In the remote and rugged high desert of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula lies a land with immense historical and spiritual significance to the world’s three great monotheistic religions. The Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions all have deep ties to the landscape and monuments of this region. Mount Sinai is venerated by the three faiths as the place where God revealed the Ten Commandments to Moses. At the foot of the mountain, the 1,700 year-old Monastery of St. Catherine is the world’s oldest continuously operating Christian monastery, containing what is believed to be the burning bush of Biblical lore as well as a renowned collection of holy manuscripts and iconography. There is also a mosque within the walls of St. Catherine’s and one atop Mount Sinai. Political struggles over the millennia have failed to diminish the importance of this sacred landscape, and today it enjoys national and international protection to preserve its legacy, which faces a threat from rising tourism. The region is also rich in biodiversity and a target of conservation efforts, including the revival of traditional practices of the indigenous Bedouin tribes, some of whom claim descent from St. Catherine’s early Christians. In an interview with Parade Magazine, Father Justin Sinaites, librarian of St. Catherine’s, explained, “Living here, you become intensely aware of the history of the area. There’s been an amazing continuity that defies all human explanation. The only explanation is that it’s a place protected by God.”
The Land and Its People
More than 3,000 years ago, according to Biblical tradition, at the foot of Mount Sinai, Moses — who was soon to become leader of the children of Israel — encountered a strange sight: a burning bush that was not consumed by its flames. Stranger still, the bush spoke. The Biblical account in the book of Exodus describes the voice of God calling to Moses from within the bush, admonishing him, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you stand is holy ground.” God commanded Moses to return to Egypt, from which he had fled, to lead his people out of their 400-year slavery and to come back with them to worship God at the mountain. Three months later, Moses returned with his people and at the top of Mount Sinai — which was consumed with fire and smoke and “trembled violently” — he again encountered God’s presence. This time, Moses received the Ten Commandments, the tablets of law enshrining God’s covenant with the Israelites.
There is no archaeological evidence that the 7,500-foot Mount Sinai — also called Mount Horeb in the Old Testament and known as Jebel Musa (Moses’ mountain) to Muslims — is indeed the holy peak mentioned in the Biblical account. However, as early as the third century A.D., Christian anchorites living in the Sinai’s remote wilderness began to identify the mountain as that place, even locating what they believed to be the burning bush near the base of the mountain. In 337 A.D., Empress Helena — mother of Constantine, who legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire in 313 — after making a pilgrimage to the site ordered a chapel built around the bush. In the fourth century, as the departure of the Romans brought lawlessness to the region, the monastic community sought help from Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. The emperor sent architects and masons, who from 527 to 565 built a fortified monastery complex, with 60-foot-high granite walls, to protect the community and its chapel. Justinian also sent men, most likely from Macedonia, to serve as guards. These Christians, over generations, intermarried with the indigenous Bedouin tribes, gradually converting to Islam and becoming the Jabaliya (“of the mountain”) tribe that now represents most of the Bedouins in the St. Catherine area.
The monastery’s main structure, originally called the Church of the Transfiguration, was later renamed to honor the early fourth-century martyr St. Catherine, a young Christian convert from Alexandria who was killed for converting others and refusing to renounce her beliefs. According to legend, her body was miraculously transported to the top of what is now called Mount Catherine, the highest peak in Egypt. Monks from the monastery discovered her remains three centuries later and they are still preserved within the church as relics. Behind the altar of the church sits the Chapel of the Burning Bush, regarded as the holiest part of the monastery, which still incorporates part of the original chapel built by Empress Helena. The sacred bush, a six-foot-high shrub with willow-like branches belonging to the species Rubus sanctus, grows behind the chapel.
The Christian community of St. Catherine’s has maintained ties with Islam since the late sixth century, when, according to tradition, the prophet Muhammad visited the monastery. In the 620s, the community sent a delegation to Medina to secure protection for the monastery, and Muhammad issued a document protecting them from religious persecution and exempting them from military service and taxes. For nearly five centuries following the Muslim conquest of Sinai in 640, the document was respected. In the 11th or 12th century the monastery came under threat, but the monks escaped persecution by converting an existing chapel into a mosque, which is still used on special occasion by local Muslims.
The monastery complex — which is about the size of a city block and maintains its original layout — also contains other chapels, courtyards, archives, living quarters for the monks, and a museum. The monastery’s library is most ancient in the Christian world and is considered second only to the Vatican’s library in terms of both the quantity and value of the collection. It contains more than 3,000 manuscripts in many different languages, more than 5,000 early printed books, and more than 2,000 icons representing almost every school of Byzantine iconography from the sixth to the 18th century. The Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest complete Bible in existence, was once held there; most of it eventually made its way to England, but a few pages remain. In addition to the monastery, there are other holy sites in the area.
Both a chapel and a mosque sit atop Mount Sinai, as well as a rock impression resembling a camel’s hoof, which Jebaliya traditionally regard as the mark of Muhammad’s camel. The chapel, dedicated to the Holy Trinity, was built in 1934 from the remains of a chapel built on Emperor Justinian’s orders. The remains of other chapels lay along the 4,000-step pathway to the summit, known as the Path of Moses. Another chapel, dedicated to St. Catherine, is located atop the 8,668-foot Mount Catherine.
At its zenith, in the 14th century, the Greek Orthodox monastery was inhabited by about 200 monks; today there are only about 20. Because of its remote location, St. Catherine’s has for most of its existence seen a relatively small influx of visitors, mainly Christian pilgrims who, before the mid-20th century, made the arduous eight-day trek from Cairo by foot and camel. However, when Israel occupied the Sinai from 1967 to 1982, it built an airstrip and paved roads, thus dramatically increasing accessibility and making the area a tourist destination. There are currently about 7,000 people living around St. Catherine’s. Residents are primarily from the Jebaliya tribe, who over the generations incorporated the traditional nomadic grazing practices of the indigenous Bedouin with gardening and tree cultivation, practices believed to have been introduced by their Christian ancestors.
In 2002, UNESCO added to its World Heritage List the St. Catherine Area, a 232-square-mile region encompassing St. Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai, Mount Catherine and other smaller religious and archaeological sites. The World Heritage Committee justified the site’s inscription based on four cultural criteria, noting that the area, like Jerusalem’s Old City, is sacred to three world religions and “demonstrates an intimate relationship between natural grandeur and spiritual commitment.”
Challenges and Preservation Efforts
The St. Catherine area faces a challenge common to many sacred places: tourism, which has negatively impacted physical structures, the natural environment, and the traditional way of life of local Bedouin communities. Tourism has been on the rise, especially as the increasing popularity of nearby Red Sea resorts brings more visitors to the region. As many as 2,000 people now visit St. Catherine’s Monastery in a day, and the number of annual visitors is expected to hit three million by 2017 (8,200 per day). The sheer volume of people places stress on the physical structures, while the growing number of secular visitors to this holy place and its consequent treatment as a tourist attraction has placed strain on the monks and visiting pilgrims. The cultural influence of Western tourists has contributed to the local community shifting away from traditional agricultural and land-management practices, and these shifts have, in turn, led to environmental impacts such as overgrazing.
Fortunately, the Mount Sinai–St. Catherine area has been the focus of national and international protection efforts. In 1988, the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA) initiated a plan to establish the area as a national park, and in 1995, a 1,660-square-mile preserve, the St. Catherine Natural Protectorate, was officially approved. The St. Catherine Protectorate encompasses nearly all of the mountainous area of South Sinai, and it is one of the most habitat- and species-rich ecosystems in the Middle East. There are more than 500 species of plants in the protectorate; of these, at least 30 are endemic and dozens have medicinal properties utilized by Bedouin communities. Mammals such as wildcats, wolves, hyenas, leopards and ibexes live there, along with almost 50 reptile species, 150 species of migratory birds, and the world’s smallest butterfly, the Sinai Baton Blue.
In 1996, the European Union, in cooperation with the Egyptian government, began a development project for the protectorate aimed at preserving biodiversity, the mountain ecosystem and traditional knowledge of natural resource management, as well as promoting sustainable socio-economic development, including sustainable tourism. From the outset, the local Bedouin communities were involved. By the time the European Union concluded its commitment at the end of 2002, the development project, especially the Bedouin Support Program, had been hailed a success, and the project was transferred to Egyptian authorities.
The program has many components, including health and veterinary services, dam construction and clean-water projects, wildlife and botany monitoring, and a project to rehabilitate the population of acacia trees, which herders rely on for fodder during times of drought but which had recently been overharvested. The Bedouin Support Program features an educational plan to reinstitute traditional conservation practices like the tribal law of hilf, the controlled, seasonal use of pasture, and a women’s cooperative, Fansina, which produces and markets traditional handicrafts. Bedouin “community guards” maintain park trails, promote environmental awareness, report violations, provide first-aid assistance and guide research teams.
A separate project, funded in part by the U.N. Development Program, is helping to preserve local knowledge of medicinal plant cultivation and to enable the communities to generate income from it. In addition to conservation-oriented work, the Bedouin communities are also involved in tourism — using their knowledge to guide safaris and to run camps and eco-lodges, which are built with local materials and use clean energy.
To control visitor pressure and preserve the sanctity of the area, the EEAA instituted a number of regulations. Visitors must observe a “trekker’s code,” which asks them to respect the area’s religious and historical importance and the local Bedouin culture and traditions; to carry out litter, bury bodily waste, and burn toilet paper; and to not contaminate or overuse water sources. There is a ban on removing any object, including rocks, plants and animals; disturbing animals and birds; cutting or uprooting plants; and writing, painting or carving graffiti. Visitors to Mount Sinai are asked to respect the “sanctity of the landscape” and “the right of pilgrims to a quiet, peaceful experience.” In order to reduce crowding and waste-management problems, those spending the night on Mount Sinai must camp below the summit, in a designated area equipped with composting toilets. (Local Bedouin have traditionally respected the sanctity of the mountain by leaving with their flocks before sunset.) Trekkers visiting the mountain regions are required to be accompanied by Bedouin guides. To aid in visitor management, the EEAA produced a set of walking-guide books and established a corps of Bedouin guides.
In 2007 group of scientists and volunteers launched the Community and Environmental Services Center, aimed at improving the level of social and public services, especially for the Bedouins, in the St. Catherine area. Services include a health clinic, mobile veterinary unit, a cultural heritage unit and training courses.
The nonprofit U.K.-based Operation Wallacea Trust, with Egyptian partners BioMap and the South Sinai Community Foundation, has initiated a biodiversity protection and management plan. Researchers, including British, North American and Egyptian university students, are monitoring wildlife and creating an atlas of rare, threatened and endemic species in the St. Catherine Protectorate. The plan also aims to engage the local communities in monitoring and conservation and ensure they receive financial benefit as well.
The Monastery of St. Catherine has been engaged in conservation work of its own. In addition to maintaining the 1,500-year-old structure and managing the flow of tourists — a full-time task in itself — the monks are also working to preserve its vast treasury of manuscripts and artwork. In 1996, the St. Catherine Foundation was established, with support from England’s Prince Charles, to help protect that treasury by raising funds for the monastery’s buildings and collections and by increasing international public awareness. In a four-year restoration project in collaboration with the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, completed in 2001, the monastery converted one of its buildings into an art museum housing its iconography collection.
In 2001, the Camberwell College of Arts in London, with support from the St. Catherine Foundation, began a conservation-preservation project for St. Catherine’s library. The first phase of the project, a condition survey of the library’s 3,307 bound manuscripts that will facilitate future preservation work, was completed in March 2006; the second phase, and a survey of 1,000 early printed books, was completed in 2008. In collaboration with the project, Father Justin, who was elected the monastery’s librarian in 2005, has been digitally photographing manuscripts in the collection, and these will one day be available online. In late 2009 a contract was awarded for a library expansion and improvement project, including updated storage facilities for the collection, a conservation workshop and a digitization studio.
What You Can Do
- If you visit St. Catherine’s Protectorate, observe the trekker’s code and other suggestions for responsible tourism, and respect the sanctity of the monastery by dressing and behaving modestly.
- Operation Wallacea accepts summer volunteer research assistants (primarily university students) for its St. Catherine Protectorate biodiversity mapping project; high-school groups can also arrange trips to participate as general surveyors.
- You can help to safeguard the buildings and collections of St. Catherine’s by becoming a member of the Saint Catherine Foundation.
Community and Environmental Services Center at St. Catherine’s. Community and Environmental Services Association.
Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency. “Walking Tours in the Sinai.” Tour Egypt.
Feller, Bruce. “The Monk Who Would Give Us History.” Parade Magazine, May 15, 2005.
Hobbs, Joseph J. “Speaking With People in Egypt’s St. Katherine National Park.” The Geography Review, January 1996.
Holy Image, Hallowed Ground, video. J. Paul Getty Museum and Lyn Goldfarb Productions, Inc., 2006.
Jobbins, Jenny. “Way to Go.” Al-Ahram Weekly, Nov. 21-Dec. 5, 2004.
Ligatus Research Unit, University of the Arts, London. “St. Catherine’s Project.”Ligatus.
Medicinal Plants Conservation Project. Medicinal Plants Conservation Project.
Mount Sinai Foundation. Holy Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai.
Operation Wallacea. “Egypt Expeditions.” Operation Wallacea.
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. “Saint Catherine Area.” UNESCO World Heritage Center.
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Report by: Amberly Polidor
Posted on: November 10, 2006
Updated on: May 16, 2010