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St Katherines
St Katherines

St Katherine's and the Bedouin

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Egypt's Sinai region is wedged between the Gulf of Suez, the Mediterranean Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba. It supplied pharaohs with vast amounts of gold, copper and turquoise and has always been a critical strategic area.

It's said in the Bible that the Israelites travelled through Sinai as they sought the Holy Land. It is where God is said to have spoken to Moses at the Burning Bush. And the Bible says that God delivered the 10 Commandments on Mount Sinai's peak.

Three hours from Sharm el-Sheikh, around 100 kilometres inland, St Katherine's Monastery lies at the foot of Mount Sinai. To arrive there is to journey through the Sinai Desert, a terrain of incredible beauty. Dry gravel wadis — some enormous — slice through barren, jagged hills and mountain ranges and the odd bank of yellow sand clings to hillsides like snowdrifts. In the wadis are ancient acacia trees and tamarisk bushes and clumps of baitharan where Bedouin camels browse for edible leaves.

The road eventually climbs the valley, leading to the foot of the 2285-metre Mount Sinai. Twenty-two Greek Orthodox monks live in the ancient St Katherine's monastery, founded by the Roman empress Helena. In the sixth century a fortress containing the original chapel, a basilica and a monastery was built by Justinian and the site has been visited by Christian pilgrims ever since.

The walled complex houses the ornate chapel and an extraordinary collection of religious icons and bejewelled crosses assembled from all over the Orthodox world. Its collection of 3500 volumes of illuminated manuscripts in various languages is second only to the Vatican's collection. It has priceless pieces of art donated by Tsar Alexander II and Empress Catherine. It's easy to forget it is a functioning monastery and not a museum, but as many monks and visitors are in quiet prayer, sanctity must be respected.

The chapel is dedicated to the martyr saint, St Katherine. She was born in Alexandria in 294AD and although brought up a pagan, later converted to Christianity. That earned her a torturous death by spiked wheel. Tradition says her body was transported by angels. It was found hundreds of years later when Monastery monks dreamt where she was buried — on the slopes of Gebel Katarina, Egypt's highest mountain.

The monastery has granite walls ranging between 12-60 metres high and is surrounded by beautiful gardens and cypresses. During its 1500 years it has been attacked many times. Its preserved state is evidence that the walls provided great protection. The burning bush can be visited in the courtyard and there is also a rather gruesome room full of the bones of dead monks.

Egypt is home to around half a million Bedouin, 50,000 of whom live in the Sinai. Their nomadic way of life is under threat with the increase in tourism and development of their traditional lands. There are 14 tribes in the Sinai — the Jabaliyya tribe lives in the mountainous area around St Katherine's and are descendents of Macedonians sent by the Emperor Justinian to build and protect the monastery in the sixth century.

Some of the Bedouin have joined the tourist trade and sell crafts, run camel treks and tours, while others are involved in projects to protect and maintain their culture.

On a typical Bedouin tour you are collected from your hotel in the late afternoon and driven to a desert site outside St Katherine's, where the guides wait. First comes an hour-long camel trek through various desert landscapes. Children wearing traditional costume often lead your camel while adults generally wear simple white tunics known as galabeyas.

The trek leads to a tented area where breads are cooked on an open fire. Visitors may recline on fat cushions in the tent or sit outside and enjoy a feast of chicken, rice, potatoes, meatballs and salad, followed by sweet Bedouin tea. Curious children love to entertain visitors. When it's all over you are driven back to the hotel.


Mount Sinai in Egypt.


MISR/Allsun nine days/eight nights Cairo and Red Sea Experience is $1490 per person double share. Their 10 days/nine nights Magical Egypt tour is $1995 per person double share.

Flight Centre has return airfares to Cairo, valid for sale until November 29, 2005 and for travel between August 26 and November 29, 2005. Conditions apply. Prices, including tax, start at:
  • Sydney $1696
  • Brisbane $1750
  • Perth $1784
  • Melbourne $1860
  • Adelaide $1921

    To book, call Flight Centre on 131 600.

    Please note that the prices listed are valid at the time of filming.

    More information

    Allsun Holidays
    3/37-49 Pitt Street
    Sydney NSW 2000
    Ph: (02) 9241 3211
    Fax: 02 9241 3313

    Egypt: It is recommended travellers to Egypt see their doctor at least six weeks before departure. Travellers should be up to date with vaccinations for Hepatitis A, typhoid fever, tetanus, diphtheria and polio before departure. Depending on time of year of travel and exact destination, other precautions and preventions are recommended and best discussed with your doctor.
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