National Geographic : 1964 Jan
Twinkle-eyed Deacon Makarios smiles behind a beard. Like others in the little band of monks, he is of Greek descent. Aproned Novice Demetrios cooks in his private kitchenette. He wears the customary black, high-crowned hat and fastens his unshorn hair into a neat bun. White-bearded Father Elias enjoys the sun beside the church. The picture was made in silence: The photographer spoke no Greek, and Father Elias no English. erine stood before us-so beautiful, so unex pected, so lonely. I caught my breath. Dr. Weitzmann sighed: "At last, after 25 years of hoping, I am here." The monastery, a starkly isolated bastion the size of a city block, lies against one slope of a steep-sided wadi that enfolds it like a cupped hand. Its weathered wall, built of the same granite as the surrounding peaks, seems to defy them. Behind the monastery's ram parts a small band of monks, today fewer than a dozen, continues the tradition of re tirement from this world and preparation for the next. St. Catherine's is one of the oldest active monasteries in existence-a strange, timeless survival of another age. With Fred Anderegg, I was completing a two-month tour of the Near East for the Uni versity of Michigan. My goal: to find a site for an archeological expedition. Dr. Weitz mann of Princeton, a specialist on Byzantine art and an old friend, had joined us in Cairo to help decide if Sinai should be chosen. When we halted beside the monastery, a welcoming knot of monks surrounded us. Thanks to word sent by His Beatitude Por phyrios III, Archbishop of Sinai, they had known we were coming. Indeed, this learned and saintly man, who only rarely visits Sinai from his official residence in Cairo, be came the "patron saint" of our whole project. The monks helped us unload our precious photographic equipment. We passed through a tunnel-like sally port-the only entrance -and when I raised my head at the inner end, I blinked with astonishment. I stood in a miniature town with narrow paved streets, small courts, covered passages, and whitewashed buildings piled one on an other. Outwardly, fourteen centuries had lit tle altered St. Catherine's. Seeing it was like glimpsing the vanished world of Byzantium.