A Survey of Egypt, Part XI: The Southern Sinai Interior
by Jimmy Dunn
Sometimes, because it is such an alien landscape, it appears that a large meteorite must have fallen out of the sky and lodged itself between Africa and Asia to form the Sinai. That's really not what happened. In fact, millions of years ago, the Sinai formed a part of Africa and Arabia in a land mass we now call the Great Rift Valley. Over the millenniums however, the continental plates, volcanic activity and other factors tore the Sinai away from its neighboring continents, while also thrusting up great rocky mountains. Its former connection to Africa and Arabia are, nevertheless, echoed by the terrain in Africa, across
the Gulf of Suez and in Arabia, across the Gulf of Aquaba. We tend to think of deserts as vast expanses of sand, sometimes in the form of rolling sand dunes, almost devoid of any vegetation and animal life, with the exception of an occasional oasis, snakes, scorpions and vultures. In reality, even in the Western Desert of Egypt, a part of the larger Sahara, that is not the case. Here, there is of course the Great Sand Sea, which fits that description fairly well, but in other places there is considerable vegetation and many different desert animals, including mice, foxes, cats and others. But the Sinai, perhaps even more so in its mountainous southern interior, is also a desert. This is a very dry region, which receives almost no rainfall.
There is some underground water, that produces the Oasis in the Sinai, but only in low lying regions. Hence, there is some vegetation, particularly in low lying regions, but outside of the oases, it is certainly less prevalent than many places in the Western Desert. Mostly, this vegetation is made up of small Acacia trees and a bit of grass or small weeds. Otherwise, and specifically within the mountains themselves, the landscape is particularly barren. Visitors to the Sinai have a difficult time imagining that any form of life could exist here, at least away from the major oasis, and yet it does, and even in some of its most desolate regions. Some sources list scores of reptiles, but there are also ibex and foxes, rodents and, though possibly extinct now, even panthers, along with a host of other animals. I was even shocked to find, half way down Mount Sinai the following day, a house cat, intent on making its living off of sympathetic tourists. A visitor to the Sinai is unlikely to see many of the wild animals, but here and there, one may spot a wild camel. Perhaps even more surprising though, are the people that one may encounter, sometimes seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Outside of major villages, most Bedouins live in very small tribal communities.
Some are nomadic, while others are not. For example, the tribe of Bedouins who live around Mount Sinai are mostly not nomadic. Indeed, one finds small communities of Bedouins here and there who have established some sort of tourist trade, sometimes selling trinkets at locations where tours tend to stop. Nowhere is the geology of the Sinai more dramatic than within its southern interior, and on October 5th, we headed into this part of the Sinai. We would spend this day and part of the next, first exploring and then climbing Mount Sinai, or as it is known to the Egyptians, Mount Moses (Gebel Musa).
As we departed Dahab, the sun was rising over a quite Gulf of Aqaba. However, soon, we made our way over the coastal mountains and very shortly the grand mountains of its interior became visible. What will probably first impress visitors to this part of the Sinai, aside from the majestic mountains themselves, are the colorful veins of rock that flow through these otherwise granite peaks. These formations were created when this part of the Sinai's mountains were pushed up by volcanic action from the seabed. These formations brought early visitors to the Sinai. Like so often in human history, much of the Sinai's exploration took place because of commercial considerations, mainly to exploit its mineral
wealth. From almost the earliest times, Egyptians journeyed to the Sinai for this reason, and later they developed permanent mining communities. Also, one will frequently see hills and large rock formations that are almost completely covered by sand, creating a spectacular effect of light sand and dark rock. Often, ridges along the tops are all that are visible of the hill below. In other places, vast quantities of sand creeps up the sides of mountains along the bottom of valleys to amazing heights. I have been here many times and yet this part of the Sinai always touches my imagination.
Colors, in the form of various minerals, seem to cascade down a Sinai Mountain
On this day, we would spend much of the first part of the day trying to find a good view of the interior mountains, sometimes climbing smaller mountains ourselves in order to get good photographic points of those more distant ones. It was an odd morning, punctuated by driving as far up hills as we could and then climbing the rest of the way in order to walk along mountain ridges. At other times, we
harassed the occasional wild
camel that didn't care about having its picture taken along side of the road. I actually like camels, but I thought at any moment I would be kicked or at least spit upon. Our ambitions for this day were not great, as the following day would be difficult, when I would ascend Mount Sinai. We passed by St. Catherine's village without stopping, as we would return in the afternoon and overnight there (if one wishes to call getting up at 1:00 the next morning actually overnighting). Interestingly, soon after St. Catherine's village, we made
a discovery of an error that will have to be corrected on Tour Egypt. We have mistakenly referred to the monastery, actually convent, west of the Feiran (Pharan in biblical sources) Oasis as being that of the Seven Girls Monastery. We did so after much research, but in fact, in revisiting the area, we discovered the real Seven Girls Monastery on the way to the Feiran Oasis. It was in the process of being restored, it seems, and while we were not allowed to enter, we managed to get some good shots from outside. We suspect that one day in the near future, this small facility may be reoccupied, perhaps as another dependency of the St. Catherine's Monastery. One wonders, in fact, whether the popularity of
St. Catherine's Monastery has not created a need for expansion. Actually, it is not all too surprising that we could make such an error. In reality, the area around the Feiran Oasis is littered with ancient churches and perhaps more monasteries than we know. In fact, we ran across one walled enclosure, just about in the middle of nowhere, covering some considerable ground that we could not at all figure out. It may or may not have been a monastery, and we could find any markings are anyone around to inform us. However, it contained very little in the way of structures, mostly protecting only the rock landscape. I personally wonder if it is not a modern monastery in the making.
The alien landscape of the Southern Central Sinai In fact, this Oasis was once the See of the first Bishopric of the Sinai Peninsula. The Feiran Oasis, which receives a good number
of tourists, though not like other sites such as St. Catherine's Monastery, is traditionally an important religious site. Here, it is said, is the location where Moses struck the rock with his staff to bring forth a spring so his people could drink. It is also refuted to be the site of Rafadim, the fabled oasis where the Hebrews camped and battled the Amelecites.
Atop a hill here known as Mount Tahoun, is where Moses supposedly stood to observe the battle. Not in question is the ancient church built atop the hill, nor is there any question of this oasis' early importance to Christians.
Valleys and mountains of the central Sinai
We spent a little time at the Feiran Oasis before moving on to the Monastery we misnamed as that of the Seven Girls. This monastery does receive a few visitors, though not too many. They were a bit surprised when we showed up, as I am sure they usually receive a bit of advanced warning when tour groups show up. Once again, this was really not my first visit to the monastery, though this time we specifically asked its name. At first, we were told by a gate keeper that it was the Seven Girls Monastery, but speaking to one of the nuns, we discovered that its real name is the Monastery of Moses.
It is a quite place; a pretty place with gardens and atop a nearby hill, the ruins of a more ancient church. It is not large though. This is actually a dependency of the larger St. Catherine's Monastery (or more correctly, the Monastery of the Transfiguration). Another error which we will soon correct is that this is not a Greek Orthodox facility. Rather, St. Catherine's Monastery and its dependencies comprise the entire Church of Sinai, actually an autonomous Orthodox organization headed by an archbishop who is also the abbot of St. Catherine's.
The archbishop is traditionally consecrated by the Patriarch of the Church of Jerusalem, though he is not the patriarch's subject. It should be noted that the Monastery of Moses and the other dependencies of St. Catherine's Monastery are not as open to the public as many Coptic monasteries,
such as those at Wadi el-Natrun. Actually, normal tourists to St. Catherine's Monastery are only allowed into a very small area of the monastery, though the Monastery of Moses seems more open. Still, no photography is allowed in any of the old churches like at the Coptic monasteries. After visiting this ancient monastery, we made some inquires about others in the area, but soon we headed back to St. Catherine's village, located at the foot of Mount Sinai. We actually made it back there relatively early in the afternoon and had a pleasant time. A Russian group arrived
at our hotel at about the same time as us, and they seemed a happy lot, not to mention that the swimming pool was soon full of bikini clad girls, which did nothing to harm the spirits of my team. Next door, I noticed that the four star hotel, the best that St. Catherine's has to offer and where I stayed on a previous visit, had various spirits for sale, which surprised me during Ramadan, but perhaps shouldn't have. I nevertheless abstained, knowing that tomorrow, October 6th, would almost certainly be my hardest day in Egypt. The view at the top of Mount Sinai may be rewarding, both photographically and spiritually, but the journey is not an easy one.
I spent a lot of time on top of one mountain photographing another during the leg of the survey