Saint Katherine and the Sinai High Mountains

The town of St. Katherine is in the Sinai peninsula in Egypt at an elevation of about 1600 meters from sea level, at the foot of the Sinai High Mountains. Up to a thousand visitors come to visit St. Katherine’s Monastery, the oldest continuously inhabited monastery in the World built on the site where Moses (Prophet Musa) talked to God in the miracle of the Burning Bush, and to climb Mt. Sinai (the Biblical Mt. Horeb, known locally as Jebel Musa) where Moses has received the Ten Commandments. Most visitors arrive on organized coach tours from the Red Sea resorts of Sharm el Sheikh, Taba and Dahab in the evening, have dinner and maybe a couple of hours sleep in a hotel, climb the mountain at dawn, visit the Monastery in the morning and return to the resort. St. Catherine and Mt. Sinai can be visited independently as well, avoiding the busy times on the mountain and discovering the rest of what this unique region offers.

The region is a UNESCO World Heritage Area for its natural and cultural importance, and in fact, you could spend weeks to explore it. There are over 200 religious places and other important monasteries and churches, ruins of Byzantine monastic settlements, the highest mountains in Egypt with spectacular views, amazing rock formations and landscape. It is a unique high-altitude desert eco-system with many endemic and rare species, there is a whole range of medicinal plants used by locals for centuries which are not found elsewhere, there are water-pools, springs, creeks, narrow canyons and wide valleys. In the valleys of the high mountains, called wadis, everywhere you go there are beautiful Bedouin gardens unique to this area only. Its original inhabitants, the kind and friendly Jebeliya (Gebeliya) Bedouin are expert gardeners and camel herders, and if you take your time you might have a glimpse into their closed, traditional, albeit slowly changing way of life and culture that has been around for more than 1400 years.For visitors, this site contains practical and background information about the city, the region and its people. For local businesses, projects and the community in general, it provides a web-presence: all listings are free, but entries must be related to the area or its people.

St. Katherine is one of the newest cities in Egypt, with all amenities of a modern place: there are several schools, including a high school, a hospital, police and firebrigade, a range of hotels, Post Office, Telephone Center, bank and all other important establishments. Few decades ago it was not much more than the annual gathering place of the Jebeliya Bedouin at El Milga plain and a few more or less temporary settlements. The oldest settlement in the region is Wadi El Sybaiya, east of the Monastery, where the Roman soldiers, whose descendants the Jebeliya are, were accomodated. It started growing into a city after the tarmac road was completed in the 1980s and the tourist trade begun. Many of the nomad Bedouins moved to small settlements around the Monastery, which collectively make up St. Katherine’s City. The districts of El Milga, El Rasis, Shamiya, Raha and Nabi Harun form the core of the city, at the end of the tarmac road where the valleys of Wadi el Arbain (Wadi El Lega), Wadi Quez, Wadi Raha, Wadi Shrayj and Wadi el Dier connect to the main wadi, Wadi Sheikh. There are settlements in Wadi Sheikh before town and other smaller ones in the wadis. The Municipality of St. Katherine includes these outlying areas as well. Some of the government offices are planned to be moved to Wadi el Isbaiya, which starts from the main road opposite Abu Zaituna. With the financial help of the EU water will be brought to St. Katherine from the Nile, pumping it up to a height of almost two kilometers. The constarction is under way and the pipes are in Wadi Feiran at the moment. There are a number of other development projects in St. Katherine and the area

The traditional people of the area, the Jebeliya Bedouin, have been living in the region for over 1400 years. In the 6th century AD the Byzantine Emperor Justinian ordered to build St. Catherine monastery (Jebel El Tur Monastery as it was named at the time) and brought about 200 Roman soldiers with their families to protect the monastery. Hundred of these men were brought from Egypt and the other hundred were brought from different parts of the Byzantine empire, mainly from the Black Sea territory. According to different accounts they are from Romania, Macedonia, Greece or Anatolia. The Jebeliya refer to themselves as of Romanian or Greek descent. According to oral traditions they came from a place called Black Mountain. Abu El Makarem mentions that the Roman soldiers who were brought from Egypt were named as Bni Saleh (Sons of Saleh) and the others were named as El Lakhmeen (the Arabic name describing people from the Black Sea Area). They are one of the first peoples of the present population of Sinai. They were here before most other Bedouin tribes and the spread of Islam, but along the centuries intermarried with other Arab tribes and converted to Islam. Some sections of the tribe settled in more recently (as late as 200 years ago), they are from other parts of Egypt, Palestine or the Saudi peninsula. The Jebeliya traditions and way of life are similar to other Bedouin groups, although their origins are remembered and there are some unique features.

Their name Jebeliya refers to the mountains (Jebel meaning Mountain) as they always lived in these mountains on their tribal territory. While most other Bedouin groups are desert dwellers, the home of the Jebeliya is in the labyrinth of high altitude wadis. The families have gardens at different locations in the valleys where they lived in the summer months. When the weather became colder people moved to lower altitude. Today they still practice this seasonal migration to some extent, as many families like to spend some time in the mountains in the summer school holidays. There are still a few older people who stay there for prolonged periods, but younger people, in general, are not to keen on spending much time out. The gardens are a unique feature of the Jebeliya, as other Bedouin groups were not involved in agriculture. (Other Bedouin had lands and trees in Oasises, though, but they were tended for a share by landless peasants.) The gardens – called karm or bustan – are encircled by massive stone walls which keep larger animals out, and protect the garden during flashfloods and retain the soil. Gardens were built in the water course in the wadi floor or in basins, where water remained underground longer. The houses are usually built a bit further up from the wadi floor, so sudden floods did not cause damege to people. In the gardens they grow many fruits not common in Egypt such as apples and almonds. Other crops include olives, apricots, figs, grapes and so on. They are expert gardeners who received their first seeds from monks, and developed drought resistant strains by grafting branches of higher yielding varieties from the low land onto tougher indigenous plants. They kept and still keep animals, such as camel, sheep, goat and poultry, although due to dry conditions grazing is more difficult and fodder has to be purchased from outside, making this a more costly venture. On average a family according to a Protectorate survey owns between 5 to 10 animals in settlements around St. Katherine City, and 15-20 in the mountainous areas. Good camels cost as much as 5000 LE (USD 800) and are the focus of pride. The Jebeliya hold an annual camel race in the main wadi, Wadi Sheikh.