Wadi Arbaein & Wadi Shrayj
A Walking Trail Guide
Saint Katherine Protectorate
Preparation & Getting started
What will I see?
Site 1 Gardens behind the Research Centre
Site 2 Make a Wish Hajar El Majarlin
Site 3 Roles in Nature The Story of Alkanna and Anthrophera
Site 4 Rock of Moses and Chapel of the Prophet Moses
Site 5 Monastery of the Forty Martyrs
Site 6 Ramadans Hyrax
Site 7 Junction of Wadi El-Arbaein and Wadi Ferraah
Site 8 Grazing Exclosures Suez Canal University Environmental Research Centre
Site 9 Bedouin Shelter and Garden
Site 10 Wadi Shrayj
Site 11 Byzantine Dwellings
Wadi El-Arbaein & Wadi Shrayj
Saint Katherine Protectorate
There is more to the Saint Katherine Protectorate than just the Monastery and Mount Sinai. A wealth of cultural, natural and religious history awaits discovery within the 4350 km2 of the Saint Katherine Protectorate. The unique high altitude desert ecosystem and the religious landscape surrounding the Saint Katherine Monastery are intertwined with treasures of Bedouin life and culture. This series of guidebooks cover half to full day walks in the areas around the Saint Katherine village and Monastery.
All visitors to the mountain region must be accompanied by a Bedouin guide. Your Bedouin guide will share his extraordinary knowledge of this areas rich environment, and help make your walk safe and easy.
How to use this guide
This booklet will complement your experience with your Bedouin guide whilst inside the Saint Katherine Protectorate. The site numbers in this booklet correspond to the numbers on the engraved sandstone markers located along the path. At each site you will have the opportunity to read a little about what you see, hear and smell so as to discover more of the wildlife, history and culture of the area.
**You must be reasonably fit in order to hike these trails comfortably; some gradients are steep
**Ensure that you carry at least 1.5 litres of water per person, and more in hot weather. You may find potable water on the way, but water is generally scarce.
**Wear sturdy shoes and a hat, take sunscreen and matches or a lighter
**Please carry out all your litter, bury your bodily waste and burn your toilet paper.
Organize your guide at El-Milgah, about 750 metres west of the shops of Saint Katherine village. The trail begins from Saint Katherine village, cutting south across Wadi El-Sheikh to the mouth of Wadi el-Arbaein. An established camel path wanders up Wadi El-Arbaein for 3 kilometres until the Monastery of the Forty Martyrs, where the trail veers northeast into Wadi Ferrah. Continuing for 2 kilometres, you will reach the beginning of Wadi Shrayj and eventually the vista of Wadi El-Raha. The descent down Wadi Shrayj is moderately steep and rocky, but your Bedouin guide will lead you down the safest path.
"Before mid-day we had again reached the convent of El-ErbaynThe verdure was so brilliant and blossoms of the orange trees diffused so fine a perfume that I was transported in imagination" Burkhardt 1822
What will I see?
The walk through Wadi El-Arbaein, Wadi Ferrah and Wadi Shrayj is framed by the high red granite columns of Jebel Ahmar (Red Mountain) and Jebel Safsafa (Willow Mountain). These peaks provide a spectacular backdrop to the colourful and subtle activity of life in the wadis. If you look carefully, you will discover unique and interdependent relationships between the people, places, plants and animals. Smell the fresh scent of local aromatic plants such as wild oregano, pyrethrum and artemesia as it wafts through the wadi, look for bees pollinating Alkanna wildflowers, and the blue-coloured Sinai agama lizards basking on red rocks. The shy and reclusive rock hyrax can be seen at a Bedouins family enclosure.
You will experience the history and importance of religious sites such as the Rock of Moses and the Monastery of the Forty Martyrs. Vistas of Mount Sinai and Mount Katherine are awe inspiring, and in the ancient ruins of Byzantine dwellings nestled in Wadi Shrayj you can imagine the life of the original inhabitants.
Gardens behind the Research Centre
The large boulders at the mouth of Wadi El-Arbaein are a clue to the force of the floods that carry them down from higher elevations. The floods, resulting from occasional heavy bursts of rain, and melting of winter snow, also transport soil and seeds, recharge the groundwater and prepare the wadi for a new season of growth.
The irrigation technique practiced in the adjacent stone-walled gardens is more reliable and organized than the floods. Wells up to 10 metres deep tap underground water sources which support apricot, almond, olive, pomegranate, and fig trees as well as date palms and grape vines. The black plastic pipes (Khartoum) are used to channel well water for irrigation and drinking water to local people. Be careful not to tread on or damage them. The gardens to the south and nearby storeroom belong to the Monastery of Saint Katherine. The lower garden is part of the Suez Canal University Environmental Research Centre.
Continue along the path approximately 600 metres to Site 2.
Make a Wish Hajar El-Majariin
To the Jebeliya Bedouin, this large boulder covered with small rocks is a wishing stone. When making a wish, the Jebeliya throw a small rock on to the top of the boulder. If the rock remains on the top, the wish will come true, but if the rock falls off, it will not.
The tips of ancient cypress trees can be seen above the wall of the Monastery garden further up the path.
Walk about 600 metres and follow the garden wall to Site 3.
Roles in Nature The Story of Alkanna and Anthophera
The rocky basin is home to many interesting species which share special inter-relationships. Like all flowering plants, the Alkanna species which you see here needs to be pollinated in order to produce seeds for the next generation. A local territorial, solitary bee species called Anthrophera plays an important role in the pollination of Alkanna. Each spring (March-June), while Alkanna is in flower, the bee collects nectar and pollen from it. It will eventually line the chambers of its underground burrow with the pollen to feed its young which will emerge the following spring. In the meantime the bee pollinates the Alkanna plants within its territory. Alkanna and Anthophera need each other!
A low bushy herb with long green hairy leaves that produces yellow flowers in spring and carpets the ground after rain.
It occurs in low lying sandy areas in wadis around Saint Katherine village. The genetic differences, evident in the varying flower size and shape, between Alkanna populations in different wadis is of great scientific interest.
The next site is about 300 metres away
"we passed a block of granite, said to be the rock out of which the water issued when struck by the rod of MosesThe rock is about twelve feet in height, of an irregular shape approaching to be a cube. There are some apertures upon its surface, through which water is said to have burst out." Burkhardt 1822
Rock of Moses and Chapel of the Prophet Moses
Today you can see the same twelve fissures described by Burkhardt on the face of the rock which is now enclosed by a stone wall next to the Chapel of the Prophet Moses. Monks relate that this is the rock which followed and sustained the children of Israel during the Biblical time of the Exodus. "for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ" 1 Cor. 10:4
Water no longer flows from the rock clefts but there are accounts of pilgrims drinking there. The Jebeliya believe that the clefts represent the twelve springs referred to in the Quran when Moses struck the rock (Sura 2:60). Burkhardt noticed the Bedouin putting "grass into the fissures, as offerings to the memory of Moses They also bring their female camels, for they believe that by making the animal couch down before the rock and by putting some fresh grass into the fissures of the stone, the camels will become fertile and yield more milk." The engraved footprints seen on surrounding rocks are an old way for Bedouin to propose marriage.
Continue for another 700 metres to Site 5
Sinai agama (harduun)
Robust, 30cm long flattened lizard. Males turn a characteristic bright cobalt blue during the spring breeding season. Perched on rocks they survey and defend their territory, and their female mates.
Monastery of the Forty Martyrs
Surrounded by a green belt of olive, cypress and poplar trees, the Monastery of the Forty Martyrs was constructed in the sixth century in honor of the forty Christian martyrs who died in Sebaste (central Turkey). Monks relate that forty Christian soldiers from the Roman Army in the third century were commanded to worship pagan gods. They refused and were put to death by being exposed at night to the bitterly cold winds off a frozen lake. Those who survived until morning were killed by the sword. Today the gardens are looked after by the members of the Bedouin family.
In the grounds of this monastery is a chapel dedicated to the hermit Saint Onuphrius. Coming from Upper Egypt, he was said to have lived for seventy years in the rock shelter at the northern end of the garden, until he died in AD 390.
Please respect the religious importance of this site by not trespassing or trying to gain admission.
Follow the Monastery wall for about 350 metres to Site 6 and take the path to the right to visit the friendly Jebeliya family of Ramadan Musa Abu Saiid and their captive hyrax.
Ramadan has an enthusiastic interest in rock hyrax (wabr) and has constructed an enclosure at his home to observe and enjoy these rabbit-sized mammals. Beginning with four captive individuals, the hyrax have multiplied over the years. Ramadan occasionally releases the hyrax offspring once they reach maturity. The leafy green "roquette" and grape leaves grown in the family garden and Bedouin bread (fatiir) are part of the captive hyraxs diet.
Ramadan and his large family are very hospitable and will usually serve you and your guide tea as you watch the hyrax. Show your appreciation by making a contribution. From Ramadans house return to Site 6 and continue along the path for 250 metres.
Rock hyrax (wabr)
The shy and reclusive hyrax typically lives in colonies in rocky valleys and feeds on vegetation. Its closest relatives are the elephant and sea cow. The hyrax produces a highly concentrated urine which forms a crystalline mass in its burrow. Bedouins collect this substance for medicinal use and as a natural wood preservative. Traditionally hyrax meat was eaten by women just before they gave birth.
Junction of Wadi El-Arbaein and Wadi Ferrah
Wadi Ferrah meets Wadi El-Arbaein at the foot of Jebel Ferrah. To the west behind Ramadans house the peak with a white chapel is Mount Katherine, the highest mountain in Egypt. Its rocks are different from those of the other mountains nearby as it is composed of "young" ten million year old dark rhyolite, a volcanic rock, similar to granite but with a finer grain. The red "Ikna" granite makes up the surrounding peaks Jebel Ferrah, Jebel Safsafa and Jebel Ahmar are formed from 580 million year old basement rock. Mount Sinai (Jebel Musa) is overlaid with a more recent diorite, the result of volcanic activity during the Miocene epoch, about ten million years ago.
The Jebeliya recognize that the darker volcanic mountains like Mount Katherine form a ring-shaped boundary (which geologists refer to as a circular dyke) to their red-granite territory. They understand that the environment of the dark mountains is hotter and harsher, with little shade, and so the life cycle of plants on the dark mountains is shorter than in the red granite areas.
Wadi El-Arbaein separates Jebel Musa and Mount Katherine and is considered to be a holy tract of land. Edward Palmer reported in 1871 that the wadi "is looked upon by the Arabs as particularly sacred. They believe that no robbery can be perpetrated there without immediate detection, and that if a man be afflicted with any malady whatever were to sleep within its precincts he would experience instant relief. Here the spirits are said to hold mighty revel and celebrate fantasias to the sound of sweet music."
Bear left at the fork into the wadi for about 400 metres to Site 8.
Dykes are the stripes of volcanic rock intrusions which sometimes stretch for kilometers and can be many metres in width. Dykes are usually a darker red or grey colour than the surrounding rock and are more permeable to water than the harder granite. Underground springs are more likely tapped here than anywhere else. Plants grow more easily along dykes and animals congregate to feed and take shelter here. Bedouin refer to the dykes as "jidda", meaning grandmother the nurturer, the nourisher. Jidda is probably also a corruption of the formal Arabic word "gaedda", which means dyke.
Grazing Exclosures Suez Canal University Environmental Research Centre
The fenced plots of land on the left are being used to study the effects of sheep and goats grazing on the vegetation. The study will examine and assess the response of plants without grazing pressure: the number of species, their distribution and density. Compare the vegetation inside the exclosure plots to the surrounding vegetation outside.
The Jebeliya Bedouin are pastoral nomads and have a long history of grazing sheep and goats but grazing pressure has increased in the last fifty years with a rise in the local population. One Jebeliya man, relates that "one hundred years ago there were only forty families living in the Jebeliya territory. Today the Bedouin population is over 3000 and pressure on the land has increased with plants being eaten before they can set seed." The Bedouin solution to this problem is the traditional practice of helf a restriction on grazing in a given area, for a certain time, to allow for the regeneration of plants. Helf demonstrates the local peoples inherent knowledge of ecology and conservation and their ability to find solutions to local problems.
Fan-toed gecko (nataaga)
Feeding on insects like mosquitoes, this gecko can cling to vertical surfaces. The underside of their flared-toed feet are covered in large plate-like scales. These scales are covered with thousands of microscopic branched hairs that allow the gecko to grip onto all surfaces, even upside down.
Bedouin Shelter and Garden
The stone shelter and adjacent gardens belong to the family of Ramadan. A nearby concave boulder enclosed by stones and a tiny door is a storehouse and shelter for produce from the garden. Shepherdesses are frequently seen in their colorful "galebayas" and black cloak and veil, playing their flutey "shabaaba" while grazing their goats and sheep on the rocky slopes of Wadi Ferrah and Jebel Safsafa, the red granite peak rising to the northeast.
A small and elusive Nubian ibex population drifts between the rocky peaks of Jebel Safsafa, Jebel Ahmar and Jebel El-Deir it is only the very fortunate and observant visitor that catch a glimpse of these animals. The ibex population has become threatened by over-hunting and also because they are particularly sensitive to disturbance by humans. Ibex must drink every two to three days in the summer and every ten days in the winter, but will not approach water sources when there are people present. Please assist the Protectorate in the conservation of this species by keeping water sources accessible and clean and reporting all sightings (including location, number, time, date, and gender) to the Protectorate office in Saint Katherine village.
Nubian ibex (taytal)
The pale brown coat, white belly and black marking on the flanks, forelegs and muzzle identify this type of wild mountain goat. Males and females usually live in separate groups. Males can weigh up to 90 kilograms and develop heavy curved horns up to 1 metre long.
The spectacular long open view across Wadi Sheik to the Plain of El-Raha from the rock wall marks the beginning of Wadi Shrayj. The banana shaped mound at the mouth of the Plain of El-Raha, and now covered by hotels, is a prominent local landmark clearly decipherable on historical maps of the area. Neolithic artifacts from between 7000 and 4500 BC have been located in this area.
The ruins of several ancient dwellings and structures from the Nabatean (BC 200-AD 100) and Byzantine eras (circa AD 300-700 AD) are located in Wadi Shrayj. Among the rocks of the old buildings you may see a small golden colored mouse searching for food.
The spiny mouse is named after the coarse spine-like hairs that cover its back. It can often be seen climbing through boulders. It has a unique temperature control system which allows it to survive in extreme temperatures.
Rounded-walls, niches and shelves and tiny doors are typical of Byzantine stone dwellings. Notice how the stones are laid without mortar and the absence of a roof. You can also find traces of ancient water systems or conduits which were used to direct rain water to the settlement and for irrigation use. Typical of the Byzantine era (3rd to 7th century AD) water conduits or channels directed the mountain rains to cisterns or pools. Water conduits were constructed using natural drainage lines in the granite and by cementing flat stones with a natural mortar. The outdoor courtyards are thought to be an area for meeting guests and for cooking. The small stone hutch was built by Bedouin to keep chickens safe at night from foxes. From this vantage you then descend down to the asphalt road either following the wadi floor past Bedouin houses and gardens or crossing over the saddle in front of you. On reaching the asphalt road Saint Katherine village lies to your left.
Tenebroid (awair el-banaat)
Unlike most other beetles the tenebroid beetle cannot fly. Its black body, sealed wing case and long rigid legs are adaptations to hot day-time conditions. The tenebroid beetle which is very common is called "awair El-Banaat" (girls donkey) by the Bedouin. The name stems from a game that young Bedouin shepherdesses play with cotton threads the girls tie the beetles to one another and they follow each other like a train.
Last Updated: June 14th, 2011
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