Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 May 2008
Issue No. 897
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Sacred Sinai

The Sinai Peninsula and St Catherine's Monastery were the highlight of this year's Egyptian World Heritage Day celebration, reports Nevine El-Aref

Click to view caption
St Catherine's Monastery; the basilica of the monastery; what remains of a church in
Tel Farma

In the belief that this is the place where God appeared to Moses and gave him the Ten Commandments, pilgrims have come to visit Mount Sinai in an unbroken line since the fourth century. Despite its remote setting, the craggy giant has attracted Christians of all sects who make the difficult journey to see the bible's holiest mountain.

Mount Sinai is also of religious significance to Muslims, who believe this was where Prophet Mohamed's flying horse, Al-Boraq, descended from heaven. Mount Sinai, also known as Mount Moses, therefore holds a big and important place in the hearts of all Egyptians.

At the foot of the mountain is another place of pilgrimage: the Greek Orthodox Monastery of St Catherine, one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world and home of the biblical burning bush. The basilica was built in 530 by Emperor Justinian at the site of an earlier chapel founded by St Helena, mother of Constantine the Great. The monastery's long existence and priceless, virtually-intact collections of icons and manuscripts can almost certainly be attributed to the safety of its location, tucked away in the barren rocky landscape of South Sinai.

In 2002 the site was described on the World Heritage List as "mixed property, cultural and natural", which means that the monastery and the area around it were on the list. The area encompasses almost some 601 sq km within the 5,750 sq km-area of the St Catherine's National Park.

On 18 April, the forecourt of the Coptic Museum was the stage for the telling of the history of Sinai and its stupendous monuments of nature, archaeological sites and recent discoveries. In the course of the special evening Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), announced that the Greek government had offered Egypt a grant of LE2 million to help restore St Catherine's Monastery. The money will go towards developing the surrounding area and converting it into a destination with up-to-date facilities for tourists.

Hawass added that during the upcoming archaeological season, which will start in September, excavation work will take place in the area around St Catherine's in the hope that it will reveal more about the history of Sinai.

The first steps to conserve the natural and cultural features of South Sinai were taken back in 1996, when the St Catherine National Park was declared under the management of the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA) and the commission of the European Union. The aim then was to conserve the area by laying down certain rules for visitors. These included respecting the sanctity of the land; protecting its large variety of flora and fauna (some unique to Sinai); and prohibiting the removal or interference with wild animals, plants or rocks. The aims were prudent, but they could not be fully implemented because controversy arose on the question of responsibility.

All natural reserves in Egypt, which differ in kind, are run by the EEAA, which has voiced concerns about the advisability of privatisation. However, some newspapers at that time called for privatisation, claiming that the government could not control all the reserves and that investors under the supervision of the EEAA were necessary.

At that time, according to Law 102/1983, the EEAA, in cooperation with various ministries and governmental bodies, was the only authority responsible for running natural reserves. The EEAA accused the private sector of aiming at gaining quick profits without giving much care to the nation's natural wealth.

As the controversy raged, the monastery's Greek Orthodox monks found their haven of tranquillity falling more and more under threat. There was no control of the area around the monastery, which was rapidly being developed to meet tourist demands. The Al-Salam Hotel, Morgan Land, St Catherine's Village and the Zeitouna Camp sprang up, followed by several cafés. The monks, naturally, resented their loss of privacy. They made an effort to control the movement of pilgrims, limiting visiting hours and giving access to carefully- controlled areas within the monastery complex. But then a modern highway was built, and an airport, and tourists and pilgrims began to arrive in their thousands, in groups of 30 to 50, several times a day -- and on every day of the year that the monastery was open.

So many tourists climbed the 2,629m-high Mount Sinai that its sacred peak became littered with soft drink bottles and cans, plastic bags and other refuse. The fertile lower reaches of Mount Catherine -- the highest peak in the Sinai peninsula, named in honour of the monastery's patron saint -- became depleted of the desert herbs and reeds which provided nutritious feed for camels and goats. Its summit was treated with ill- respect by adventure travellers. But fortunately, since it was a World Heritage Site, a stop was put to the controversy and a management and protection plan was set in motion by the minister of culture, the SCA, the governorate of South Sinai and the monastery authorities themselves.

The area of South Sinai described on the World Heritage list encompasses the Monastery of St Catherine and Justinian's basilica, the Church of the Transfiguration: the Chapel of the Burning Bush, the most sacred part of the monastery; the mosque near the belfry which stands as evidence of the protection of the monastery by the caliphs of Egypt and the monks' tolerant attitude to Islam; the old refectory, situated south-east of the basilica; the Library and the Icon Collection; and Mount Sinai and Mount Catherine.

During the celebration Hawass awarded scientist Farouk El-Baz, research professor and director of the Centre for Remote Sensing in Boston, with a gold medallion for his dedication to the restoration of archaeological monuments, and his studies on Khufu's solar boat and its removal from the Giza Plateau to the Grand Egyptian Museum.

A documentary film on Sinai and its monuments was screened, while a concert of classical music performed on piano and cello rounded off the event.

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