Martyrs of Raitho

Black and white photograph of valley and mountains in the Sinai

Martyrs of Raitho – January 14

by Dr. David Bertaina

Reprinted with permission from Sophia, Fall 2008

Even in the days of the early Church, Christian devotion and worship at Mount Sinai was already an established way of life. Monks from across Christendom traveled to Mount Sinai to commemorate this holy place, located at the southern part of the Sinai Peninsula .

The location has been a holy site for thousands of years because of its connection with God’s presence on earth. In Exodus 3, we learn that Moses was tending a flock on the mountain when he came upon a burning bush that was not consumed by the fire. As he approached it, God declared: “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground. I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.” Our Lord appeared a second time on the holy mountain of Sinai . According to the narrative in Exodus chapters 19-34, Moses experienced and communed with God for forty days and nights and received the key teachings of the Mosaic Law, including the Ten Commandments.

There are several reasons as to why Christians chose to seek a spiritual life in the region near Mount Sinai . First, as Moses was initiated into the details of liturgical ritual and moral rules for the chosen people, they prefigured the Divine Liturgy of the Church and the moral life exemplified by Christ, which we try to follow as Christians. The holy monks and ascetics who desired to be near God chose to be at Sinai because they recognized the holiness of God’s presence there and what it meant for the Christian life. Second, the holy prophet Elias sought comfort at Sinai, after forty days and nights of traveling and fasting due to persecution from Jezebel. When he reached the mountain, Elias encountered God not in an earthquake, nor in a great fire, but in a still “small voice” (l Kings 19). For the monks at Mount Sinai , Elias was the perfect type of monastic ascetic before monasticism, a “type” for the hesychast, and one whose zeal for God was a powerful inspiration to our Christian tradition and the Melkites in particular. The figures of Moses and Elias from the Old Testament enhanced the God-blessed sanctity of Mount Sinai as a location consecrated to the ascetical and mystical life. The monks recognized at Sinai an essential theme of physical and spir­itual self-discipline in order to conform the human will to the divine.

While Sinai is part of the great desert region, it had been touched by God. As early as the second century, there were Arab, Egyptian, Greek, and Syriac-speaking Christians living in the Sinai desert. By the third century, many Christians seeking to flee from Diocletian’s persecutions (AD 284­305) sought refuge in this holy place and among its Christian monasteries. According to contemporary writers of the time, there were likely thousands of Christians living in the area at the time.

Our narrative of the saints begins at this point. There were groups of holy monks living on a summit in the Sinai region called Raitho, where they had established a monastery. They were seeking a respite from all the evil in the world as much as one could, and they hoped to cultivate their own ascetic virtues at the holy place of God’s dwelling, living in humility and simply in the mountains and caves of the mountain. Following their practices of prayers, they would come on Sunday , to gather in the Church and celebrate the Divine Mysteries and continue to instruct one another in faith. However, a group of Bedouin tribesmen in the area named the Blemmyes appeared at the monastery. They were polytheistic nomads who lived along the Red Sea in both Egypt and Arabia . Initially, they hoped to raid and pillage the monks. But they found only straw mats and monks dressed in hair-shirts! The infuriated nomads then chose to sacrifice the thirty-three fathers of Raitho in their hatred. Not only did they take their lives, but they destroyed the monastic complex as well, leaving only the ruins of Raitho. The martyrdom of these Christians has been recorded for history by the Egyptian monk Abba Ammonius, in his “Discourse upon the Holy Fathers slain on Mount Sinai and Raitho.” He would later become one of the first ascetic spiritual advisers to the Byzantine Imperial Court in the late fourth century. The terrible massacres were also related by the Eparch Nilus as well (AD 390-451). They recalled, “As Rachel wept for her children who are no more, so Raitho wept for the Fathers taken by the sword.” Even during later periods other monks were not free from the danger of attacks. They returned on several occasions to plunder the monks. The first time was in AD 305 or 312, the second time was under Valerian, on 28 December AD 370 and finally in AD 400 during the reign of Arcadius. The collective feast for all these monks is commemorated on the fourteenth of January.

The martyrdom of these exemplars of faith did not prevent more monks and spiritual ascetics from coming to the region. Moreover, the events led to the building of a larger fortified monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai . With a substantial gift from the Emperor Justinian and the contribution of Egyptian, Byzantine and local Arab architects, the new walled and fortified monastery of Saint Catherine of Alexandria was built on a nearby site in the sixth century. Even today it remains one of the holiest monastic sites in the Eastern Christian tradition. It was also a great center for Arabic-speaking Christians, and there are hundreds of Arab Christian manuscripts that remain in the possession of the monastery.

To be a martyr is to be a witness to faith in Christ. The holy fathers at Raitho bore witness that we may seek peace in the face of violence, as Christ did in his suffering upon the cross for our sakes. Today, their relics in our churches remind us of the call to be imitators of Christ and to be bold in telling the story of our own faith in our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ.

Dr. David Bertaina

Assistant Professor of History at the University of Illinois in Springfield