Al-Ahram Weekly Online   11 - 17 June 2009
Issue No. 951
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The Sinai stones

Amira El-Naqeeb walks through Saint Catherine with reverence

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Gamil contemplating the majestic view atop Masba Abu Groon mountain; Al-Karme (a vinyard) in the area of Wadi Jebal, embracing apricot and almond trees; walking through the mountains of St Catherine

I've met many mountains and many deserts, yet the South Sinai Mountains -- especially at Saint Catherine -- have a unique power of channelling spirituality. The hike was a tailor-made trek to explore the area of Wadi Jebal, which is known among the Bedouins of St Catherine as the High Mountains area, and lies northwest of Saint Catherine Monastery. The hike involved walking through different valleys and vineyards, as well as visiting some mountains. The area is mostly inhabited by Al-Jebalia tribe, who came to Sinai almost 1,500 years ago.

Ahmed Assem, who is researching human development in Sinai, said that 200 soldiers where summoned to St Catherine by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian (who ruled between 483-565 AD), and were charged with serving and guarding the Monastery of St Catherine. These soldiers, mostly from southeastern Europe, are the ancestors of Al-Jebalia.

The Greek Orthodox monastery enclosing the Chapel of the Burning Bush was built at the site where Moses is supposed to have seen the burning bush; the living bush on the grounds is purportedly the original. The site is sacred to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Assem suggested that the rocks scattered around the valley are remains of rooms built by Roman monks who sought the spirituality of the mountains to spend their days in prayer and seclusion -- a practice followed by many monks until today.

From Wadi Jebal and Rehibet Nada, and then down to Imesakha trail is the path that Al-Jebalia used to take on foot to Al-Tor city. This route was originally used by Byzantine monks between the fourth and seventh centuries to reach the port in Al-Tor, called Raithu at the time. Sheikh Moussa, the managing director of the Sheikh Sina project and a leading member of Al-Jebalia tribe, recalls that until the early 20th century his ancestors used this trail from the port to keep provisions coming to St Catherine Monastery. "My ancestors lived at the monastery, but if one of them got married he moved out," explained Moussa. After the conquests of Amr Ibn El-Aas, Al-Jebalias converted to Islam.

Walking through the valleys, you can see the changes in colour and geology. We began our trek on Abu Jifa path which would lead us to the High Mountains region. On the first day, we passed many valleys and made our first stop at Wadi Al-Shaq (Crack Valley) to revel in its beauty and drink from its natural spring. At the beginning of Wadi Al-Shaq, there are remnants of an old wall made of rocks dating back to the Byzantines who were living in St Catherine between the fourth and seventh centuries.

The rocks in Wadi Al-Shaq are smoother than the ones in the mountains surrounding the valley. Gamil, our guide, traced this to the strength of the water flow during the rain and flood seasons. This also contributed to making these rocks darker than those in the surrounding mountains.

One of the important valleys we came across is Wadi Zwateen (Olive Valley), named so for the abundance of olive trees found there. It connects Bab Al-Donia mountain (The Gate of the World), which lies on the western side of the High Mountains region and the mountains of St Catherine and Abbas. The latter is named after Khedive Abbas Helmi I and lies north of Wadi Zwateen at 2,300 metres above sea level (ASL).

According to Bedouin tradition, an asthmatic Helmi was advised by doctors to build a palace somewhere clean and fresh. Gamil orated that the khedive's staff tested the air at different mountains in St Catherine by placing a piece of meat outdoors, and seeing which took longer to spoil. Because of good winds in all directions, Jebal Abbas was chosen as the best location. While work was still underway on his palace, the khedive died and the project was abandoned. All that remain today are a few ruins for curious trekkers to survey.

On the hike through the valleys, I paid close attention to the flora and found the most exceptional at Abu Jifa. There, we found a plant called Kharmiee which causes eye allergies, but right next to it is Qsoom plant which will treat the allergy. "You are at one point on earth where two plant zones have met, interacted and produced a very interesting mixture of plants," smiled Mohamed Mabrouk, who has studied the environment of the High Sinai Mountains and the vegetation geography around Mount Sinai.

Mabrouk explained that at 2,000 metres ASL in the desert, the High Mountains region of St Catherine is unique in that the climate is very different from what you'd expect in an arid area. Only a handful of palm trees survive there, but visitors from Iran and Algeria have found plants in this desert that are only native to their countries. You will also find plants there, such as Rosa Arabica, known for its aromatic vegetation.

Natural water wells are the most common way to sustain yourself in the valleys, and we frequently stopped to drink the cool fresh water. We also came across various orchards owned by Al-Jebalia, and at one point rested under the shades of peach trees to enjoy a tea break.

THE PILGRIMAGE: For centuries, St Catherine has been a destination for pilgrims from all monotheistic religions. Sheikh Moussa said that Orthodox Christians from Armenia and Greece are amongst the regular pilgrims. Until the 1960s, Al-Jebalias believed that if a Muslim couldn't afford to travel to Mecca for pilgrimage, they could visit Mount Sinai (Mount Moses or Jebal Moussa) for seven successive years instead. Even before that, South Sinai was home to the revered route of Darb Al-Hajj (Pilgrimage Trail) which began in Taba to Aqaba, Jordan, and then on to Mecca in Saudi Arabia. In fact, in 1950, Sheikh Moussa's grandfather travelled from Taba to Mecca by camel.

Mount Sinai is also a popular destination for Jewish pilgrims on Yom Kippur (Atonement Day) which is observed on 25 April, when they mostly fast and pray. "However, most Jews coming from Israel have stopped coming after the Palestinian uprising," indicated Sheikh Moussa.

The ancestors of Al-Jebalia tribe were wise to trade on the land and absorb its energy. Sheikh Moussa recalled that the ancestors would say that the land is measured "by the span of the hand", meaning that each and every piece of land has a different energy. "They didn't know geology, but they knew that there is positive and negative aura and that the earth is connected with human energy," added the Al-Jebalia elder.

Wadi Al-Shaq, Wadi Al-Arbeen and St Catherine Mountain are known amongst Bedouins as Al-Makan Al-Hayy (the place most vivid), but Sheikh Moussa couldn't explain the sensation one feels there. "It's a feeling of serenity and energy," he said.

On the second day, on our way to Bab Al-Donia Mountain, I was taken in by my surroundings. The magnificent view of fiery red rocks coupled with the majestic granite mountains dominated Al-Mizah Valley, with its mountains along with Al-Jeen Valley. The remnants of abandoned Bedouins summer houses in circular shapes made from St Catherine rocks were evident in the valleys we passed.

As we approached Masaba Abu Groon Mountain (the place which overlooks everything), I felt the intensity of the energy escalating. The view from the top was indeed unparalleled; it was as if I was walking on clouds. "Sinai is the umbilical cord between Eurasia and Africa," noted Mabrouk. "Incredible signs of how they grind against each other are the Sinai dykes -- cracks of Earth glued by molten basalt -- are text book examples for geologists."

But you don't have to be a geologist to appreciate this. Scaling Bab Al-Donia was an extra treat, and as I perched myself above the mountain and peered down from the opening that looked like a door, I felt on top of the world.

On our way to Ain Al-Nigila (Grass Stream), which was our repose destination, we crossed the valleys of Al-Shalala and Al-Bahriya as well as Farshait Al-Aranib. The word farshaa means a vast, open area between two mountains. We reached Ain Al-Nigila tired and famished, but our destination was an oasis in all respects -- except for the absence of palm trees. It has a water stream, and an attractive shaded area.

The site is home to the ruins of a Byzantine monastery, and is perched on an escarpment in front of the Al-Nigila water stream once used by Byzantine monks living in the area.

THE VINEYARD: Karm Aam Salem was the camping site for our trek. Karm means vineyard in Bedouin and is also referred to as janna (paradise). Karm Aam Salem was our happy oasis during the two-day trek, where we set camp and cooked our meals. It was like stumbling onto a paradise after days of walking, with plenty of shade, a small house and its own well. We always looked forward to getting back there, sitting by the fire and drinking tea with habaq (a famous Bedouin herb).

Being 2,000 metres ASL in the High Mountains makes for chilly weather at nigh, even in Spring. Starting in mid- April, the weather is hot and dry during the day, but gentle and cool at night. In June and July, the weather becomes hotter during the day, but still tolerable for walking. At night, the weather is quite warm with a gentle breeze.

THE TREE: A tree is very precious to Bedouins because they provide shade and sustain them in times of need. And while vineyards no longer generate much income for the natives -- rain has been scarce over the past seven years -- they are still honoured as a source of life. There are almost 120 vineyards and orchards in Wadi Jebal, with harvests of apples, almonds, apricots and peaches.

According to Sheikh Moussa, the EU-funded Sheikh Sina initiative supports the people in the orchards by sending hikers to spend the night on the property. They are utilised as camping sites to generate revenue for their owners in times of water scarcity and recession. "I believe Bedouins have a lot to teach the world on how to preserve our finite resources, considering how they manage to live under very hard conditions sometimes," pointed out Mabrouk.

THE OATH: Before St Catherine Monastery became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002, the Bedouins would take an oath to protect this area. Umm Mahmoud, a native who was born in St Catherine, explains that the oath implies that kabeer Al-Arab (the elder of Arabs) had ruled that it is forbidden to cut a tree and no goat, donkey or camel could graze in Wadi Jebal in order to preserve its flora. Between June and November of each year, they send the animals to graze according to the agreed upon time.

THE COST: If the trek is over a weekend, it costs LE175 per person including the camel, guide, sleeping in the vineyard, food and tips.

If the trip takes more than a weekend, it costs 70 euros per person for all of the above.

For more info log on or call Sheikh Moussa at (+2) 010 688 0820.

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