It is not entirely clear why the traditional site of Mt. Sinai in the south-central Sinai that rises above St. Catherine’s Monastery was first identified as the place where Moses received the Tablets of the Law. No objective reason can be given. There are neither archaeological nor historical reasons for the identification.a The mountain so sanctified by tradition is not even the highest peak in the region.1

In the mid-third century, early Christian hermits like St. Anthony sought spiritual refuge in the Eastern Desert of Egypt. From there, the practice of monasticism spread eastward into the Sinai Peninsula in the early Byzantine period. Some of these sites in the Sinai associated with monks and monasteries developed traditions regarding the location of Mt. Sinai. One of them was Jebel Musa, the Mountain of Moses in Arabic. Another was Jebel Serbal, also in the southern Sinai, with the well-watered Wadi Feiran at its base.2

Jebel Musa was a major contender by the time of the fourth-century visit by a pilgrim named Egeria, some of whose accounts have survived. Accompanied by Sinai monks, Egeria was shown not only the Mountain of God, but even “the cave where holy Moses was when he had gone up again into the Mount of God, that he might receive the second tablets after he had broken the former ones when the people sinned.”b

At the foot of this mountain was a church built around a plant identified as the burning bush in which an angel of the Lord had appeared to Moses. “The bush though on fire was not consumed” (Exodus 3:2).

When the Emperor Justinian replaced the church with a fortress-monastery dedicated to the Virgin Mary in the late sixth century, the mountain’s identification with the Mountain of God became sealed in Christian belief. The official reason for the construction of this fortress-monastery was because the monks in the Sinai had petitioned the emperor to build it to protect them against marauding nomads. But it also served, along with other nearby monasteries, to secure the vulnerable eastern and southern flanks of Justinian’s empire. In the 12th century, the monastery was rededicated to St. Catherine, as it is still known today.—R.N.