Israel Finkelstein

Monastery of the Forty Martyrs. Named for hermits massacred by Saracens in the fourth century, Deir el-Arbain, as it is called in Arabic, lies in a narrow valley south of St. Catherine’s Monastery. Today, the monks of St. Catherine’s cultivate the olive grove here.

Before the advent of Islam, monks and hermits living in the Sinai wilderness were constantly under threat of attack by Saracens. A nomadic people, the Saracens controlled the east-west trade routes and supplemented tolls with predatory raids. Marauding Saracens often attacked the vulnerable monastic population because they believed that the monks harbored precious gifts bestowed by pilgrims.