found on the monastery website.
Even on one of the hottest days of the year, when attendance was quite low, many pilgrims made the journey to this holy site and offered prayers inside the basilica. I offered several of my own, calling upon the Fourteen Holy Helpers (of which St. Catherine is one) to intercede on my behalf and yours. I find this Litany of the 14 Holy Helpers to be useful.
After I had finished inside the basilica, it was back down the stairs to be reconnected with my wheelchair. I also took the opportunity to speak with one of the monks, whom I encouraged to make a greater investment in accessibility. The rear entrance, which has fewer steps, could be easily upgraded to a barrier-free entrance, without disturbing the site’s historical value. I found the monk to be disinterested in my pleas for accessibility and unconcerned with my struggle to reach the church. His reaction annoyed me.
The Ten Commandments demand accessible churches
Pardon me, but I’m going to preach a bit (about the importance of accessibility). Please trust that the following was written in the spirit of charity.
According to the Christian tradition, these are the Ten Commandments:
- I am the Lord your God: you shall not have strange Gods before me.
- You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.
- Remember to keep holy the Lord’s Day.
- Honor your father and your mother.
- You shall not kill.
- You shall not commit adultery.
- You shall not steal.
- You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
- You shall not covet your neighbor’s spouse.
- You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods.
I would posit that the first, third and fourth commandments must inform our thinking about the accessibility of churches in the modern era. To that end, I offer church leaders the following examination of conscience, based on those commandments from God.
- Have we placed greater importance on money, aesthetics or our UNESCO listing than tearing down the barriers that prevent people with disabilities from worshipping God?
- Do we impede the ability of people with disabilities to join our community in worshipping God on the Lord’s Day?
- Have we duly honored our mothers and fathers by making it possible for them to commune with God in His church, at all stages of life, at every age and regardless of physical disability?
Jesus shared two commandments of His own, which underpin the Christian faith. From the Gospel of Matthew (Mt. 22:37-40):
“He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments’”
Are you truly loving your neighbor if you maintain barriers that distance them from God, if you impede their ability to worship and keep His commandments, and if you prioritize money or secular recognitions over opening the House of the Lord to everyone? Pray on that.
Final Thoughts & Should You Go?
I am a Roman Catholic, but have never had any particular devotion to St. Catherine of Alexandria. Many travelers who make the journey are true pilgrims who regularly pray for her intercession. If you are one of those people, enormously devoted to St. Catherine, you must make the trip.
As I have described, accessibility at the monastery is very challenging and I have little confidence that it will improve in the near future. Does your interest in what I have described rise to the level of $150 and 9 hours of your time? Are you willing and able do what is required to see the sanctuary and the burning bush? That will be for you to decide.
Personally, I’m glad that I made the journey. It was a memorable experience and another UNESCO World Heritage Site checked off my very long list. I was able to see the biblical Well of Moses and the geographic place where God reached out to him. That’s all very appealing and something I’m happy to have seen, but I don’t think there is any reason for me to go back a second time.
Is Mt. Sinai Wheelchair Accessible? Although I was able to reach the monastery with significant help, getting to the top of Mt. Sinai seems like too great a feat. There are two ways up: A steep path with lots of steps, and a gentler path used by camels which reconnects with the steeper path for the final 750 steps. So, at the very least, you and your wheelchair would need to be carried up 750 steps to reach the summit of Mt. Sinai. Not my cup of tea, but if you have made an attempt I would like to hear about it!