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E04896: Procopius of Caesarea, in his On Buildings, reports that the emperor Justinian (r. 527-565) built a church of *Mary Theotokos, Mother of God (S00033) on Mount Sinai in Palestine. Written in Greek at Constantinople, in the 550s.

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posted on 2018-02-05, 00:00 authored by julia
Procopius, On Buildings, 5.8.1-9


Procopius discusses the province which formerly was called 'Arabia', but now 'Third Palestine'. He says it is a vast, but completely unproductive land because of the lack of water. In it there is a wild mountain, Sinai, located close to the Red Sea. He considers it unnecessary to describe this region, since he already provided a description of it in his Wars to which he refers.

On Mount Sinai monks live an ascetic life of solitude. For them the Emperor Justinian built a church (ekklesia) dedicated to the Mother of God, so that they could pass their lives there praying and holding services. The church was built not on the mountain's summit, but much lower down. Procopius then mentions that it was on Sinai that Moses is said to have received the laws from God. He adds that Justinian also built a very strong fortress and established a considerable garrison of troops at the base of the mountain, in order to make it impossible for the barbarian Saracens (Sarakenoi) to secretly burst into Palestine proper through this uninhabited land.

Text: Haury 1913. Summary: J. Doroszewska.


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Mary, Mother of Christ : S00033

Saint Name in Source


Type of Evidence

Literary - Other narrative texts (including Histories)


  • Greek

Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Constantinople and region

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc


Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)

Constantinople Constantinople Κωνσταντινούπολις Konstantinoupolis Constantinopolis Constantinople Istanbul

Major author/Major anonymous work


Cult activities - Places

Cult building - independent (church)

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs

Saint as patron - of a community

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Monarchs and their family Ecclesiastics - monks/nuns/hermits


Procopius of Caesarea, (c. 500 – c. 560/561 AD) was a soldier and historian from the Roman province of Palaestina Prima. He accompanied the Roman general Belisarius in the wars of the Emperor Justinian (527-565). He wrote the Wars (or Histories), On Buildings and the Secret History. On Buildings is a panegyric in six books. It lists, and sometimes describes, the buildings erected or renovated by the emperor Justinian throughout the empire (only on Italy is there no information). The bulk of these are churches and shrines dedicated to various saints; the Buildings is therefore a very important text for the evidence it provides of the spread of saintly cults by the mid 6th c. On Buildings dates from the early 550s to c. 560/561; a terminus post quem is 550/551 as the text mentions the capture of Topirus in Thrace by the Slavs in 550 and describes the city walls of Chalkis in Syria built in 550/551; a probable terminus ante quem is 558 when the dome of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople collapsed, which is not mentioned in the book; or before 560 when the bridge on the river Sangarius was completed, as Procopius reports on the start of works. On Buildings thus belongs to the later years of Justinian’s reign. The work is not finished and is probably Procopius’ last work. It glorifies Justinian, depicting him as a great builder and an emperor restlessly transforming the state, expanding and reforming it, destroying paganism, extirpating heresy, and re-establishing the firm foundations of the Christian faith (Elsner 2007: 35). More on the text: Downey 1947; Elsner 2007; Greatrex 1994 and 2013. Overview of the text: Book 1. Constantinople and its suburbs Book 2. Frontier provinces of Mesopotamia and Syria. Book 3. Armenia, Tzanica, and the shores of the Black Sea. Book 4. Illyricum and Thrace (the Balkans). Book 5. Asia Minor, Syria, and Palestine. Book 6. North Africa, from Alexandria to central Algeria.


The church Procopius refers to is that of the fortified monastery, now known as St Catherine's, at the foot of Mount Sinai, where Moses was believed to have received the Ten Commandments and to have witnessed the miracle of the Burning Bush. Justinian's close association with the church is confirmed by three inscriptions found on the sides of three of the beams, which are invocations on behalf of the emperor Justinian and of his empress Theodora, as well as of Stephanus of Aila, who was the builder of the church. Since the first inscription implies that Justinian was still alive, and the second indicates that Theodora was already dead, the church must have been built between 548 and 565 (Forsyth 1968, 9). Procopius' description of the place is a little bit confusing, since one might infer from it that the church and the fortress, that he describes separately from each other, were located at a distance from one another. However, the well-preserved sixth-century church, and its imposing surrounding fortress, confirm that the two were actually a single complex and a single institution. The question of the church's dedication is problematic. According to Procopius, it was dedicated to Mary Mother of God, but this can seem strange, since she is represented in a very subordinate position in the mosaics of the church (Forsyth 1968, 15-16, n. 17) and there is no surviving inscription referring to her. George Forsyth presupposes that, since it is unlikely Procopius was wrong about the dedication of an important imperial foundation, the dedication might have been changed during the construction of the church (though this would still need explanation). Daniel Caner (2010, 30-31), however, points out that the Burning Bush was considered in 4th and 5th c. patristic thought to have been a prefiguration of the Theotokos (and the Theotokos a typology for the bush, since both are a 'type' for the Incarnation). Furthermore, two of the 7th c. stories of Anastasius the Sinaite (Narr. 1.13, 17) refer to the Theotokos as 'Our Mistress', where it is fairly clear that the setting is Justinian's monastery. It seems, therefore, that Procopius was not wrong over the dedication of the church. Further reading: Forsyth 1968; Galey, Forsyth, and Weitzmann 1980, 49-80; Gerstel and Nelson 2010.


Edition: Haury, J., Procopii Caesariensis opera omnia, vol. 4: Περι κτισματων libri VI sive de aedificiis (Leipzig: Teubner, 1962-64). Translations and Commentaries: Compagnoni, G.R., Procopio di Cesarea, Degli Edifici. Traduzione dal greco di G. Compagnoni (Milan: Tipi di Francesco Sonzogno, 1828). Dewing, H.B., Procopius, On Buildings. Translated into English by H.B. Dewing, vol. 7 (London: William Heinemann, New York: Macmillan, 1940). Grotowski, P.Ł., Prokopiusz z Cezarei, O Budowlach. Przełożył, wstępem, objaśnieniami i komentarzem opatrzył P.Ł. Grotowski (Warsaw: Proszynski i S-ka, 2006). Roques, D., Procope de Césarée. Constructions de Justinien Ier. Introduction, traduction, commentaire, cartes et index par D. Roques (Alessandria: Edizioni dell'Orso, 2011). Veh, O., and Pülhorn, W. (eds.), Procopii opera. De Aedificiis. With a Commentary by W. Pülhorn (Munich: Heimeran, 1977). Further Reading: Adshead, K., “Procopius and the Samaritans,” in: P. Allen and E. Jeffreys (eds.), The Sixth Century, End or Beginning? (Byzantina Australiensia 10; Brisbane: Australian Association for Byzantine Studies, 1996), 35-41. Cameron, A., “Procopius 7,” in: J.R. Martindale (ed.), The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire, vol. 2: A.D. 395-527 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980). Cameron, A., Procopius and the Sixth Century (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985). Caner, D.F., History and Hagiography from the Late Antique Sinai (Translated Texts for Historians 53; Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2010). Downey, G.A., “The Composition of Procopius’ ‘De Aedificiis,” Transactions of the American Philological Association 78 (1947), 171-183. Elsner, J., “The Rhetoric of Buildings in De Aedificiis of Procopius,” in: L. James (ed.), Art and Text in Byzantine Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 33-57. Feissel, D., “Les édifices de Justinien au témoignage de Procope et de l'épigraphie,” Antiquité Tardive 8 (2000), 81-104. Forsyth, G.H., “The Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai: The Church and the Fortress of Justinian,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 22 (1968), 1-19. Galey, J., Forsyth, G.H., and Weitzmann, K., Sinai and the Monastery of St. Catherine (Garden City, NY: Chatto & Windus, 1980). Gerstel, S.E.J., and Nelson, R.S., Approaching the Holy Mountain: Art and Liturgy at St. Catherine's Monastery in the Sinai (Turnhout: Brepols, 2010). Greatrex, G., “The Dates of Procopius’ Works,” Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 18 (1994), 101-14. Greatrex, G., “The Date of Procopius Buildings in the Light of Recent Scholarship,” Estudios bizantinos 1 (2013), 13-29. Mayerson, P., “Procopius or Eutychius on the construction of the monastery at Mount Sinai: which is more reliable source?,” Bulletin American Schools of Oriental Research 230 (1978), 33-38. Rubin, B., Procopius von Kaisareia (Stuttgart: Druckenmüller, 1954 = Paulys Realencyclopädie der Classischen Altertumswissenschaft, Neue Bearbeitung, Stuttgart 1957, vol. 23.1, col. 273-599).

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