The Monastery of St. Catherine, also known as the Monastery of the Transfiguration, is located in a triangular area between the Desert of El-Tih, the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba in the Sinai. It is situated at an altitude of 4854 feet in a small, picturesque gorge. It is a region of wilderness made up of granite rock and rugged mountains which, at first glance, seems inaccessible. This is the region through which Moses is said to have led his people, eventually to the Promised Land, and there are legends of their passing in many places.
One of the most exceptional locations is Mount Sinai, where Moses met with God who delivered to him the tablets of the Ten Commandments. The region is sacred to Christians, Jews and Muslims alike. Tradition holds that, in 330 AD, in response to a request by the Ascetics of Sinai, the Byzantine Empress Helena (St. Helen) ordered the building of a small church, dedicated to the Holy Virgin, at the site of the Burning Bush and a fortified enclosure where Hermits could find refuge from the attacks of primitive nomadic tribes. South Sinai became a holy destination visited by pilgrims from countries of the world. In 1884, a manuscript was discovered that relates a visit to the area by Aetheria between 372 and 374 AD. Aetheria was a Spanish noblewoman who was accompanied by a retinue of clerics. She relates finding a small church on the summit of Mount Sinai, another one on Mount Horeb and a third one at the site of the Burning Bush, near a garden with plenty of water. Her account marked the expansion of monasticism in the Sinai desert.
By the 5th century, the growing population of Hermits was headed by a dignitary known as the Bishop of Pharan. His office was eventually superceded by the Bishop of Sinai. The Sinai monks then appealed to Justinian, the Byzantine emperor, for assistance. He responded by gifting a magnificent church, which he enclosed within walls strong enough to protect the monks from nomadic raids. The church is known to us today as the Monastery of St. Catherine.