What is the Mona Lisa worth?
At the time of their destruction by the Taliban, what were the Buddhas of Bamiyam worth, in terms of culture, history and money?
With that in mind, let me ask this simple question: What is the Christ of Sinai icon worth? Yes, it is priceless. Yes, for Orthodox believers it is the icon from which all other icons flowed, like the ripples emerging after one stone as been thrown into a still pond. Yes, it is irreplaceable.
Is this a relevant question? Please know that — with the potential chaos in Egypt, with the persecution of Orthodox believers and other religious minorities — many Christians are concerned about the future of the world-famous St. Catherine’s Monastery and the treasures contained inside.
Thus, I was glad to see that Washington Post story that ran the other day on the monastery and the Bedouin tribes that help protect it. It was good to see this story before the monastery was attacked, should that come to pass. It would have been even better to have seen the story on A1, instead of tucked inside. But let’s be thankful for some coverage.
So what is the news? Here is a crucial chunk of background material:
In August, the Egyptian government closed St. Catherine’s Monastery to visitors as a precaution. It was only the third closure in 50 years. While the monastery reopened its doors again after three weeks, Egyptian security forces are now everywhere, shepherding the handful of foreigners into the area in armed convoys.
The monks at the monastery, and the Bedouin who make their living as guides here, stress that the violence is taking place 300 miles to the north. In the northern Sinai, the restive tribes have been sabotaging natural gas pipelines, and smuggling weapons, drugs and gasoline through their network of tunnels with the Gaza Strip. In the power vacuum created by Egypt’s upheaval, the Bedouin there have raised the black flag for militant jihad, and are waging a guerrilla campaign of extortion, kidnapping and targeted assassination against the powers of the state. …But in the south, the Bedouin tell their children the story of how the Roman emperor Justinian brought their tribe of mason-warriors to the Sinai in the sixth century to build the walled monastery here, and protect the monks with their lives.
So why is this monastery so important? What are the key elements of this story?
This is what the story says:
The descendants of these Justinian serfs continue to honor their task, and so do the monks in black frocks, with their long gray beards and ponytails, who devote their days to vespers and prayer and to their magnificent library, which preserves in the high desert air some of the oldest, most precious manuscripts in Christendom.
That’s a good start. The story also contains many paragraphs of fascinating facts about the Bedouin and their historic role in protecting the monastery. It’s important to know that the conflicts in Egypt have changed their lives and their economy. It’s good to know that they are standing firm.
And there is this additional description of that crucial and priceless library:
The monks here tend to take the long view. The scholar Father Justin, an American from El Paso, is busy on an ambitious project to digitize more than 3,000 manuscripts and subject the ancient tomes — some written, erased and overwritten again on parchment — to multi-spectral analysis.
Father Justin stood on the roof of the library, now undergoing renovation, and pointed out the mosque below, which stood next to the basilica. He felt safe, and proud that both Muslims and Christians are at home here. But he also mentioned the 60-foot walls that have stood for 1,400 years. “It was built as a fortress monastery, and it is easily turned into a fortress again,” Father Justin said.
But he added that he preferred to be protected by God’s good graces.
“That would be best,” he said.
Yes, yes? But?
But is the Christ of Sinai icon still located in the sanctuary? Has that small piece of wood and egg tempera been removed to safety?
Writing a story about the safety of St. Catherine’s without mentioning the world’s most famous icon is something like, well, writing about a threat to destroy the Mus e du Louvre in Paris without mentioning the safety of, well, lots of paintings. But rest assured that reporters would be sure to mention the Mona Lisa.