Ancient monastery has few visitors amid Sinai unrest, but Bedouin neighbors protect it


By William Booth

ST. CATHERINE’S MONASTERY, Egypt — Thousands of years of tradition say the monastery built here marks the spot where Moses fell down on his knees before a burning bush and talked to God. Hidden high in the desert mountains, guarded for centuries by scholar monks and Bedouin tribesmen, this fortress sanctuary was once as remote as any place on Earth could be.

This is no longer so. The modern world arrived at St. Catherine’s Monastery in the form of paved highways and mass tourism, which once brought thousands of pilgrims a day.

But a violent insurgency and military crackdown sweeping across Egypt’s northern Sinai peninsula has brought an unwelcome quiet to the south, where the Bedouin tribes make their money from tourists.

In August, the Egyptian government closed St. Catherine’s Monastery to visitors as a precaution. It was only the third closure in 50 years. While the monastery reopened its doors again after three weeks, Egyptian security forces are now everywhere, shepherding the handful of foreigners into the area in armed convoys.

The monks at the monastery, and the Bedouin who make their living as guides here, stress that the violence is taking place 300 miles to the north.

In the northern Sinai, the restive tribes have been sabotaging natural gas pipelines, and smuggling weapons, drugs and gasoline through their network of tunnels with the Gaza Strip. In the power vacuum created by Egypt’s upheaval, the Bedouin there have raised the black flag for militant jihad, and are waging a guerrilla campaign of extortion, kidnapping and targeted assassination against the powers of the state.

Militants in the north have launched near-daily attacks on Egyptian security forces. In August, gunmen ambushed trucks carrying Egyptian police recruits and executed 25 on the side of a road near a peacekeepers’ checkpoint.

But in the south, the Bedouin tell their children the story of how the Roman emperor Justinian brought their tribe of mason-warriors to the Sinai in the sixth century to build the walled monastery here, and protect the monks with their lives.

“We teach our children that the monastery gives us life,” said Suleman Gebaly, a guide and local chronicler. “This place puts food on our table.”

The descendants of these Justinian serfs continue to honor their task, and so do the monks in black frocks, with their long gray beards and ponytails, who devote their days to vespers and prayer and to their magnificent library, which preserves in the high desert air some of the oldest, most precious manuscripts in Christendom.

Industrial tourism came to the monastery with the building of paved highways in the early 1980s. Until recently, the monastery drew throngs — sometimes 350 tour buses a day, a thousand visitors or more — from the beach resorts at Taba, Dahab and Sharm el-Sheik along the Red Sea coast, a diver’s paradise.

Now one or two buses come a day. On a recent morning there was a tour group from India, and later a few stragglers in a couple of vans.

Camel drivers who bring visitors on the three-hour climb to the top of Mount Sinai say they are desperate for work.

On a recent dawn ascent, only six Colombians made the summit. At a hut along the trail, guide Sabah Darwish sat wrapped in blankets, drinking tea and smoking in the murk. “You’re the first foreigners I’ve seen in a month,” he said.

A Bedouin tribe called the Gebaliya still tend desert gardens and flocks of sheep and goats. Every man has a camel, if he can, though many families have had to sell their camels at steep discounts to traders, who take them down to the beach resorts and feed them from dumpsters, trying to hold on until the tourists come back.

Without tourism, the Bedouin said, they would pursue other paths — such as drug smuggling, or worse.

Two Americans were kidnapped in the region last year. The most recent abduction of foreigners occurred in the south in March, when an Israeli and Norwegian were snatched. Like most, they were released.

Under the rule of President Hosni Mubarak, “there was an understanding that anyone from the north who came to make trouble in the south, we were allowed to kill him,” said Sheik Mousa al Gebaly, who operates a guest house and guide services in the town beside the monastery.

He remembers a time back in the 1990s when even the Israelis came in large numbers to Sinai. “I would have 50 cars with Israeli plates in my parking lot. They would hire 50 guides and 200 camels a day,” Gebaly said.

At the Taba crossing between Egypt and Israel, the passport and customs halls are empty. The coast here was once a famously laid-back post-hippie haven. Now beach hotels stand as shells in the sand. Wind blows through broken glass. The decorative date palms are slumped over, brown and dead.

Once-popular seaside camps, with names like Blue Wave, Moon Camp and Nirvana are shuttered and forlorn, like beach towns in perpetual winter — no more yoga, no more snorkeling, no more bowls of hash at sunset.

At the monastery, Archbishop Damianos sat behind his desk, apologizing for his poor eyesight, fumbling for his magnifying glass and explaining that English was not his best language. He spoke five others.

“It is not so bad for a monastery to be closed for a little while. We are monks, after all,” he said, smiling at his little joke. “We’ve returned to an earlier quiet.”

The archbishop is 79 years old. He arrived here in 1961. He has spent his life among the monks and Bedouin and he is sorry the religious pilgrims have gone, but hopes they will soon return.

“When the revolutions began in Egypt, the Bedouin came to us, and said, ‘You know we have been with you all these years. This is what our ancestors were sent here to do. This is our heritage, to protect the monastery,’ ” said the bishop. “I confess I was very moved by their words. For here we are intertwined.”

The monks here tend to take the long view. The scholar Father Justin, an American from El Paso, is busy on an ambitious project to digitize more than 3,000 manuscripts and subject the ancient tomes — some written, erased and overwritten again on parchment — to multi-spectral analysis.

Father Justin stood on the roof of the library, now undergoing renovation, and pointed out the mosque below, which stood next to the basilica. He felt safe, and proud that both Muslims and Christians are at home here.

But he also mentioned the 60-foot walls that have stood for 1,400 years. “It was built as a fortress monastery, and it is easily turned into a fortress again,” Father Justin said.

But he added that he preferred to be protected by God’s good graces.

“That would be best,” he said.

The Washington Post

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