Way to go
It is now eight years since an innovative programme was set up in Sinai to preserve and nurture the heritage of a local community. Jenny Jobbins reports on the St Catherine's Bedouin project
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St Catherine's new Visitor Centre|
THIS IMAGE of the Archbishop of Sinai drinking tea with Bedouin in the garden of the Monastery of Saint Catherine by Bruce White is one of many unique photographs that grace a new publication from the American University in Cairo Press. Saint Catherine's Monastery: Sinai, Egypt -- a Photographic Essay is a handsome book on the Greek Orthodox monastery and its buildings containing many newly-commissioned colour photographs. The concise and informative text by Helen C Evans is preceded by a special introduction by His Eminence Archbishop Damianos of Sinai, abbot of the monastery. (Published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Distributed in Egypt by AUC Press)
Egypt's national parks were set up primarily to protect the country's natural heritage. St Catherine's, however, is also safeguarding a historical and social legacy. The St Catherine's Bedouin project is centred at the small village near the famous monastery. It happens to be the only town or village in Egypt to fall within a national park, and its advantage of location places it in a special position vis-ˆ-vis conservation.
When the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA) established St Catherine's as a protected area, it found itself guardian not only of the mountains of Sinai but also of the village that had grown up round the Greek Orthodox monastery, largely peopled by the monastery's Bedouin servants and their dependents. Dozens of smaller settlements also fell within the new park. And like the natural heritage which the EEAA is fighting so hard to protect, the cultural inheritance of the South Sinai Bedouin is under threat from the changes brought about by modernisation and global shrinkage with its consequent influx of tourists.
St Catherine's National Park encompasses virtually all the mountainous area of South Sinai, from the Taba-Mitla road in the north to the borders of the Ras Mohamed National Park in the south, and from the inner rim of the coastal plateau in the west to the Taba, Nabq and Ras Abu Galum Managed Resource Areas in the east and north east (in all the protected areas encompass 30 per cent of South Sinai). Its establishment in 1996 came some time after the foundation of the Ras Mohamed National Park, but while attention there was focussed on ecosystems and aspects of protecting the coast and coral reefs from mass diving and recreational fishing, it was realised that St Catherine's not only enveloped a stunning landscape and local biodiversity, but also a huge number of prehistoric sites and a local population whose way of life was under threat.
The St Catherine's covers an area of 5,750 squared kilometres, or 20 per cent of South Sinai. It contains Egypt's highest mountain, St Catherine's (2,624 m), as well as Mount Sinai -- held sacred as the place where Moses received the Ten Commandments -- Mount Serbal, Mount Um Shomer and Mount Tarbush. The mountains are composed of igneous rock between 500 and 1,000 million years old -- one of the most violent periods of activity took place in the Pre-Cambrian era about 800 million years ago. The towering granite crags overlooking St Catherine's Monastery are some of the oldest in the world.
The mountains enclose wadis (dry valleys) studded with acacias and other vegetation, while higher in the rocks are clefts where water gathers seasonally, forming pools and nurturing the variety of herbs and desert shrubs from which the Bedouin draw nutritional supplements and medicinal remedies. Forty- five per cent of all the plants in Egypt are found in Sinai: of these 320 species 19 are unique to Sinai (including a native primrose) and more than 100 have a medicinal use.
Wildlife includes the Nubian ibex, Dorcas gazelle, Striped hyena, Red fox, Fennec fox, Wolf, Wild cat, Sinai leopard, Rock hyrax, Rodents, Geckos, Skinks, Hedgehogs and Hares. There are 46 reptile species, 15 of which are found nowhere else in Egypt, among them two species of snake, the Sinai banded snake and the Innes cobra, which are found only in the National Park. There are 150 species of migrating birds, including about 40 raptor species. Sinai is also home to the smallest butterfly in the world, the Sinai Baton Blue, half the size of a fingernail and confined for eternity to the top of one mountain since it cannot live below a certain altitude, and its tiny wings cannot carry it as far as the next peak.
The growing popularity of the Red Sea coastal resorts and their proximity to the monastery has resulted in increasing numbers of visitors. Protecting the natural and cultural values of the area was a primary goal in the declaration of the park. A parallel aim was to enhance the quality of local tourism by promoting its environmental and cultural aspects.
There are more than 500 historical sites and buildings in Sinai, dating from the round stone nawamis built about 4,000 BC to structures from the Bronze Age and Nabatean, Byzantine and Islamic periods. There are abundant foundations of tombs, houses, storehouses, animal traps, and evidence of copper smelting. The sites have yielded Bronze Age jewellery and amulets and tools and pottery from all ages. In 2002 UNESCO declared St Catherine's a World Heritage Site.
Visitors have long been drawn here. Overlooking the village is a palace built by the Khedive Abbas II and still used as an official rest house. Each day 1,000 people visit the St Catherine's Monastery, and it is hoped that the new Visitor Centre will encourage many of them will pause there to learn more about the park and its resources. To maximise public access, the centre has been built on the main road close to the village. Designed by architect Hani Manyawi of Adapt Egypt, and built in local materials by local labour, it is housed in seven small buildings modelled on houses left in the area 2,000 years ago by Nabatean forebears. The simple buildings in local stone blend both architecturally and spiritually into the surrounding crags. Built into the complex is a model of the base of a Bronze Age house, a small circle of large, flat stone slaps up-ended; these would have been topped by poles supporting the upper walls and a roof of wood or palm fronds.
The Visitor Centre took a year to build with funding support from the EU. Entry is free of charge up to the end of the year, after which it will cost three dollars for foreign visitors and three pounds for Egyptians.
Mohamed Nada, a member of the EEAA's enthusiastic and knowledgeable team and administrator of the park's Visitor Management Programme, guided us round the Visitor Centre. The first of the six small halls is the Reception room, which offers an explanation of the aims of the park. From there a path leads to the Geological hall, where we learn that the Red Sea cleft began to form 25 million years ago, tearing Sinai from Africa, and that it still widens at the rate of a centimetre a year. A fascinating geological column in the hall gives geological timelines and a stylised representation of the rocks, including the grey granite which formed 800 million years ago and red granite from 200 million years later.
Birdsong erupts as the door of the next hall is opened. This section features wildlife, including the Baton Blue Butterfly, and shows the workings of the camera traps the EEAA has placed in the park. The trap mechanism triggers a flash -- a literal shot in the dark -- and have captured on film among other animals Ibex, Gazelle, Ruppell's sand fox, the Fennec fox and Striped hyena.
Local history is featured in another hall, and the Monastery in another. Here a model of the complex is painted in pastel shades to represent the periods of construction. A sanctuary was originally founded here by Queen Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, on the spot considered to be where Moses came across the burning bush -- the supposed bush is carefully tended in an inner courtyard. The monastery was built 200 years later -- between 527 and 565 -- by the Emperor Justinian to house the remains of St Catherine, who was martyred in 315 in Alexandria but whose perfectly preserved body (a sign of her holiness) had only recently been found on the summit of the nearby mountain which afterwards bore her name. St Catherine's may be the oldest continuously inhabited monastery in the world, and is the second largest repository for illuminated manuscripts after the Vatican. The collection contains some 3,500 volumes in Greek, Coptic, Arabic, Armenian, Hebrew, Slavic, Syriac and Georgian. In the early part of the 11th century the monks escaped the persecution of the Fatimid Caliph Al-Hakim by incorporating a small mosque into the complex.
The Bedouin cultural hall contains photographs, costumes and musical instruments illustrating the lives led by the members of the local communities. Most of the Bedouin in the area belong to the Jabaliya tribe, whose original members were installed by the Emperor Justinian to guard and serve the new monastery. The main local occupation now is tourism. The Jabaliya and other Bedouin work as tour guides on camel safaris, one reason why they are keen to preserve their wild animals, birds and flora.
Local knowledge works both ways. Since the visitor programme involves the local community, it enhances their awareness of their locality and this proves useful when they are guiding visitors or archaeologists.
Many members of the community, such as the Community Guards, receive a salary from the EEAA. The park also employs a dozen rangers from various backgrounds ranging from a geologist through an anthropologist, biologists and entomologists to a business studies graduate. They help run the Bedouin Support Programme, which comprises nine sections: health, veterinary services, community guards, traditional crafts, the acacia programme, dam construction, the wildlife and botany monitoring programme, visitor management and the awareness education programme. In just one example of the project's effect, the landscape management plan -- which incorporates the dam construction and clean water projects -- has successfully reduced the number of stone quarries in operation from 72 to 24.
About 7,000 people live around St Catherine's. While the largest number belong to the Jabaliya tribe, others are from the Muzeina, Gharaja, Sawalha, Aligheit, Awlad Said and Beni Hassan. All are Arabs -- that is, coming originally from the Saudi Peninsula -- apart from the Jabaliya, who were brought to Sinai from the vicinity of Macedonia in the sixth century to provide security and service to the monks at the new monastery. Over the generations the Jabaliya married members of other tribes and gradually converted from Christianity to Islam, but continued to work at St Catherine's Monastery.
The park's founders believed that a sustainable project must have a built-in source of revenue, and that local support was essential. The EU's then representative, John Grainger, deemed it important to ascertain the Bedouins' needs, and in 1996 members of the seven local tribes assembled for a meeting with environmentalists to discuss what role they might play in the new national park. They asked for dams, health care, and a women's craft centre.
The health programme has proved extremely beneficial. A doctor with a mobile 4x4 clinic travels to all 77 settlements in the park in rotation, visiting each one every 45 days. Under the women's health education programme, women from each settlement are trained to train others in community nursing and health care. Each representative is responsible for the rest of the women in her settlement. The veterinary programme has also proved effective in the care of livestock. All camels are now inoculated and numbered.
The dam construction -- through which rain water is chanelled and collected to minimise wastage -- and acacia rehabilitation projects involve a large local workforce. Acacias have been so over-harvested that the lush groves pruned of dead growth for firewood are a thing of the past. With the aim of regenerating this essential resource, seeds are collected and, once generated, are replanted in chosen spots. So far 34,000 seedlings have been planted.
The medicinal plant programme -- funded separately by the United Nations Development Project (UNDP) --runs in cooperation with the EEAA in growing medicinal plants for local use. Training is given in cultivating, packaging and marketing the plants, while at the same time Bedouin and ethno- pharmacologists cooperate in correlating indigenous knowledge. Fifty-five families work on the acacia and flora programmes.
"The Bedouin themselves are natural conservationists, it's part of their heritage," says Youssreya Hamid, an anthropologist with a Master's degree in sustainable development from South Bank University, London. "They have a system of alliance through which they protect wild plants and animals. They will close a certain valley for three to six months to prevent grazing until it has regrown, to respect sustainability. The health, craft, human and animal medical and acacia programmes have all been well received by the Bedouin."
Bedouin are also occupied in tourism, from running and guiding camel and wilderness camping safaris to operating accommodation services. These include five hotels, two main tourist camps and the St Catherine's Ecolodge, also built to a Nabatean design and run by a Bedouin cooperative under EEAA supervision. Twenty-six experienced Bedouin work as Community Guards, policing the wilderness to watch out for infringements of EEAA rules.
Of all the projects at St Catherine's, perhaps the best known outside the park is the women's cooperative. The 40 women who were initially involved started with traditional items such as scarves, beading, necklaces and sugar bags, but gradually they modified these ideas into fashionable, marketable items. In 2000 the traditional programme became a separate project under the name of Fansina. Now 350 women are marketing their handicrafts here and internationally. They still prefer to work with the raw materials at home in the time-honoured way.
British textile artist Sally Hampson was involved from the very early stages. "My job was to see what the women were already making and how they were accessing materials and selling their projects," Hampson says. "What was happening was that the women would make things and the men would be working close to the people at the monastery and taking tourists on treks, and they would sell them the things the women made. It was all very ad hoc. When this programme was set up the women showed a desire for support in their textile production."
Hampson's job was to assess what was going on and find out how the system worked. She had to become acquainted with the crafts including some unfamiliar to her, such as beadwork.
"The most pressing need they had was accessing materials, and because of where they were they depended on passing traders -- men selling household goods and sometimes carrying wool and sewing thread. The women were in the hands of what these vans had on board. The variety and quality wasn't there. It seemed important to give the women access to good quality materials, like colourfast cotton."
Some of the first items they sewed together were the embroidered sugar bags they made for their husbands, sons and brothers to take on their trips into the mountains to graze flocks or gather herbs. The bags were of white cotton and had a little inside pocket for the tea. "They drew their inspiration for their embroidery from their surroundings," Hampson says. "They stitched little desert plants, camels and other animals, stars and the sun, fish and flowers, both stylised and abstract. Tourists wanted to buy them, and it evolved from there.
"I was trying to get them to work with good materials but keep the narrative. For tourists this becomes part of the story they bring home -- it isn't just an anonymous bag."
Everything the women made had a reason and a purpose. "It's not that they can just knock up this and that. I was very cautious about not dictating the design. I know I had things to offer because as a Westerner I had sensibilities for the people who buy this, so I was trying the bridge the two. But for myself, I want something genuine."
A Bedouin woman's dress is a sign of her social standing, her hairstyle of her age or marital status. Every unmarried Bedouin girl, for instance, sports a lock across her forehead, but this is substituted by a plait in an elderly woman. Married women of the Jabaliya tribe wear a black shawl ( Al-ghurna ), unmarried girls a white one , ( Al-malfah ). A married woman wears a long face veil ( Al-burgah ), a bride a short one until she has had her first child. In North Sinai women wear an open veil, a beaded breastplate ( Al-mallab ), and metal accessories given by her husband in the first months of her married life.
Hamid stresses the strong position held by women in Bedouin society. "From my point of view women are equal to men," she says. "Each has her own job, and the women keep their own money."
While the craft programme has brought new economic strength for the women, the health programme has also brought benefits, improving maternity services and reducing the infant mortality rate.
Hamid, a native of Alexandria, has worked at St Catherine's since 1998, taking a year off to study in London. She also teaches environmental education to children at the 30 primary and local secondary schools within the protected area. As part of the educational programme, a traditional healer teaches the children how to find, recognise and use plants. Bedouin knowledge is thus being used to protect the natural and cultural resources of the area, and transferred down the line. "Being forgotten because of the interaction with other cultures would be a tragedy," Hamid says. "It needs to be transferred to new generations."
In eight years the EEAA's care and intervention has meant a great deal to the area, and the local Bedouin are backing the programme to the hilt. The village, though founded on the pickings of the monastery, has taken up a mantle of its own.
However St Catherine's Park is constantly growing and taking shape. The national parks recently made the transition from EU to Egyptian stewardship, and one of the services disrupted by the changeover has been the Bedouin-staffed mountain rescue service, temporarily suspended because of logistical use of equipment, notably mobile phones. But the park staff see such blips are minor. "The programme is working well, and it serves as an inspiration and a model for similar areas in Egypt and elsewhere," Nada says.