There were groups holy monks were 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.
From “The Martyrs of Raitho” by Dr. David Bertaina, Assistant Professor of History at the University of Illinois in Springfield. Published in the Fall 2008 edition of Sophia Magazine and used by permission of the author.