Sinai: Ancient Monastery, Tombs and Camels


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Africa » Egypt » Sinai » St Catherine
October 19th 2016
Published: June 11th 2017
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The gladdest moment in human life, me thinks, is a departure into unknown lands.

- Sir Richard Burton

We were met this morning at 7:30 by our guide Ebad and driver Hassem, for our "Egyptian Desert Experience" day tour. We munched on our breakfast boxes as we drove out of Dahab. We had to bring our passports with us as we pass into UN controlled territory and they check visas.

There are numerous checkpoints we had to go through, the one leaving Dahab which we passed through coming from the airport on our way here, and a couple of other checkpoints in the South Sinai. They keep very good track of tourists going into the Katherine protected area.

The scenery as we drove into the Sinai desert changed from rugged granite mountains to softer sandstone hills. The desert landscape was quite varied as we drove, and very beautiful. We stopped by the side of the road to take some photos, then continued on our way.

We stopped to pick up our Bedouin guide, and then arrived at St. Katherine's Monastery. We had to park about a 10 min walk away, and we left Ebad and continued on our way with our Bedouin guide, whose name I can't remember right now. Unfortunately he didn't speak much English, so wasn't terribly useful as a guide. I know Peregrine likes to support the local people and employ them whenever possible, but I would have preferred if Ebad had continued with us into the Monastery because we got virtually no explanation of what we were seeing while we were there. However, the guide did take us for a short hike up the rocks for an excellent view of the Monastery.

Only a very small portion of the Monastery is open to visitors, so we didn't get to see very much inside the Monastery, though we did go inside the Church of the Transfiguration (6th C), which was very ornately decorated (no photos allowed). We also visited the Monastery Museum (for an extra 50 Egyptian pounds each - about $7.50). It contained a quite amazing number of the monastery's artistic treasures, ranging from Byzantine icons to ancient manuscripts.

The monastery was founded about 330 CE, when a Byzantine empress had a small chapel built beside what was believed to the the burning bush from which God spoke to Moses. The Monastery is the oldest continually functioning monastery in the world. It was named after St. Katherine, who was from Alexandria and martyred for her faith.

A fortress was constructed around the monastery by the emperor Justinian in the 6th C, to provide a secure home for the monks who had come there. When Islam arrived in the 7th C the Monastery was protected by Muslim leaders and allowed to continue to function as a Christian monastery. It has been continually protected ever since. The Bedouins who live in the area, the Jabaliyya tribe, are the descendants of those brought to the area in the 6th C to serve the Monastery. A mosque was later built within the Monastery walls in the 11th C.

After our tour of the Monastery we rejoined Ebad and Hassem and continued to the St. Katherine's Protectorate Visitor's Centre, a really excellent and informative place I highly recommend. It describes not only the Monastery, but gives lots of information about the Protectorate itself (a 4350 square kilometre area). It would have been really useful to have gone to the Visitor's Centre before we went to the Monastery, as I would have got a lot more out of my time there.

We continued on our way and Ebad pointed out various Biblical sights including the place where the golden calf idol was supposedly destroyed. We stopped at a rock carving of the golden calf. There were several Bedouin kids playing in the area and they soon surrounded us wanting to sell us Bedouin crafts made by their mother who was nearby. We bought an embroidered beaded wallet. Bedouin women are known for their embroidery and beadwork. The kids were all barefoot and I don't know how they can run over this rocky terrain without shoes. It doesn't bother them at all so their feet must be very strong.

We drove to the Bedouin village where we were having lunch at a local family's house (the family of the Bedouin guide). We were served a delicious lunch of soup, arabic bread, rice & vermicelli, salad, roasted vegetables, and roasted chicken, along with tea. As we were eating we noticed quite a few women carrying bags coming into the house. They were all bringing their crafts to show us. The Bedouin women used to have a cooperative where they sold their goods, but because
Depicting a Bedouin coffee urnDepicting a Bedouin coffee urnDepicting a Bedouin coffee urn

Symbolizing Bedouin hospitality
of the lack of tourism it has closed. Now the women just bring out their crafts if tourists are in the area. I was really wishing we had the group with us from our trip, as I know the women in our group would have made lots of purchases. We felt bad since the Bedouin women had so many lovely items and there were just the two of us. However, we did buy two embroidered purses and a several beaded wallets.

After lunch we drove about 1 hr to where we joined our camels and the two Bedouin boys, Mohammed and Abdullah, who were our camel guides. We had a fantastic camel ride through the Sinai desert to the plateau of Nawamis, which are Bronze Era tombs, built around 4500 BCE. As we rode we we were joined by two young boys, and by the time we got to the Nawamis, a small group had formed of Bedouin boys and girls. Sure enough, they had bags of their mother's crafts to sell! We had no small bills at that point but Susan got a bracelet with her remaining change. It was funny to see her surrounded by the little
Welcome signWelcome signWelcome sign

It is spelled both with a C and a K.
kids (it's her fault for speaking Arabic!)

We got off our camels and had a look around the tombs, then got back on our camels to continue on our way. I was getting pretty good at balancing as the camel got up and down by now. After awhile riding though the desert we arrived at another Bedouin village, this one just made up of one family (husband, wife, 4 children and 40 grandchildren). We stopped for tea and, what do you know, suddenly the place was full of women and children setting out crafts! Oh no, we had no small bills left and had bought all we wanted to at the previous Bedouin village. I borrowed 10 pounds from Ebad to buy a small bracelet and after a couple cups of tea we were back on our camels for the ride to where the car was parked, under the shade of a tree in the desert.

This camel ride was quite different from the one in Wadi Rum, because we were up and down several times, and the terrain was much more hilly. Plus we must have been on the camels for about 2 hours. I enjoyed it a lot but I don't think I'd like to ride a camel all day!

We got back to the hotel about 5:30, and the owner said the large room next to ours was now vacant and we could move into it if we wanted. It turns out this was the room we were supposed to get, but the person who was supposed to have it for 1 night only kept extending it and ended up staying 4 nights. Kind of funny since the hotel is practically empty. Anyway, we moved to the larger room and enjoyed a beer on our large balcony. We didn't feel like going out for dinner so after awhile we got an Egyptian pizza from the pizza place across the street. They had Italian and Egyptian pizza, so of course we choose the Egyptian pizza. It was kind of layered, and really good. We washed it down with another beer.

Tomorrow is the first day since our trip started that we don't have to set the alarm to be ready for a specific time. I'm looking forward to sleeping in! We'll decide what we want to do tomorrow. We may go snorkelling again or
Prophet Haroun tombProphet Haroun tombProphet Haroun tomb

And here it is
just hang out here by the pool.


Additional photos below
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The burning bushThe burning bush
The burning bush

Yes, it's the one you've heard about!
The burning bushThe burning bush
The burning bush

You can't get close to it anymore as people kept snipping bits of it off.
Inside the Monastery Inside the Monastery
Inside the Monastery

The bell tower was built in 1871
Top of the churchTop of the church
Top of the church

From the 6th C.
Bedouin guide and Monastery catBedouin guide and Monastery cat
Bedouin guide and Monastery cat

Lots of cats about the Monastery


20th October 2016

Lori, Hildegard and Barb are enjoying your blog too.
20th October 2016

You are getting to be a pro!
20th October 2016

Susan you can now become a full fledged tour guide who amazes with her Arabic!

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