From the Ten Commandments to the master plan for much-needed conservation and restoration projects
It was Western Easter and the tiny resort of Sharm el Sheik on the tip of Sinai where our plane landed was humming with Europeans. We took the road north along the Red Sea between the mountain ridges of Sinai, among which the monastery nestles. After the ancient seaside site of Raitho, now known as Tor, we turned right toward the center of the peninsula where the road follows ancient tracks between the mountains, more or less the same path that the people of Israel took when they fled Egypt with Moses. At one point, the road becomes green and turns into the oasis of Faran, where the monastery has a beautiful abbey scented by flowering lemon trees. With us is the Reverend Damianos, archbishop of Sinai and head of the monastery, who for 35 years has guided the complex entity of the Sinai monastery with vision and diplomacy. In Moses’s footsteps The meander through the mountains eventually reaches the broad plain where Moses left his people to wait for him while he advanced into the narrow valley and climbed Mount Sinai where God gave him the 10 Commandments. Unchanged for centuries, the plain has recently acquired a tourist village with stone bungalows that mar the glorious view of the plain from the monastery walls or nearby heights. Other hotels and the village where the Bedouins, who until recently lived in tents, have settled have received permission to build nearby but out of view of the monastery. Hosni, 15, is a remarkable member of the Bedouin mountain tribe which has formed a protective circle around the monastery for centuries and lives off it, the right hand of the monks. Innocent looking and ready to speak up, Hosni dreams of having a Walkman. He finished primary school but didn’t go any further. «You need money to go to school in Tor,» he tells us in Greek, And his father has nothing but a camel to take tourists up to the summit of Sinai, a trip we made on foot by the ancient, hidden, almost vertical climb of 3,700 granite steps to an altititude of 2,285 meters. Let’s see how many days it takes the legs to forget that. But the eyes and the heart won’t forget easily because the land is indeed «where God walked» and the experience is unique. Hosni accompanied his father Pavlos and many of us (as if yesterday’s trip up Sinai were not enough) on the long road to the seat of Ioannis tis Klimakos, one of the many sites (at a radius of some 50 kilometers) where the monastery has chapels, hermit’s sketes, seats, estates and caves. The starting point for the monastery was a little church founded by Saint Helen in the fourth century on the site of the burning bush and a tower built a few meters away for the protection of the hermits who lived all around – a simple building with a striking interior which has survived. Two centuries later, around 550, the emperor Justinian issued an order that a large church be built (the katholiko, which incorporated the chapel of the burning bush, which has survived intact), cells for the monks and the surrounding walls. Gradually, the labyrinthian ensemble of buildings that is so astonishing to discover today evolved inside, around, and underneath those buildings. Thanks to tireless guided tours by the monks, we even encountered the old «industrial zone» of the monastery, an underground maze where they used to grind wheat, make bread and oil, salt olives and store wheat, oil and wine – the huge millstones and jars are still there. It would be a good place for a bread museum and they’ve thought about it, but there are so many things to be done. Emir’s gift In 1996, a master plan was drafted for the conservation and restoration work needed by the monastery – 25 different programs. Decisions are made on the basis of urgency and the funds available. But even when funds have been secured, there are still obstacles in the way of getting things done: procedures, permits, studies, implementation, balancing religious, state and archaeological concerns, and running the monastery smoothly at the same time, when it gets as many as 3,000 visitors a day. After the medieval refectory, the next big restoration project is the Justinian church – the roof, walls and famous mosaic of the Transfiguration in the niche of the sanctuary. Greek and foreign experts have been consulted and the work will go ahead, thanks to a donation of $500 million from the Emir of Qatar, who some well-off Greeks ought to know. Currently a number of projects are under way at the monastery, from repairs to cells in the eastern wall to the digital recording of the monastery’s 3,500 rare manuscripts. But much more must be done, such as protecting the northern wall from the torrent that follows rain, highlighting the ancient underground workshops, replacing ugly additions made to parts of the north wall after the 1971 fire in the Ossuary, and sprucing up the facades of buildings erected on the south side in 1951 (yet another clashing note of cement).