The Sinai Peninsula extends from the Red Sea between the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba. It is often called the “third desert” of Egypt, the first being the Libyan desert west of the Nile, and the second the Arabian desert to the east. Its territory, very rich in ores of copper and turquoise, was traversed since the old empire by the expeditions of the pharaohs who often undertook the journey to obtain the precious raw materials. About 1,000 years later, according to tradition, the desert and the Sinai Mountains served as a setting for the exodus; it is there that Moses received from God the tables of the law, it is also where the endless road to the Promised Land took place, in this very holy place for the Jews as for the Christians, the goal of many pilgrimages. The Sinai Mountains, whose main peaks are Mount St. Catherine and Mount Moses, occupy the center and south of the peninsula and descend unhurried to the extremely clear waters of the Red Sea where you can admire, in an environment still intact, one of the richest and most diverse marine fauna in the world. The desert and the sea are therefore the two elements that dominate at Sinai, forming, when they meet, landscapes of incomparable beauty and seriousness.
The monastery of St. Catherine.
The monastery of St. Catherine is nestled in a valley at the foot of the “Jebel Musa”, Mount Moses which culminates at 1570 m altitude, founded by the Emperor Justinian between 527 and 547. Surrounded by a solid wall the monastery was enlarged several times over the following centuries. The walls of the enclosure have different dimensions and heights according to the places, to be able to adapt to the conformation of the mountain; each side measures 74 to 84 m long, for a height that varies between 9 and 15 m.
The Bible tells that the Hebrews after 50 days of wandering through the mountains and deserts of Sinai, arrived in the plain of rest at the foot of Mount Horeb. On this mountain Moses received from God the tables of the law, the Decalogue, on which the Jewish and Christian religions are based. Mount Horeb, later called Mount Moses became the sacred mountain par excellence, a place of pilgrimage and meditation for early Christians. At his feet settled small communities of monks, but it was not until 330 that Helen, mother of the emperor Constantine who, in 313, had enlarged the freedom of worship to Christians, built a small church on the place where Moses had seen the burning bush. The monastic community that lived near Mount Moses continued to grow in the following centuries and attracted more and more pilgrims. In 527, Justinian ordered the construction of a real monastery, with a large basilica and imposing ramparts to protect it from the Bedouin attacks. The enclosure also encompassed the early church of St. Helena. Despite the Muslim conquest of Sinai in 641, the monks continued to live in the monastery, guaranteed by an edict of Muhammad who took them under his protection. The influx of pilgrims, however, decreased enormously and did not resume until the eleventh century, at the time of the Crusades. It was indeed thanks to the Crusaders that the legend and worship of St. Catherine spread to Europe, so much so that the Sinai Monastery became, with Compostela, Jerusalem and Rome, one of the great places of pilgrimage of Christendom. . After the Ottoman conquest of Egypt and Sinai, the monastery obtained the protection of the new masters by an edict of Sultan Selim I in 1517. The importance and influence of the monastery continued to grow even during this difficult period and it swarmed not only in Egypt and Palestine, but also in Crete, Romania and Russia. Bonaparte himself, on his expedition to Egypt, promulgated an edict of protection of the monastery, which is still preserved in the gallery of icons, and ordered the restoration of the enclosure.
The ascent of Mount Moses
The ascent of Mount Moses (identified with Mount Horeb of the Bible) is an inevitable hike for anyone visiting the site of St. Catherine. The climb up to 2286 m from the summit takes about three hours and can be done following different routes that meet in the final part of the route. The first route corresponds to the one that Moses, according to tradition, would have followed during his first ascent and consists essentially of a long and steep staircase of 3700 steps carved by the monks in the rock. The second route to climb Mount Moses, less tiring but longer, can be traveled by camel on a beautiful stretch, after which it joins the first route, the stairs, which must absolutely be borrowed to access the Mountain peak.
The hike in Sinai
Bedouins are by definition the nomadic populations of the desert regions; their name clearly indicates it since it comes from the Arabic word “Bedu” which means “inhabitants of the desert”. The vast expanses of desolate sand and inhospitable mountains are their favorite habitat, their undisputed realm. They have always lived in tents with their camels and goats, moving according to the seasons and the possibilities of pasture, eternally dressed in their djellabas, a long white tunic, and the head covered with keffiyeh. This piece of rectangular fabric is wrapped around the head using “ugal”, a double cord that was once made with braided goat hair and is now more simply cotton. In the Western imagination, they remained the men of the desert, which they dominate from the top of their camels. In fact, their tribal society based on nomadism is today undergoing profound changes and seems destined to undergo a slow metamorphosis that will certainly mean a gradual loss of identity. Bedouins with more than 50 tribes occupy a vast territory including the Arabian Peninsula, Syria, Jordan, the State of Israel, Sinai and the Eastern Desert. In Sinai live about 50,000 Bedouins, divided into about ten tribes that result from the merger of older tribes with others, more recently arrived in the peninsula.