St. George Church in Madaba (Greek Orthodox)

In 1884, Christian builders discovered remnants of a Byzantine Church amid the rubble as they were digging. They had unearthed a mosaic floor that probably survived all kinds of calamities or disasters. Upon further inspection, they realized that it was not just a floor, it was a map. To this day, it is recognized as the oldest map of the Holy Land in existence.

From AD 560, the map has 157 captions in Greek depicting all Biblical sites of the Middle East—from Egypt to Palestine. Estimated to have originally had over two million pieces, much of it has been lost but what remains can still convey how complex the whole map may have been.

During my first visit to the Holy Land as a pilgrim, this church was our first stop. There is an area before you enter St. George where they hold a short briefing as to how this map came into existence. For me, it was a perfect start of a pilgrimage because it gave me a sense of how broad the scope of the area was, and the attention to detail for a 1st Century map was mind-boggling.

Saint Virgin Mary’s Coptic Orthodox Church (El Muallaqa) in Old Cairo

Also known as the Hanging Church, it dates back to the 2nd Century AD. It got its name from the fact that it is located above a gatehouse of a Babylon Fortress, its nave suspended over a passage. Famous for several reported Marian apparitions, it is a popular pilgrimage stop. Restored in the 6th Century, its wooden roof is in the shape of Noah’s Ark.

We visited this church during the day time, walking with a crowd to reach this site with our guide, Ezzat. I could not grasp at first why it was supposed to be hanging, but as I ascended the 29 steps to climb to the top, I actually heard some other group’s guide explain that since the surface rose steadily with all the time that has passed, the “hanging effect” was not that obvious anymore. Upon reaching the top, that is when you see the thick pillars it was built on.

Saints Sergius and Bacchus Church (Abu Serga) in Old Cairo

Dating back to the 4th Century, this church is traditionally believed to have been built on the spot where the Holy Family rested at the end of their journey to Egypt, and where they may have lived while Joseph worked.

Named after Roman soldiers martyred in Syria for their Christian faith, there is a crypt 10 meters deep that pilgrims venerate as the spot where the Family rested. Above in the main church, there is a well they drank from. The church, restored several times, is still a model of the early Coptic churches. The southern wall of Abu Serga has many treasures on display, like a mini-museum.

Sacred Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai (St. Catherine’s Monastery) in the Sinai Peninsula

The physical components of this whole area date back to the 6th Century up to the present time. Built by Byzantine Emperor Justinian to protect numerous monks that had settled around the area of the Burning Bush from attacks by surrounding tribes, it soon became a fortress of monumental design that has lasted through many centuries. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002.

It is sacred to three religions: Christianity, Islam and Judaism. The monastery’s main church was built at the same time as the walls surrounding the area, around 542 AD.

There are nine chapels incorporated into the church, the most popular of which is the Chapel of the Burning Bush, which is not always open to the public. It holds the distinction of being the oldest, continuously inhabited Christian (Eastern Orthodox) monastery in the world and having the oldest continually operating library with extremely rare works.

In 1328, Pope John XXII referred to this monastery as St Catherine’s, and it is the first recorded Western reference using this name—believed to have been derived from the legend of the martyrdom of St. Katherine of Alexandria, a princess and a noted scholar who became a Christian at the age of 14.

She was martyred at 18 years old after converting hundreds to Christianity. She was ordered to die on a spiked breaking wheel but the wheel shattered upon her touch. She was consequently beheaded and instead of blood, a milk-like liquid oozed from her body. Before she was martyred, she had prayed that God would hide her body, so the story continues with angels carrying her lifeless body to Mt. Sinai until it was discovered.

Her relics (or part of it) are presently housed in one of the chapels in the compound. There are many conflicting versions of this story but for all intents and purposes, the aim here is to explain the change of name of such a historical site.

I have made the nine-hour road trip from Cairo to Sinai twice, and I would willingly do it again if I could just have more time here. This gem of a place rises out of a seemingly God-forsaken area that appears like an abandoned town. It can be quite a scare if you arrive at night.

My recent group spent the night in their guesthouse, a separate structure fronting the monastery complex with decent accommodations and a modest restaurant—perfect for those who aim to climb Mt. Sinai at dawn. We woke up to gorgeous views; the sun illuminating the whole area slowly and the sounds of people arriving from their climb.

The guide usually takes the group directly to the “Burning Bush” while explaining to the group the concept of an unconsumed flame (to quote a verse from Exodus 3, “so he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, but the bush was not consumed”). The guide then gives people time to explore the area which is huge.

Most visitors converge at the well where Moses is believed to have met his wife or enter the main church where photos are not allowed. To explore other important parts of the compound, you will need a day or two, so that is what I highly recommend for future visitors. S