Journal: Friday 21 November 2003
The route through the desert to the Monastery of Saint Katerina must be one of the most spectacular roads in the whole of the Sinai Peninsula. Sam and I set off this morning to drive 130km to the famous monastery, though we knew it would be closed on a Friday.
Leaving the main coast road a little north of Dahab, just past a police checkpoint, Sam and I turned off into the desert. At the top of a steep hill we stopped to admire the view and take some pictures. A Bedu man sat at the side of the road selling rocks and polished stones and we spent some time talking to him and bought some of his lovely minerals. The road is long and fairly straight but the passing scenery of jagged pointed mountains and shallow wadis leading away from the road is indescribably beautiful. There was hardly any traffic today and every now and then the tarmac became very rough and in need of repair. We spotted a couple of camel trains led by solitary tribesmen and one or two Bedouin camps with brightly coloured canvas awnings and I wondered where they got their water from. About half way to St Catherine’s we came upon a tree – not the only tree but certainly the biggest – standing alone in the sand and we stopped to photograph it. The lone tree was a large old Acacia, sculpted into shape by years of desert winds. Mushroom-shaped rocks of limestone sprang up out of the sand at intervals and an occasional herd of roaming camels grazed on patches of dry sparse grass they found in the wadis. This was an entirely different world to the Western desert we had left a week ago.
After three hours we came to St Katerina ‘City’, which is actually a small community made up of block-built Bedouin homes and a modern tourist hotel. The road leads straight to the monastery gates. Stopping at a cafeteria for coffee and a sandwich, we sat on the terrace in the sun looking out onto the almost deserted town. I guess it was siesta time. After a while we drove up to the monastery entrance, passing a little shrine called the ‘Setting of the Prophet Nabi Salah’. We saw the terraces that were once ancient gardens and the Chapel of the prophet Aaron on the slopes of Gebel Musa. But we couldn’t get even a glimpse of the monastery itself.
The monastery has a long history. The biblical story relates how Moses led the Hebrews for 50 days through the mountains to the plain of el-Raha, where he received the Ten Commandments. The mountain where the tablets were supposed to be found was named Mount Horeb, later to become in Arabic, Gebel Musa, a holy mountain and place of pilgrimage for early Christians. Religious communities sprang up around the mountain and a small church was founded in the name of St Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine who had ended Christian persecution with his edict of 313 AD. Later the Emperor Justinian founded a monastery with a large basilica to be built on the site. This was enclosed within protective walls to safeguard the monks from raiding Bedouin tribes. Between the 8th and 9th centuries the monks found the body of St Katerina, a young martyr from Alexandria who by legend had been transported by angels to Gebel Katerina and subsequently disappeared. The saint’s presumed body still lies in a sarcophagus inside the basilica and the monastery became known as St Katerina or St Catherine. Today the monastery is still home to many of the Eastern Orthodox monks who live and work there. The Prophet Mohammed himself is said to have issued a decree of protection for the monastery and it subsequently survived the conquest of Sinai by Muslim Arabs and was undisturbed by the Crusader wars and the Napoleonic Expedition. Today as it has always done, the monastery’s heritage, rich in architecture and art, draws pilgrims from all over the world.
The leisurely drive back to Dahab into the setting sun was every bit, if not more magical than the journey to St Catherine’s had been earlier in the day. It was wonderful to be able to stop at will without the police escort we had become accustomed to in the Western Desert and the day lodged itself in my memory as a day of absolute freedom. Back in Dahab, Sam and I ended the day with dinner, a short walk to the touristy area of Assila Bay and finally settled down on mats on the beach with a bottle of wine beneath a velvet, star-studded sky. A heavenly day!