The Hermit City of Pharan – Site of The Holy Monastery of the Prophet Moses

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Halfway between the Red Sea and Mount Sinai lie the ruins of the hermit city of Pharan. The extensive ruins cover a raised hill at the western entrance to what is the largest oasis in the Sinai peninsula, with an abundant supply of water. This is the Biblical Rephidim, where the children of Israel fought with Amalek on their way to Mount Sinai. We read in the book of Exodus,

Then came Amalek, and fought with Israel in Rephidim. And Moses said unto Joshua, Choose us out men, and go out, fight with Amalek: to morrow I will stand on the top of the hill with the rod of God in mine hand. So Joshua did as Moses had said to him, and fought with Amalek: and Moses, Aaron, and Hur went up to the top of the hill. And it came to pass, when Moses held up his hand, that Israel prevailed: and when he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moses’ hands were heavy; and they took a stone, and put it under him, and he sat thereon; and Aaron and Hur stayed up his hands, the one on the one side, and the other on the other side; and his hands were steady until the going down of the sun. And Joshua discomfited Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword. (Exodus 17:8-13)

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Coins found in the area confirm that it was settled by the Nabateans in the first century before Christ. Ammonius writes that the inhabitants became Christians in the fourth century, converted by the exalted manner of life and the many miracles that were wrought by a certain hermit named Moses, who lived in a small cell at Raitho, on the coast of the Red Sea. 1   Egeria came here around the year 380, and rested for two days on her way back from Mount Sinai, before continuing her journey. She writes,

Once we had arrived at Pharan, which is thirty-five miles from Sinai, we had to stop there for two days in order to rest. On the third day, after an early morning departure, we arrived once again at the resting station which is in the desert of Pharan, where we had stopped on our journey down, as I mentioned earlier. 2

The manuscript containing Egeria’s diary is missing the earlier section to which she refers, where she described Pharan in more detail. But scholars feel that these sections have been preserved by Peter the Deacon in his twelfth century Liber de locis sanctis. There we read,

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The very high precipitous mountain, which overlooks all of Pharan, is the place where Moses prayed, while Jesus conquered the Amalekites. At the place where Moses prayed, a church has now been built. One can see the place where he stood and how the stones were put so that he could sit. When the Amalekites had been defeated, Moses set up an altar there to glorify the Lord. 3

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Bishop Makarios of Pharan attended the Council of Chalcedon in 451, and John Moschos mentions one bishop Photios of Pharan. 4 The Piacenza Pilgrim visited the area around 570, and writes,

From Mount Sinai it is eight staging-posts to Arabia, and the city called Aila. Shipping from India comes into port at Aila, bringing a variety of spices. But we preferred to return through Egypt, and went to the city of Pharan, where Moses did battle with Amalek. In that place is a chapel with its altar built over the stones with which they supported Moses while he prayed. A city is there, fortified on all sides with walls, but the place is completely barren, apart from some water and palm trees. There is a bishop in the city. The women with their children came to meet us, carrying palms in their hands, and flasks of radish oil, and they fell at our feet, anointed our soles and our heads, and sang this anthem in the Egyptian language, “Blessed be ye of the Lord, and blessed be your coming. Hosanna in the highest.” That is the land of Midian, and this city’s inhabitants are said to be the descendants of Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses. 5

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Bishop Theodore is the last bishop of Pharan whom we know by name, who was bishop between 622 and 633. He followed Patriarch Sergios of Constantinople in his monothelite doctrines, and was condemned by the Lateran Council of 649, and the Council of Constantinople in 691/2 6 Saint John Climacus makes an oblique reference to this controversy in his Ladder of Divine Ascent, pointing out that Christ had both two natures and two wills. 7 The area went into decline in the seventh and eighth centuries, and the episcopal see was transferred to the Monastery of Sinai, though the formal title for the Archbishop to this day lists all three ancient monastic centers: Sinai, Pharan, and Raitho.

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In later centuries, Western pilgrims continued to travel through Pharan on their way to Mount Sinai. It was a one day trek by camel from the coast of the Red Sea to Pharan, and another day’s travel to Saint Catherine’s Monastery. Pharan survived as a dependency of the monastery. Carlier de Pinon, who visited the area in 1579, mentions a church at the site. But in general, the extensive complex of churches, cells, and storerooms that had covered the hilltop, as well as the numerous chapels and cells on the surrounding mountains, fell into ruin.

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The British Ordnance Survey mapped the area in 1868-9, and wrote a detailed description.

At Feiran, the ruins are chiefly those of the episcopal town of Pharan, and of the churches, chapels, monasteries, cells, and tombs connected with it. The old town stands at the junction of W ady ‘Aleyat with W ady Feiran, about four miles north of Jebel Serbal and at the lower end of the present oasis. It was formerly surrounded by a wall seven feet thick, composed of stones, mud, and boulders, a large part of which still remains. The principal monastery and church stood on a low hill called El Maharrad, in the space enclosed by this wall, and may have served as a place of retreat in times of danger. Both of them seem to have been partly rebuilt more than once, but are now in ruins. Their walls were built of flat stones and mud in their lower part, and completed with sun-dried bricks. The church, which stands east and west, seems to have been a somewhat handsome structure, plastered inside, and partly coloured red, and paved with flat stones and with tiles made in the country.

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Within the city walls are the remains of a great many buildings, amongst which the Sinai Expedition found fragments of sandstone capitals, with crosses and other symbols carved on them. One of these contained the figure of a man in a tunic, with his arms stretched aloft, suggestive of the attitude of Moses during the battle of Rephidim.

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Without the walls are numerous traces of mall square houses; also quantities of hermits’ cells excavated in the rocks; and, in a neighbouring bank of alluvium, the cemetery. Near by is a deserted village, perhaps at one time part of the city, as some of the houses are evidently very old; but in many of them free use has been made of the ruins of the church and monastery, indicating that they are of more recent Arab construction. A few have subterranean chambers, now used as storehouses by the Bedawin. One carved slab over a doorway is divided into three compartments, each containing a figure with upraised hands, like the one mentioned above. It is an interesting fact that these figures should be found at the spot which the early settlers identified with Rephidim.

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A hill close by, called Jebel et Tahuneh, on the right bank of Wady Feiran, and about 720 feet high, is covered with remains of chapels, cells, and tombs. There are also two ruined churches, one about halfway up, and a larger one on the summit, turned at some later period into a mosque. 12 Winding in steps up the hill-side, and passing the various buildings in its course, are the remains of an ancient way, formerly, no doubt, a via sacra, with stations for prayer at the smaller chapels, which were probably erected over the tombs of noted anchorites. It is evident that, for some reason or other, Jebel et Tahuneh was at one time regarded with extraordinary reverence, and there are good grounds for believing that it was considered by the old settlers to be the “Gibeah” (hill) from which Moses watched the battle of Rephidim, and that the church on its summit was the oratory described by Antoninus Martyr as marking Moses’s standpoint. 8

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H. V. Morton visited Pharan in 1938. He writes,

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At the climax of the gorge we came to the only oasis in the whole of Southern Sinai, the Oasis of Feiran, the “Pearl of Sinai”; but in any other part of the world it would pass as a pleasant, shady spot with a few trees, a bit of grass, and a stream. In this wilderness the Oasis is a paradise, and, after four or five hours of stark mountains, it was good to see green avenues beneath palm trees, and to hear the sound of goat-bells and the thin tinkle of water. 9

He met Father Isaiah, who lived there “in the capacity of watch-dog and gardener in a house belonging to the Monastery of Mount Sinai.”

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I asked the old man how much property he was guarding. He answered by pointing round to several square miles of mountains and to an adjacent ruin, which I recognized as an old church. I saw on nearly every summit piles of stones which looked like cairns, but, when I looked through glasses, I realised that they were the remains of cells. The old man was guarding the ruins of the hermit city of Pharan. I should clearly like to go back to this oasis and spend a fortnight exploring those hills. They are honeycombed with the caves of the first hermits and with their graves. From this point, right up to the summit of Mount Serbal, the remains of the churches and dwellings of the anchorites are waiting to be investigated; and they have remained untouched since the Arab raiders destroyed them after the first six centuries of the Christian era. 10

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From 1984, the German Archaeological Institute of Cairo, under the direction of Peter Grossmann, has been carrying out annual four week excavation campaigns, in cooperation with Saint Catherine’s Monastery. This has greatly increased our knowledge about the hermit city of Pharan. The complex was dominated by the cathedral on the northern slope of the complex. There is a narthex at the western end, with an entrance on the southwest corner. From the narthex, three doors gave access to the nave of a three aisled basilica. There is an apse at the eastern end of the basilica. Two steps led to a raised platform in front of the chancel screen, and another two steps to the sanctuary itself. Fragments of the Holy Table were recovered during the excavations, which showed that it was made of white marble, with the center recessed, and the perimeter stepped to form a molding. The Holy Table rested over a recess for a tomb, perhaps the tomb of the founder of the church. Two white marble columns that are now in the room to the northeast of the altar likely formed part of the original chancel screen. There was a cathedra to the east of the Holy Table, with a synthronon of two levels around the apse. Pottery found in this area has been dated to the middle of the sixth century. The addition of two smaller aisles to the north and south gave the basilica the form of a cross. The aisle to the south also had an apse at its eastern end, and likely formed an additional small chapel. The floor of the entire edifice was tiled with blocks of purple sandstone.

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In 1987, archaeologists excavated the remains of a church to the south, in the center of the building complex. This church, on a much smaller scale, has a narthex to the west, with one central door leading to a three aisled nave, and an apse with the remains of a throne at its eastern end. The discovery of adjoining rooms and a small kitchen remained something of a mystery, until archaeologists also discovered a stone inscription commemorating a certain Moses as the founder of the church, and its dedication to Saints Cosmas and Damian. These saints were physicians, and are appealed to in times of illness. We may conclude that this was a hospital church, where prayers could be said on behalf of the sick, and where they could also receive care and more nourishing foods.

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In 1992, a church to the southeast of the complex was excavated. It has the form of a small three-aisled basilica. The eastern end is not symmetrical, due to a stairway at the southeast comer of the church. And in 1995, a small church below the cathedral church was excavated. This has a single nave with a narrow apse at the eastern end.

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The mountain to the north of the complex is known as Jebel Tahuna. Halfway up the mountain are the ruins of an ancient church. Though it is humble in size, pillars inside the church divided the space into a central nave and two side aisles. Two steps led to the raised sanctuary, with a Holy Table before the eastern apse. In later times, a room was added to the southeast comer of the building, to form a diakonikon, and a subsequent enlargement expanded the nave of the church to the south and west.

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But the most important church is at the peak of the mountain, which may be identified with the fourth century chapel seen and described by Egeria. The earliest structure there consisted of a small three-aisled basilica. The side aisles were separated from the central nave by a single pair of interior supporting pillars. The arches that extended from the pillars to the transverse walls east and west had a height of about 4.4 meters. The church is thus the oldest example of a wide arched basilica, otherwise found almost exclusively in Syria. 11 Subsequent additions to the church doubled its size, and added as well to the complexity of trying to determine the various stages of the church at this ancient site.

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At Pharan, we can trace the outlines of walls and try to imagine the buildings that once stood there. But who lived in these buildings? What was their way of life? The Holy Monastery of Sinai is contemporary with the churches and hermit cells of Pharan, but here, remarkably, everything has remained intact. The Chapel of the Burning Bush stands at the very site of the chapel that Egeria visited in the fourth century. We hold daily services in the basilica constructed at the command of the Emperor Justinian, and completed around the year 550. Archaeologists have recovered a few fragments of the Holy Table from the cathedral church at Pharan, which show that it was made of marble, with a recessed center, and the edge stepped to form a moulding. If you roll back the cloth covers of the Holy Table at Sinai, you can see the same recessed marble that has remained intact from the sixth century. The icons and the manuscripts that must once have existed at Pharan have all perished. But at Sinai, icons and manuscripts are yet to be found, in the context of the living community for which they were created. Let us take one of the manuscripts from the Sinai library and see what insights we can gain from it. Perhaps we can recover more than just the architecture of what once existed at Pharan.

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Sinai Greek Two is a manuscript of the tenth century, containing the text of Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus. The scriptures are written twenty-two lines to the page, leaving generous margins. These are filled with commentary written forty-eight lines to the page. At some point in its long history, the manuscript lost its original binding and first pages. The text now begins at Genesis 16:5, with the words [ ?γ? δ? ] δωχα τ?ν παιδ?σχην. From the enumeration on the quires, we know that the manuscript is now missing the first three quires, and the first folio of the first surviving quire, a total of twenty-five folios. The first quire now consists of only seven folios, with the last single leaf held in place by overcasting.

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The first three quires are heavily annotated, with notes drawn from a surprisingly wide range of authors. These annotations continue through the twenty-fifth chapter of Genesis. After this, with the exception of only two notes, the annotations are drawn exclusively from the commentary by Theodoret of Cyrrhus. At the beginning of Exodus there is another burst of activity. The first nine folios, containing chapters one through three, are heavily annotated, with the notes taken from many authors. But after this, the scribe again simply copies out the commentary by Theodoret of Cyrrhus, and this same commentary is continued for the whole of Leviticus. An ambitious work, thus brilliantly begun, was not carried through. Yet even so, the annotations included in this manuscript are of the greatest interest.

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Each annotation customarily begins with the name of the author from which it was taken. These are: Josephus, Philo, Aquila, Theodotion, Symmachus, Irenaeus of Lyons, Melito of Sardis, Origen, Eusebius of Emesa, Acacius of Caesarea, Diodore of Tarsus, Severian of Gabala, John Chrysostom of Constantinople, Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrrhus, Succensus of Diocaesarea, Severus of Antioch, Didymus of Alexandria, Cyril of Alexandria, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, Epiphanius of Cyprus, and Ephraim the Syrian. A later hand has added notes to Leviticus by Apollinaris, Bishop of Laodicea in Syria.

The greatest number of quotations by far in Sinai Greek Two are taken from three authors, Eusebius of Emesa, Cyril of Alexandria, and Theodoret of Cyrrhus. Eusebius of Emesa has been called the founder of the Antiochene exegetical school. In his scriptural commentaries, he preferred a direct interpretation based on the given historical conditions, and stated that while the commentator cannot rule out allegory, it should not be used to excess. His writings in Greek only survive in compilations such as this manuscript. Jerome writes that Eusebius, “who had a fine rhetorical talent, composed innumerable works suited to win popular applause, and his historical writing is most diligently read by those who practise public speaking.” 12 The rhetorical talent of Eusebius is evident even in the short passages included in this manuscript.

Cyril of Alexandria composed two commentaries on the Pentateuch, The Adoration and Worship of God in Spirit and in Truth, and the Glaphyra, both early works. These are highly allegorical, in keeping with the Alexandrian tradition. The Old Testament is to be understood as prefigurations of worship in the spirit. The Sinai manuscript also contains excerpts from Cyril’s Apology against Julian, one of his later works.

Theodoret of Cyrrhus composed a commentary on the Octateuch in the form of questions and answers. This was a work of his last years, and concluded his earlier commentaries on other Old Testament prophets, and the epistles of Saint Paul. He sought to keep a middle course between a strict historical reading of the text, and what he considered excessive allegorizing. At the same time, he was careful to guard the text’s christological and, in some cases, ecclesiological fulfilment. He is thus respectful of the accomplishments of both Antiochene and Alexandrian scholarship, and his commentary serves as a synthesis of earlier insights.

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We will not understand such scriptural commentaries unless we understand, first, the way in which the Jews themselves read the scriptures. After the destruction of the Rood, Noah was commanded by God, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth” (Genesis 9:1). These words are the same which God commanded Adam, “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it” (Genesis 1:28). Noah is thus seen as a new Adam presiding over a renewed creation. A typology is established between the two texts. Noah is, in turn, invoked by the prophet Isaiah as a symbol of God’s promise to his children,

For a little while I left thee: but with great mercy will I have compassion upon thee. In a little wrath I turned away my face from thee; but with everlasting mercy will I have compassion upon thee, saith the Lord that delivers thee. From the time of the water of Noah this is my purpose: as I sware to him at that time, saying of the earth, I will no more be wroth with thee, neither when thou art threatened shall the mountains depart, nor shall thy hills be removed: so neither shall my mercy fail thee, nor shall the covenant of thy peace be at all removed: for the Lord who is gracious to thee has spoken it. (Isaiah 54:7-10 LXX)

This understanding the present in the context of the past is an appeal made throughout the Gospels. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believe th in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3: 14-15). The fulfilment of Scripture is the constant refrain in the Gospel according to Matthew. In Luke, when the disciples are troubled and confused by the events of Christ’s death and reports of his resurrection, it is the risen Christ himself who appears to them and reminds them that in the scriptures they hold the key to understanding these events. “And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself’ (Luke 24:27). “And he said unto them, These are the words which I spake unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled, which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me. Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the scriptures” (Luke 24:44-45). In the Gospel according to John, Jesus speaks openly, saying, “For had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed me: for he wrote of me” (John 5:46). “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:56, 58).

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In some of the earliest epistles of Saint Paul, this typology is already highly developed. Adam is “the type ( τ?πος ) of him that was to come” (Romans 5: 14). Christ is the new Adam, restoring life to the world by his resurrection (I Cor. 15:22). The children of Israel passed through the sea, and in the wilderness they ate manna and drank water that sprang forth from the rock. These are types of Christian baptism, and of spiritual food and drink (I Cor. 10: 1-4). The defining moment for the children of Israel is here being invoked as a paradigm of the Christian life. This typology is further developed in the later epistles of the New Testament. Christ is the Lamb of God, slain for the redemption of the world (I Peter 1: 18- 19). He offered himself up, becoming a High Priest, entering into the tabernacle not made with hands (Hebrews 9: 11- 12). He is the new Melchisedec, the priest of the most high God, who offered bread and wine to Abraham, and was reverenced by Abraham as one greater than himself (Hebrews 7: 11- 22).

This approach to the scriptures was stated most succinctly by the holy apostle Paul, “For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures” (I Cor. 15:3-4). The scriptures are to be understood in a whole new way, in the light of the events that have happened to Christ. Although this reading was new, yet the process was not. The apostles were doing what Israel had always done, understanding the present by means of the past, and so establishing a typological relationship between past and present.

We may now consider four of the annotations in Sinai Greek Two that frame the opening chapters of Exodus. What were the types perceived in these texts? What parables were drawn from them? What were the relationships established between Old Testament and New? How has this imagery been expressed in hymns and icons?

Eusebius of Emesa,folio 79 verso

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The parents begat him. Seeing that he was beautiful, they spared him; fearing the proclamation, they hid him. But having hidden him, they were moved and sought to cast him out through their fear, but made the affair a clever one through their compassion, and having made an ark in imitation of that made in the days of Noah, and calling upon the God of Noah, they cast the child in the river by means of the ark, that they might both seem to obey the proclamation and make the child safe. And they for their part cast him out, the other for His part bade the daughter of Pharaoh in her ignorance come out to the river; she came in ignorance, she found whom she had not sought.

And Moses was saved through the symbols of the common salvation of the Church. For the ark was of wood, and the wood upon the water is also salvation for the one condemned; and she that took him up was not a Jewess, but an Egyptian woman.

All happened, in order that nothing that happened to Moses should be thought merely human. For whose was it to be able to say, that Moses was theirs? The parents? but they cast him out; the Egyptians? but they did not beget him; the mother, because she nursed him? but another woman gave her wages. Therefore, since the man of God is not found to be from men, this man begotten and saved is educated in the things of the Egyptians; for He that educated him is wise.

This passage, with its intricate balances of words and sounds and its elegantly arranged chain of rhetorical questions, shows that the commentators of the period sometimes indulged themselves in imitating the “epidictic” style used in display pieces like panegyrics since the late fifth century BC. The ark of Noah was a type of the ark of Moses, keeping him in safety upon the flood of waters. And the ark is, in tum, a type of the Church, preserving the faithful in the storms of life. One finds this image used repeatedly in the writings of the Fathers.

Cyril of Alexandria,folio 81 verso

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Now, Moses went from the land of the Egyptians into Midian, in the same way Christ did from Judaea into Galilee

This quotation is more than just a parallel between the life of Moses and the life of Christ. It invites us to see the entire life of the prophet Moses as a type of Christ. This understanding is very early. We find a specific reference to Moses as a type of Jesus in the Epistle of Barnabas, which dates to the end of the first century AD. 13 Moses was born at a time when Pharaoh had commanded that all male children of the Hebrews be put to death. He fled to Midian to escape the wrath of the king. He drove away the evil shepherds, and gave life-sustaining waters to the flock. He wrought signs and wonders, and delivered the children of Israel from bondage. He led them into the wilderness, where they were nourished by food from heaven, and drank water that flowed forth from the rock. When the children of Israel had sinned, Moses was their mediator with God. He revealed to them the Law and will of God. His face shone with a radiance that men could not endure. He fashioned a serpent of bronze, and all who looked to it were healed. When he stretched out his hands in the form of a cross, the Amalekites were defeated. He brought the children of Israel to the Promised Land, a land flowing with milk and honey.

Eusebius of Emesa,folio 81 verso

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Departing from the palace, he became a shepherd in the desert, and was not vexed by it; for if anyone wishes to preserve his love and affection for God, whether it is preserved in poverty and whether it is kept safe in cities or in the desert, he does not complain; for you have examples of this in Scripture.

We must preserve our love and affection for God, whether we live in the splendor of a palace, or in the poverty of the desert. This annotation by Eusebius of Emesa invites us to see the prophet Moses as a type of the spiritual life. Such a meditation formed the inspiration for Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses. In this work, Saint Gregory recounts the life of the prophet Moses in detail, after which he offers an insight into the significance of each detail, giving the higher sense of the text. The prophet Moses is set before us as the exemplar for those who would ascend into the presence of God. Towards the end of his treatise, Saint Gregory writes as a summary of what he had said before,

What then are we taught through what has been said? To have but one purpose in life:to be called servants of God by virtue of the lives we live. For when you conquer all enemies (the Egyptian, the Amalekite, the Idumaean, the Midianite), cross the water, are enlightened by the cloud, are sweetened by the wood, drink from the rock, taste of the food from above, make your ascent up the mountain through purity and sanctity; and when you arrive there, you are instructed in the divine mystery by the sound of the trumpets, and in the impenetrable darkness draw near to God by your faith, and there are taught the mysteries of the tabernacle and the dignity of the priesthood. 14

Theodoret of Cyrrhus, folio 116 verso

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Why was Israel victorious when Moses stretched out his hands, but defeated when he
let them drop?

When Moses stretched out his hands, he represented a type of Him who was crucified for us; the power of the reality was demonstrated even in the type. As Amalek fell when the servant stretched out his hands, so the devil’s column was routed when the Lord stretched out His. And, in that battle, he who bore our Saviour’s name first took that name when he set up the trophy and employed some picked men as his helpers, as Christ the Lord employed the sacred apostles as His assistants. 15

The typology of the battle with Amalek was already established by the middle of the second century. We read in Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho,

When the people made war upon Amalek, and the son of Navi, who was surnamed Jesus, led the battle, Moses himself prayed to God with his hands stretched out on either side: and Or and Aaron held them up all day, that they might not be let down when he grew weary; for if he gave way at all from this sign which represented the cross, the people, as it is written in the book of Moses, were overcome; but if he continued that posture, Amalek was defeated in the same degree, and he who had the strength derived it from the cross. For it was not because Moses prayed in this manner that the people were victorious, but that the name of Jesus being in the front of the battle, he formed the sign of the cross; for which of you does not know, that that prayer is most pleasing to God which is made with lamentation and weeping, and in headlong prostration, and in bending of the knees? In this way, however, neither he nor any one else when sitting on a stone ofered up any prayers. But even the stone is a type of Christ, as I have proved. 16

Cyprian of Carthage, who lived in the first half of the third century, wrote an exhortation to martyrdom addressed to Bishop Fortunatus. In this treatise, he refers to Moses’ battle with Amalek as an example of steadfastness that triumphs over evil,

In the Apocalypse the same exhortation of divine preaching speaks, saying, “Hold fast that which thou hast, lest another take thy crown”; which example of perseverance and persistence is pointed out in Exodus, when Moses, for the overthrow of Amalek, who bore the type of the devil, raised up his open hands in the sign and sacrament of the cross, and could not conquer his adversary unless he had stedfastly persevered in the sign with hands continually lifted up. 17

In the year 277, Bishop Archelaus held a disputation with Manes in which he said,

There, Moses, when he was assailed, stretched forth his hands and fought against Amalek; and here, the Lord Jesus, when we were assailed and were perishing by the violence of that erring spirit who works now in the unrighteous, stretched forth His hands upon the cross, and gave us salvation. 18

And Saint John Chrysostom, in the latter fourth century, wrote a homily Against Marcionists and Manichaeans, in which he said,

Therefore also were prophets sent beforehand, and patriarchs foretold the events, and by means of words and deeds the cross was prefigured. For the sacrifice of Isaac also signified the cross to us: wherefore also Christ said, Abraham your father rejoiced to see my glory and he saw it and was glad. The patriarch then was glad beholding the image of the cross, and does He Himself deprecate it? Thus Moses also prevailed over Amalek when he displayed the figure of the cross: and one may observe countless things happening in the Old Testament descriptive by anticipation of the cross. 19

To these quotations from the writings of the Church Fathers we may add further insights from Orthodox hymns. The hymns that are chanted in the Orthodox Church are the expression of her theology. While few people would have had access to such a manuscript as Sinai Greek Two, yet every Orthodox would hear the hymns chanted during the services, and from them learn the significance of the Old Testament types.

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On the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, celebrated on September 14, a number of hymns refer to Moses and the battle with Amalek.

Moses prefigured thee, 0 precious Cross, when he stretched out his hands on high and put Amalek the tyrant to flight. Thou art the boast of the faithful and succor of the persecuted, the glory of the apostles, the champion of the righteous, and the preserver of all the saints. Therefore, beholding thee raised on high, creation rejoices and keeps feast, glorifying Christ, who in His surpassing goodness through thee has joined together that which was divided. 20

Rephidim 46

Moses prefigured the power of the precious Cross, 0 Christ, when he put to flight Amalek, his adversary, in the wilderness of Sinai: for when he stretched out his arms in the form of a cross, the people became strong again. And now the fulfillment of these images has come to pass for us. Today is the Cross exalted and demons are put to flight; today the whole creation is set free from corruption: for through the Cross every gift of grace has shone upon us. Therefore all of us rejoicing fall before Thee, saying: How marvellous are Thy works, 0 Lord: glory to Thee. 21

In times past Moses, standing between the two men of God, prefigured in his person the undefiled Passion. Forming a cross with his outstretched hands, he raised a standard of victory and overthrew the power of all-destroying Amalek. Therefore let us sing to Christ our God, for He has been glorified. 22

What have we learned, then, from this review of the history, the archeology, and the significance of Pharan? From historical accounts, we know that the native inhabitants became Christians in the fourth century. That is also the time of the dawn of Christian monasticism, when men and women deliberately set out into the desert to devote their lives to prayer and fasting. A large number of monastics came and settled in this area, reciting the appointed cycle of services at evening, morning, and noonday, and keeping prayers and vigils through the night. The fourth century is also the time when Christians began to visit the Holy Land in great numbers, and if they had the time, the means, and the stamina, to continue on to Sinai, which has always been seen as an extension of the Holy Land. Pilgrims traditionally came down the west coast of the peninsula, and then traveled through Pharan on their way to Mount Sinai. We also know that by the fifth century, Pharan was the seat of the Bishop of Sinai.

The earliest churches at the site date from the fourth century. From archaeological evidence, we know that even the largest church was made of humble materials: flat stones and mud in its lower part, then completed with sun-dried bricks. Columns were not monolithic shafts of granite, as they are at Sinai, but were made up of small sandstone blocks, cut and put in place by weary hands. Monks who fell ill had prayers offered on their behalf, and were cared for by their brethren. The area was dominated by a complex of churches and dwelling places, and every promontory was surmounted by a chapel or cell, so that the area became known as the hermit city of Pharan.

Sinai Greek Two provides insights into the typological reading of Scripture. The ark that saved Noah was a type of the ark that preserved the life of Moses when he was cast upon the waters of the Nile. This is, in tum, a type of the Church, which preserves the faithful in the midst of the storms of life. The life of Moses was a type, a foreshadowing, of the life of Christ. The life of Moses is also a paradigm of the spiritual life. In this typological reading of Scripture we have a key, and, I believe, one of the most important keys, to recover something of the spiritual perception of the early Christians, which then becomes enshrined in the profound hymns and icons of the Orthodox Church.

Rephidim 48

For the monks who lived at Pharan in such numbers from the fourth to the eighth centuries, the life and example of the Prophet Moses would have assumed a special significance. He had abandoned the palace of Pharaoh, “choosing rather to suffer

affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season” (Heb. 11:25). He had ascended the mountain, where it was said of him, “and the Lord spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speak:eth with his friend” (Exodus 33: 11). He had passed through this very place, and above them all, on the summit of the mountain beneath which they lived, he had stretched forth his hands in the form of the Cross. Here he had triumphed over his foes, and here the monks, in turn, taking up their cross and following after Christ, sought strength and victory in their spiritual quest. “Beholding the Cross raised on high, creation rejoices and keeps feast.” “Through the Cross, every gift of grace has shone upon us.”

Rephidim 49

At Sinai, one of the sixth century capitals is carved with the sign of the Cross, and suspended from its side arms are the Greek letters alpha and omega. This is a clear reference to the words of Christ that we read in the Apocalypse, “I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty” (Rev. 1:8). But it is more than that, for it can also be understood as a reference to Moses and the defeat of the Amalekites. When Moses stretched out his hands, his arms were sustained on the one side by Aaron, and on the other by Or. In the Greek Septuagint, the name Aaron begins with the letter alpha, and the name Or, with the letter omega. Here also we may discern the type of the Cross, the sign of victory, that the prophet Moses prefigured at Rephidim.

1. The Forty Martyrs of the Sinai Desert and the Story of Eulogios,from a Palestinian Syriac and Arabic Palimpsest, transcribed by Agnes Smith Lewis, Horae Semiticae no. ix (Cambridge: at the University Press, 1912), p. 4. See also The Forty Martyrs of the Sinai Desert, Eulogios, the Stone-cutter, and Anastasia, edited and translated by Christa Millier-Kessler and Michael Sokoloff, A Corpus of Christian Palestinian Aramaic, vol. 3 (Groningen: Styx Publications, 1996), p. 25. §

2. Egeria: Diary of a Pilgrimage, translated and annotated by George Gingras (New York: Newman Press, 1970), p. 59. §

3. Peter Grossmann,? ?ρχα?α Π?λις Φαρ?ν (in Greek), translated from the German by Vasilike Orphanos (Athens: ?δρνμα ?ρονς Σινã, 2002), p. 117. §

4. Grossmann, p. 48. §

5. John Wilkinson, Jerusalem Pilgrims Before the Crusades (Warminster: Aris and Phillips Ltd., 2002), p. 147. §

6. Grossmann, p. 49. §

7. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, translated by Colm Luibheid and Norman Russell (London: SPCK, 1982), p. 132. §

8. Henry Spencer Palmer, Sinai: from the Fourth Egyptian Dynasty to the Present Day (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1878), pp. 129-131 §

9. H. V. Morton, Through Lands of the Bible (London: Methuen and Co., Ltd., 1938), p. 294. §

10. H. V. Morton, p. 296 §

11. Grossmann, pp. 117-18. §

12. Jerome, De Viris lllustribus, “On Illustrious Men,” chapter 91, translated by Thomas B. Halton (Washington, D. C.: Catholic University Press, 1999), p. 124. §

13. Barnabas, ?πιστολ? α?το? Καθολιχ? Migne Patrologia Graeca, vol. 2, 761B. The Epistle of Barnabas, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975), p. 145. §

14. Gregory of Nyssa, Περ? το? β?ου Μω?σ?ως Migne Patrologia Graeca, vol. 44, 428B-C. Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses , p. 135. §

15. Theodoret of Cyrus, The Questions on the Octateuch, vol. 1, On Genesis and Exodus, Greek text revised by John F. Petruccione, English translation by Robert C. Hill (Washington, D. C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2007), p. 279. §

16. The Works Now Extant of S. Justin the Martyr, translated by G. J. Davie, A Library of Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church, Anterior to the Division of the East and West, vol. 40 (Oxford: J. H. and Jas. Parker, 1861), pp. 186-187. §

17. Cyprian of Carthage, Exhortation to Martyrdom, addressed to Fortunatus, Homily XI , translated by Ernest Wallis, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. V (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986), p. 501 §

18. Archelaus, The Disputation with Manes, translated by S. D. F. Salmond, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. VI (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986), p.220. §

19. John Chrysostom, Against Marcionists and Manichaeans, translated by W.R. W. Stephens, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. IX (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983), p. 204 §

20. The Festal Menaion, translated from the Greek by Mother Mary and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1969), p. 133-4. §

21. The Festal Menaion, p. 139 §

22. The Festal Menaion, p. 144 § 

2 thoughts on “The Hermit City of Pharan – Site of The Holy Monastery of the Prophet Moses”

  1. Father Justin, Thank you for all this information and images. I have asked my students to read your site, especially now since in my last class I gave them an introduction to the monastery, church and library of Mt. Sinai.

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