September 4, 2021

The Chapel of the Burning Bush at Mount Sinai

The Chapel of the Burning Bush is the most ancient shrine in the Monastery of Saint Katherine at the base of Mount Sinai, and it was around this site that the first community of Sinai anchorites gathered. The bush was mentioned by Egeria, who came to Sinai in 383-384 AD. The chapel is behind the sanctuary of the Basilica of the Transfiguration. Pilgrims enter this most holy place without shoes, in keeping with God’s command to Moses.

According the oldest monastic tradition, this chapel sits atop the roots of the same biblical bush "that burned with fire, and was not consumed" (Exodus 3:2) when God spoke to Moses for the first time. A few feet away from the chapel is the reputed bush itself, a rare species of the rose family called Rubus Sanctus. This species is endemic to Sinai and extremely long-lived, a fact that lends scientific credence to the site. The sprawling bush is said to have been transplanted in the tenth century, when the chapel was given a roof and the bush needed sunlight to survive. Today, it is very large in size, even though it is trimmed and its remains are ironically burned in flames.

Chemists have found that this peculiar plant secretes volatile essential oils, which, in calm, windless weather, accumulate in the form of a cloud, both inside the bush and around it. Vapors of oils, having reached the maximum permissible concentration, are capable of spontaneous combustion. But combustion occurs quickly, and little heat is released, so the bush remains - unharmed!

Regarding this bush, it is claimed by the monks that nothing like it can be found anywhere else in Egypt or even the world, and it cannot be transplanted anywhere either. There have been attempts in the past to transplant the bush outside of the area, but the effort proved to be futile. Botanist Nabil El-Hadidi of Cairo University has studied the bush and testifies that the Rubus Sanctus is extremely rare and limited to the area of Sinai. He further says that it could live for thousands of years. These facts affirm the possibility that this bush could be the one Egeria visited in the fourth century, and even where Moses heard the voice of God.
According to the Fathers of the Church, the bush that burned without being consumed by the flames was a type and prefiguration of the All-Holy Theotokos, who bore within her the fire of the Godhead without being consumed and remained Virgin after Christ's birth. The feast of the Annunciation is the primary celebration at the chapel, and the first hymn of vespers on that feast makes a specific reference to the Burning Bush, which Orthodox Christians call the Unburnt Bush. Members of the community are tonsured monks here as well. The Divine Liturgy is celebrated in the Chapel of the Burning Bush on Saturdays.

The chapel is distinctive in not having an iconostasis separating the holy table from the rest of the chapel. The holy table is supported by four columns, allowing pilgrims to kneel and venerate. Pilgrims can see under the altar the place where the bush grew. It is indicated by a hole in a marble slab, covered with a silver shield with images of a burning bush, the Transfiguration, the Crucifixion, the Evangelists, St. Katherine and the Sinai Monastery itself. The apse above the holy table is decorated with a mosaic of the cross with rich materials but simple design from the 10th century. The walls are decorated with Iznik blue and white tiles, and covered with a multitude of beautiful icons.


Interior of the Chapel of the Burning Bush (lithograph of a drawing by Archimandrite Porfiry (Uspensky), 1857 )