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A personal recommendation of good reads and scholarly studies on the history and background to Mt Sinai, the monastery of St Catherine, Byzantium, the Crusades, Biblical scholarship, Church politics, the desert hermits, personal spiritual struggles and intrepid explorers.

Sisters of Sinai: How Two lady Adventurers Found the Hidden Gospels Author: Janet Soskice; Publisher: Chatto & Windus (2009)

The entertaining story of two extraordinary 19th C Scottish women who travelled widely in Greece and Egypt and discovered one of the earliest copies of the gospels in the Monastery St Catherine. Also provides an interesting insight into the Biblical controversies of the age and the reactionary sexism of Cambridge.

The Body and Society: Men and Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity Author: Peter Brown; Publisher: Columbia University Press (2nd Edition 2008)

A beautifully written study on the change in attitude to the body brought about by Christianity. Essential reading for understanding the mind set of the desert hermits. Peter Brown is the leading authority on the Late Roman Empire.

The Ladder of Divine Ascent Author: John Climacus; Publisher: Paulist Press International

A frank account of the mental and emotional world of the desert hermit, written in the early 7th Century by an abbot of the Monastery. Profoundly moving and sometimes deeply disturbing in its description of the monk’s struggles with the torment of his mind and the stirrings of his body. A literary and spiritual masterpiece. The most widely read pious text in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Even Ivan the Terrible turned to the book during his more remorseful moments.

Silence and Honey Cakes Author: Rowan Williams; Publisher: World Community for Christian Meditation – MediaMedia

A thoughtful reflection on the spiritual achievements of the desert fathers and what they can teach us today, though the archbishop tends to gloss over the singularity of the historical moment and the torments that drove the early desert fathers to such extremes of asceticism.

Secrets of Mount Sinai: Story of the Codex Sinaiticus Author: James Bentley; Publisher: Orbis Publishing (1985)

A great tale of the discovery of the Codex Sinaiticus by the unscrupulous Von Tishendorf.

Justinian’s flea: Plague, Empire and the Birth of Europe Author: William Rose; Publisher: Jonathan Cape (2007)

A cleverly written study of Justinian’s empire and its demise from a deadly plague, a witty alliance of good history and good science.

Byzantium and the Crusades Author: Jonathan Harris;  Publisher: Hambledon Continuum (2006)

An alternative perspective on the crusades from the point of view of Constantinople, contrasting the wily diplomacy of Byzantium with the blundering pugnacity of the Franks which led eventually to the pillage and occupation of Constantinople.