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Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai, Egypt

1958, 1960, 1963, 1965

Director: George H. Forsyth Jr.

Distant view of site

In 1956, a reconnaissance expedition led by  Professor George Forsyth set out from the University of Michigan to look for promising sites to excavate in the Middle East. After traveling through five Middle Eastern countries, the staff spent five days at St. Catherine’s Monastery at Mt. Sinai, the Mount of Moses. The monastery, an isolated stronghold the size of a city block, lies against one slope of a steep-sided wadi, or watercourse. Behind the monastery’s ramparts a small band of monks continues the tradition of retirement from this world and preparation for the next. St. Catherine’s is one of the oldest active monasteries in existence—a timeless miniature town from another age.

The monastery’s splendid art and architecture so impressed the reconnaissance party that they undertook to interest the University of Michigan in a full-scale study and publication of the original buildings and art they contain. The university was then joined in the enterprise by Princeton University and the University of Alexandria. Since excavation proved to be impossible for religious reasons, this was to become a unique expedition for the Kelsey Museum—one that consisted entirely of description, measurement, and photography. The monastery and its church are among the finest surviving examples of Byzantine architecture, housing collections of priceless Byzantine religious art and manuscripts.

The Byzantine emperor Justinian the Great erected the monastery in the 6th century as a fortress and shrine on the traditional site of the Burning Bush of Moses. The monastery church has undergone little basic change since that time. Its great western portal is still closed by the original wood door, 1,400 years old, which functions perfectly on its first pins and hinges. The wood roof of the nave, also of 6th-century date, rests on beams that bear inscriptions honoring Justinian and his famous wife Theodora. These inscriptions had been reported by travelers as far back as the 18th century, but not until the 1958 expedition was a careful study made of them in relation to the church structure. The inscriptions mention “our most pious Emperor” Justinian and his “late Empress” Theodora. Theodora died in 548 and Justinian in 565, so the church was completed between those years. Thus the expedition guaranteed the authenticity of the inscriptions and also narrowed the traditional 6th-century date for the completion of the church to a 17-year band of time.

Under the supervision of Professor Forsyth, the first large-scale, scientific drawings of the church and monastery were prepared for publication. Also of outstanding importance as works of art and as historical documents are the icons, mosaics, wall paintings, and miniatures. The most famous of them is the mosaic of the Transfiguration in the apse over the high altar, one of the noblest monuments of early Byzantine art. Careful study of the mosaic’s surface revealed that it had not been seriously tampered with since its completion 1,400 years ago and that centuries of incense and candle smoke had given it a beautiful patina of age. During examination from the scaffolding, however, the precarious state of the whole figure of Christ became apparent. The “skin” of tessarae—the small cubes of glass set in mortar—had become detached from the vault of the apse and was hanging so loosely that the touch of a finger would indent it. The whole thing might have collapsed at any moment. Mosaic restorers were hastily summoned from Istanbul, and the incipient calamity was averted by injecting a new mortar bed behind the “skin.” Later, the entire mosaic was cleaned; it now appears as it did in Justinian’s time.

These expeditions were widely heralded in journals and in such magazines as National Geographic (January 1964) and in Research News (August 1962), and preliminary specialized articles appeared in the papers published by the Dumbarton Oaks Center for Byzantine Studies. Professor Forsyth presented a paper at the 1967 Dumbarton Oaks Symposium devoted to the age of Justinian and lectured extensively on this subject in the United States. Representatives of the three collaborating universities are Professor Ahmed Fikry of Alexandria, Professor George Forsyth of Michigan, and Professor Kurt Wietzmann of Princeton.

The Sinai Archive currently resides within the University of Michigan Department of the History of Art. Inquiries can be addressed in writing directly to the department.