Holy Ground in a Jolloy Desert
"Sinai (a jolly desert)," said Lawrence of Arabia in a letter to Robert Graves.
What an odd choice of words, I kept thinking, as the hired jalopy kept bouncing along the pot-holed road curling up from the Red Sea coast to the Mountain of the Lord. Empty identical miles of bare sand and bare rocks, which geologists say are among the oldest rocks on the earth, kept rushing by. It was an ancient vehicle, with an ancient driver, who was jolly enough and wanted me to share his love for his native land, but the law of this land was silence, and after a few miles we hardly exchanged a word. Every few miles he might point out into the surrounding desolation and say, "Look, a lizard." or "Look, red rocks." Or an anemic acacia tree, or a few clumps of colorless brush. It might have been a landscape of ten million years ago, with no sign of the presence of humanity except the road itself, the high-tensions wires alongside it, an occasional oil-drum road-block where Egyptian soldiers might look up from their card game to make sure we were not Israeli spies or terrorists, an occasional cinderblock Bedouin hut or a black goatswool Bedouin tent with a camel or a Toyota pickup beside it. No brook babbled, no bird sang. .
No wonder that for almost all the thousands of years of human history no sensible people ever chose to live here among these red-granitic mountain-sides slashed by black volcanic dykes and by ravines gouged out by the floods that come crashing down every twenty or fifty years.. There was plenty of history in the guidebooks, for the Sinai Peninsula has been an eternal nomansland between Africa and Asia, swept over by invading armies from the times of Rameses II and Alexander the Great to the times of Napoleon Bonaparte and Moshe Dayan, but no one ever settled down here, it remained the home of wild beasts and lawless nomads. The ancient Egyptians exploited some turquoise mines in the south until they exhausted them. The ancient Romans had a penal colony in the north called Rhinococura, or City of Broken Noses, after a peculiar feature of their jurisprudence. The ancient Hebrews, who according to the Bible spent forty discontented and disobedient years wandering in the Sinai peninsula, regarded it as a "great and terrible wilderness, wherein were fiery serpents and scorpions, and drought where there was no water," and once they had got into their promised land flowing with milk and honey never had the slightest desire to go back to live there or even take a second look..
But at some point in those forty years, a spot on that barren waste, one stony peak among so many, became holy ground, first for the Hebrews, then for half of mankind. It was the spot where God came down to earth to speak to Moses "face to face as a man speaketh unto a friend," and trace out for him the Ten Commandments on two tablets of stone.
No one knows precisely where this spot was, for the writers of the Bible were not writing a manual of geography and never bothered to give a latitude and longitude for what they variously called Mount Sinai, Mount Horeb, and the Mountain of the Lord. Biblical scholars have argued the claims of half a dozen different peaks scattered over the peninsula, But tradition for almost two thousand years has voted for a 6000-foot peak, known to the local Bedouins as Jebel Musa or Mount of Moses. It is less imposing than many of its rivals, like Mount Saint Katherine which towers over it, and an old rabbinical tradition has it that the Lord chose it deliberately to teach believers the virtue of humility. At all events it is this peak to which millions of pilgrim feet have brought accretions of holiness over the ages, and which is marked on all our maps as Mount Sinai.
I knew we were reaching Mount Sinai because as we turned sharply to the left and started to climb sharply, the silence of the desert was broken, and we were in the middle of the familiar noises of Middle Eastern mankind, the chattering, bantering, squealing, huckstering, donkey-braying, engine-idling, children-playing noises of the town of Katriin, with its shops and booths and luxury hotel, and up beyond that the thick walls of the monastery which the Emperor Justinian had built fourteen hundred years ago half way up the slope of the holy mountain.
Above the town and below the monastery there was a flat space where tour buses were gathered, and clustered around them a few dozen people who were eager to share their experiences with any one who would listen. They had just come down from the mountain-top where they had either spent the night or gone up a couple of hours before sunrise so that they could see the dawn come up like thunder from Arabia across the sea and light up hundreds of square miles of bare rock with glory.
There is no easy way to get to the mountain-top, though there was an abortive scheme a few years ago to build a cable car. You can ride a camel with a Bedouin to guide you part of the way, as far as the basin where the prophet Elijah was fed by ravens, but most people walk all the way, seven hundred and fifty steps carved out of the solid rock.(The truly brave or truly penitent can take the traditional "Stairway of Repentance" which starts at the bottom of the mountain and is said to number "about 3500 steps" though a maddened French pilgrim in 1824 counted forty thousand.)
The climbers gathered there had vivid tales to tell, of boot-soles worn to onion-skins, of cramped legs, of dizzy spells -- enough to discourage me from trying to emulate them -- but they had all come through, and they were proud of it. They all had their tales of the lack of comforts on the flattened top, which has space for only about eighty people in sleeping bags, or a few hundred standing huddled together, in an empty space with a small church and a small mosque, both kept locked to keep from being pillaged or defaced. They complained of the cold which can eat its way into a sleeping bag, the hard ground, the litter left by previous visitors, the noise. "I could not sleep for all the singing," grumbled one woman. ""I froze and froze and I prayed and prayed," said another. But they all agreed it was worth it. They had never seen a sunrise like this one. They had never seen a view like all those corruscating rocks. "It was a spiritual experience," said an elderly man, "we were touched by an angel's wings."
They piled into their tour buses and were gone. A bearded monk and I were left alone. He seemed relieved to be rid of all those intruders. "You would think," he told me, "that God had made this mountain so that people could enjoy a pretty view."
It was very different, he said, at the very beginning. Men first came here to worship, not because they thought it was a historical site, or a beautiful site, they came because they yearned for its desolation, its ugliness, its hostility to life, it was a challenge to them to show grit and greatness and purity of purpose.. Like the early martyrs who had proudly defied wild beasts and bloody-handed executioners in the Roman arenas, they could here face the worst privations, lie down naked and alone amid barren rocks, defy the world and the devil and all their temptations, achieve salvation through utter lonely devotion and abstinence and abnegation. The first of these holy ones were hermits who went out into the deserts of Egypt to live alone in caves or within rings of stone they piled up with their hands. When asked why they lived alone, one of them replied, "he who receives visits from men cannot expect to be visited by angels."
Later these hermits began to congregate, to pray and worship together, to form communities which came to be known as monasteries. In the middle of the 6th century, the emperor Justinian in the last great age of Roman magnificence endowed a great monastery -- it is the oldest surviving one in the Christian world - on the flank of Mount Sinai, one of the few places in this part of the world where winter snows guarantee a stable water table and things can grow on spare patches of earth scattered among the rocks.
It was indeed one of those growing things that was responsible for Justinian's choosing this spot. The monk threw out an arm to show it to me, in a gesture which he must have performed thousands of times before, but which had nothing mechanical about it. "There it is," he intoned. "Behold The Burning Bush."
There it stood, big and green and bunchy, behind a fence..The monks who tend it and prune it and water it from the well at which Moses met his first wife Zipporah maintain that it is the original Bush which burned with fire but was not consumed and out of which God spoke to Moses when he was tending his father-in-law's sheep, saying "put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground."
The monks also maintain that it is an absolutely unique plant specimen, unlike any other on earth. Scientists contradict them on this point, they say it is a very rare plant, Rubus Sanctus, a non-fruit-bearing relative of the blackberry bramble. . Professor Joseph Hobbs, who has written the most readable and up-to-date account of the Sinai and its various forms of life (Mount Sinai, the University of Texas Press), reports that he has found six other specimens in clefts of rock in his years of rambling over the waste spaces of Arabia. But he also points out that rubus sanctus is an extremely hardy growth which can last thousands of years, and that this particular specimen might well have been flourishing the days of Rameses II or whichever other Pharaoh scholars have identified as reigning at whatever date they have chosen for the Exodus.
Behind the Bush rise the mighty walls of the monastery, which was also intended to be a fortress on the furthest limit of Justinian's empire. The walls are up to thirty meters high and a meter thick, with slit windows for shooting arrows at attackers, and they have never been breached by hostile forces. Within them, the monks pray and conduct their services day and night, as they have done for fifteen hundred years, surrounded by rich gifts without number showered on them by the pious hands of Justinian, the impious hands of Ivan the Terrible, and hundreds of other mighty benefactors..
Unfortunately, said the monk, I would not be allowed inside to see the gifts because the doors of the monastery were closed to visitors on this particular day of the calendar of the Orthodox church. Fortunately, I later met another younger monk, Father Justin, who was raised as a southern Baptist boy in Austin Texas before being converted to the Greek Orthodox Church in San Antonio. He found a way to bend the rules slightly for a compatriot and enable me to get a glimpse of the extraordinary concentration of artistic and historical treasures on the walls and ceilings and shelves of the monastery.
There are resplendent mosaics of Biblical scenes made in the workshops of the imperial palace in Constantinople when Byzantine art was at its height..
There is a collection of over two thousand icons, the largest in the world, a living blazing history of religious vision through the centuries, full of such delights as the12th century Heavenly Ladder which is a summary of how the monks viewed the magnitude of their task: the ladder's thirty rungs represent the thirty virtues the monks must acquire on their way to Heaven, and little black devils are hovering at every rung waiting for a false footstep.
Whole centuries of history available nowhere else are packed into the shelves of the monastery library down which father Justin led me. Learned monks spent endless pious hours copying and illustrating precious old texts -- more than any other library in the world except the Vatican's - mostly religious documents, but also medical treatises and an occasional totally heathen text like a very early copy of Homer's Iliad.
. Perhaps the most valuable of all ancient manuscripts, the 4th century Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest complete manuscript of the Bible in Greek, subsists in the form of sixteen pages left behind for some reason when a German theologian and con man named Constantin von Tischendorff in 1859 borrowed or stole all the other pages on the promise of saving them for posterity, and later presented or sold them to the Tsar of Russia, whose Bolshevik successors in their endless need of cash sold them in turn for one hundred thousand pounds in 1933 to form the prime jewel in the collection of the British Museum in London.
In the entrance corridor of the monastery hangs a document said to have been dictated and signed by the prophet Mohammed, who had once in his camel-trading days been courteously received at the monastery, enjoining on his followers to do it no harm. Scholars believe it was written four hundred years after Mohammed's death, but it has been honored and obeyed by all the long line of Moslem overlords of the Sinai. And in return, in a rare ecumenical gesture, in the twelfth century, during all the carnage and cruelty of the Crusades, the monks allowed a mosque to be erected within their walls on the monastery grounds, where their Moslem workmen could come to pray, as they do to this day.
The greatest treasure in the hearts of the monks, and the one which has had the most influence on the history of the monastery, is to be found in a golden casket in a marble chest opened only on very holy days and for very important visitors. It contains the physical remains of St Catherine, who was martyred before a howling mob in a stadium in Alexandria in the third century [she was beheaded after the scheduled form of her execution went awry when the spiked wheel to which they were going to attach her ran off by itself into the audience, killing hundreds and converting thousands]. Her body was transported, by angels it is said, to the top of what is now called Jebel Katarina or Mount Saint Katherine in her honor, where a monk discovered it some centuries later exuding a sweet-smelling oil which soon proved to have the property of curing innumerable diseases.
In the year 1025 some of the oil and some of the saint's fingers were carried to Normandy by a monk, who escaped pirates on the way by jumping overboard. A touch of one of the fingers cured the abbot of a monastery in Rouen of an excruciating toothache. Cure followed cure, and within a few years St. Catherine was the most revered saint in Europe. Churches in London and Paris were built for her, the Universities of Paris and Padua were put under her patronage, and vast numbers of pilgrims began to flock to her shrine on Mount Sinai, which then was given the name it still bears, the Monastery of St. Katherine.
It was, next to Jerusalem, the most prestigious goal of pilgrimage for pious European Christians because it was the most arduous and the most dangerous to get to, taxing the physical and spiritual resources of the pilgrims to their utmost degree. Taxing their pocket-books too, for to make the long journey on foot to some port like Marseilles or Genoa, then the still longer journey by rat-infested ship over stormy pirate-infested seas to a port like Alexandria, then an even more wearisome journey on camel-back through hundreds of miles of waterless bandit-infested deserts to St Catherines. The cascade of customs fees and taxes and the ducat or two which every pilgrim was expected to drop on the reliquary which held the saint's bones, plus the unending cries for baksheesh from porters and beggars and guides and interpreters and drug-sellers and government officials, came to far more than the average European's yearly income. As the saying went, it took "good intentions, a stout heart, ready tongue and fat purse" to go on a pilgrimage in those days..
But in an age of faith, the prize to be won was worth any suffering and hardship. Every one was hoping for some kind of miracle at the end of the journey at the monastery on Mount Sinai. As Joseph Hobbs puts it, the real miracle was that the monastery stayed there on the mountain to receive them.
For, a couple of centuries after its founding, the monks found themselves caught up in one the most awe-inspiring events of history, which brought a few mounted tribesmen bounding suddenly out of the Arabian deserts to conquer the Middle East and North Africa and a good part of southern Europe and southeast Asia.. Almost overnight the monastery was transformed from being the crown jewel of a prosperous Christian empire to a solitary windblown outpost in the middle of a vast Islamic sea. The monks who had come here on a spiritual quest, to a life of settled ritual and routine in which every day consisted of eight hours of prayer, eight hours of work and eight hours of sleep, found themselves thrown into a political and economic maelstrom in which they had to negotiate and bribe and make deals with infidel soldiers and viziers and sultans, had to create bonds with potentially hostile Bedouin tribes who could provide them with manpower in return for food, had to keep up diplomatic relations with potentially helpful Christian potentates a thousand miles off in Europe, all the while providing transport and lodging and food and tour guides and some kind of spiritual comfort to thousands and thousands of pilgrims.
Insurmountable difficulties, but they have been surmounted for thirteen hundred years. by a very small number of devoted men. There were hundreds of monks in Justinian's day, the number shrank after the Arab conquest, by the late seventeenth century it was down to one, it is twenty-five today, forming the totality of the smallest of the independent churches of the Orthodox communion,.
As in all great spiritual endeavors there was a constant tug between the sacred and the profane. Plagues we think of as specifically modern, like materialism and consumerism and globalism, also plagued the Age of Faith. The monks gladly collected gold and silver from unsavory potentates like King Louis XI of France and Tsar Ivan the Terrible of Russia, and they laid heavy taxes on the caravans of the international trade in pepper and spices which had to cross desert areas they controlled. For every pilgrim seeking the renewal of his soul, there was at least another expecting material gain of some sort. Pilgrimage might be a voluntary penance or a mandatory sentence of crimes such as adultery, incest, bestiality, sodomy, murder, arson and sacrilege and the pilgrim might be rewarded with a few days or years off from the torments of Purgatory, or a quick cure for bodily aches and pains, or military information that could be passed to the invading armies of the Crusades, or simply the opportunity to boast to stay-at-homes of perils bravely surmounted. Wealthy sinners could achieve the same benefits by hiring poorer folk to make the pilgrimage, with all its dangers and hardships, in their place.
A 5th century saint might write that "a powerful longing towards Sinai seized me, and neither with my bodily eyes nor with those of the spirit could I find joy in anything, so strongly was I attracted to that place of solitude." But few of the thousands of pilgrims who made the arduous journey were saints, though they might become saints on the way against all expectation. Saint Moses the Egyptian started life as a bandit who preyed on pilgrims' caravans. St Mary the Egyptian, one of the most popular saints of medieval Europe, started hers as a prostitute working the pilgrim ships between Alexandria and Joppa before running off into the desert to starve and afflict herself for forty years.
Willy-nilly, the monks were forced to be at least marginally part of the world they had deliberately renounced with all its pomps and goods. As Father Justin told me, "Men flee to the ends of the earth seeking peace and quiet, and they destroy peace and quiet as they go."
Time and effort that were meant to go into meditation and prayer had instead to go into greeting the pilgrims, providing them with shelter and food and guides to the holy places. Like their pagan predecessors the priests of the shrine of Aphrodite at Paphos in Cyprus where the goddess came each spring to renew her virginity in the Mediterranean waves, these incarnators of spirituality had to turn themselves into practitioners of what is now called the tourist business.
With its usual conflicts and misunderstandings. The monks, though they were happy to wash their visitors' feet, could not help begrudging the time they had to devote to the material needs of their guests instead of their own spiritual needs.. The guests complained, often bitterly, that the monks were charging too much for their services..Von Tischendorff noted in 1844 that he had to pay a hundred piastres a day for his accommodation at the monastery while the fare for his ten-day return trip to Cairo was only a hundred and twenty. The monks in turn accused the pilgrims of theft, notably of twigs of the Burning Bush, which they had to surround with a strong steel fence.
A handful of monks could never have performed all these tasks and borne all these burdens if they had not established a firm and on the whole harmonious relation with the Jabaliya, a tribe of Bedouins who live around them, to hew their wood, tend their gardens, drive their pickups. The Jabaliya are descended from a garrison of soldiers brought from what is now Romania by the emperor Justinian. They have turned Muslim over the years -- the last Christian among them died in the 18th century - but they still, as Father Justin told me, "bring their children to get to know us from the day they are born, bring their problems to be settled by out Archbishop."
And thus somehow life went on, century after century. "Nothing holy ever changes upon this holy ground," says a black-robed priest from Crete standing before the Burning Bush. "The Bush still blooms after these thousands of years. The sacred mountain still receives the tread of pilgrim feet. Pilgrim mouths repeat the same everlasting prayers. The monks rise at dawn every day of the year to chant, to genuflect, to meditate, to pray, as they have every day since the first stone of this monastery was laid. In Sinai, the old ways remain."
"The Monastery of St. Catherine," says the historian Adrian Fortescue, "remains the most perfect relict of the 4 th century left in the world." But we should add the words of Joseph Hobbs, "not without a diesel generator, a telephone, a fax machine, a photocopy machine, tape cassette stereos and short-wave radios."
For the winds of change of the twentieth century arrived even here in this desolate wilderness. It is true that they took some time to arrive. For the first two thirds of the century, the voyage to Sinai remained forbiddingly hard and distressingly costly, and visitors who made it to the monastery by rugged car or camel is any one year rarely numbered more than thirty. Then in 1967 everything changed, the modern world came blasting into the Sinai.
It came in the form of the Israeli army which, taking advantage of colossal errors in judgment on the part of the Egyptian leader Abdul Gamal Nasser, who blundered into a war for which he was not prepared, crushed the Egyptian army in six days and occupied the whole of the Sinai peninsula up to the Suez Canal. For the first time in its long history the Sinai burst out of its timeless traditional pastoral world of ritual and myth into the noisy nervous present tense. The Israelis introduced brand-new phenomena like paved roads and airports. Just as important in the long run, they went swimming and sunbathing on the magnificent beaches of the Gulf of Akaba, they dived down to the coral reefs, and they built rudimentary summer resorts with banks, post offices, tourist bureaus, mosques, souvenir shops and telephone exchanges, and these resorts were soon receiving fifty thousand visitors a year
After another war and the Camp David Accords between Egypt and Israel in 1979 which inaugurated the first reasonably durable peace in the Middle East since Richard the Lion Heart and Saladin agreed to a truce in 1183, the Sinai, now restored to Egyptian control, was totally changed in Egyptian eyes. Instead of being an empty frontier zone, it was an integral part of the country, a monument to patriotic fervor, as Alsace-Lorraine had once been to France. The Bedouins, widely accused at first of having collaborated with the Israeli invaders, were no longer considered "sand fleas"" as they had been since the Book of Genesis noted that for the Egyptians shepherds "have always been an abomination." (The Bedouins returned the compliment by calling the dwellers of the Nile Valley Misryeen, meaning Egyptians.) They were the citizens of a resource-rich dynamic province which hopefully would help the nation solve its terrifying demographic and economic problems.
Plans poured from the planning offices in Cairo, some of them far outstripping practical reality, like the plan to increase the population of the Sinai form 200,000 to 2 million virtually overnight. Or the plan to build a 972-meter cable car to the top of Mount Sinai to handle an estimated 339,000 visitors a year, a plan that foundered on such practical problems as how to provide drinking water to all those customers, and the outcry from upholders of traditional values like Time Magazine against what was described as a sacrilege. Some of those who expressed the most outrage, like Egypt's small but vocal ecological constituency, have been swinging around to the position that a cable car, on the unvisited side of the mountain and touching the ground only at the points of departure and arrival, would have a less destructive effect on the environment than the thousands of pairs of human feet daily trudging up the fragile slopes..
It does not seem likely now that the cable-car will be built in a foreseeable future, but there has been enough building in the Sinai to satisfy any friend of material progress. There are now 3200 kilometers of paved roads, you can drive to Mount Sinai from Cairo in six hours using a tunnel under the Suez Canal, and you can use a Visa card anywhere.
The coast of the Gulf of Aqaba, all the way from Sharm-el-Sheikh at the tip of the peninsula to the Israeli border in the north, has become virtually a wall of cement, offering every form of shelter from hovel to five-star hotel with bungalows and pools and palm trees and saunas and Japanese restaurants and Harry's Bars and CNN. The high tourist season is virtually endless (September to March for Europeans, June to August when schools are out for Egyptians) as devotees of sun surf sex and spirituality come to snorkel or scuba-dive or take glass-bottomed boats to see the wondrous flash of colors of the sea-life on the coral reefs, or swim or wind-surf or simply lie in the sand to admire the meeting-place of sea and mountain, or sample the night-life of stuffy Sharm-el-Sheikh or hippie-heaven Dahab, or to make a pious pilgrimage to the Mountain of God. There are no precise statistics, but they number in the hundreds of thousands every year, and they put more money in the pockets of the Egyptian tax-collectors than does all the global commerce that flows through the Suez Canal.
Population has doubled as immigrants pour in from the densely packed valley of the Nile to get good jobs and breathe clean air. Bedouins now form less half of the population, but though Bedouin girls still drive the goats and sheep to their watering holes as Jethro's daughters did in Moses' day, their daily lives are daily changed as they become more and more egyptianized.
Charles Doughty wrote of the Bedouin in his classic Travels in Arabia Deserta a century ago that "he sits to his eyes in a cloaca [a sewer], but his brows touch heaven" as he lived his life of poverty, hunger and dirt that was also a life of proud independence and dignity and reverence for the ancestral ways.
The ancestral ways have had to adjust to a motorized bureaucratized money economy. The camel, around which the life of every family evolved -- in traditional tribal law a camel had the same value as a boy or a slave -- is becoming a picturesque remnant of the old days, something for tourists to gawk at and occasionally ride. There are actually herds of untended camels wandering through the deserts looking for stray clumps of grass, a situation that would have led to bloody warfare in the old days. Bedouin marriages which have always been affairs of honor, never documented, now must be registered in government offices.
(An example of the old system of justice:"A man is required to act fairly among his wives, providing each of them with a tent, and coming to each of them one night. If he neglects one of the women's turn, she ties one knot into a long thread. Every night he neglects her, she ties another know until her patience is tried. Then she takes the knotted thread to her family, which will take it to the judge. He will order the husband to pay one camel for every night he abandoned his wife.")
For the first time in their history, the Bedouins have schools, they have a hospital as good as any in Cairo, they have jobs in the hotels and the construction and service industries. bringing them something they rarely saw in the old days except when they stole it, cash.
Only the grandfathers continue to lovingly cultivate the fruit trees the monks introduced into their lives in Justinian's day. Only the old men wear the traditional dark ankle-length robes. The young men wear jeans, They want to see the world like their cousins who have gone to New Jersey to become computer technicians, they want good times which are not precisely the camel dances and animal sacrifices of their ancestors. They have abandoned the incantations and ointments of their wise men and prophetesses for antibiotics, and one result of that is that population has increased dramatically. The Jabaliya, described by a 19th century traveler as a "hungry, naked, thirsty horde," of about 400 souls have jumped to over 2000 today. The television set showing the latest Cairene soap operas occupies the place of honor in their living rooms as does the washing machine on their verandahs.
The monks themselves have been forced, it not to change their patterns of devotion, to at least trim their sails to the new winds. They are after all running a business operation providing some kind of services for up to a thousand travelers day. They run a hostel with 150 beds. They still get up to commence prayers under starlight at four in the morning, but when the four-hour service is over they must get ready for the stream of visitors, they must open the church to them, even if only from nine to noon and closed Fridays and Sundays, show them the mosaics and the icons and the brass chandeliers and the carved doors, show them the way to the summit and all the other holy sites (the pool where Moses struck living water from a rock when his people was dying of thirst, the indentation in the rock where his brother Aaron melted the ear-rings of the people to make the Golden Calf, the spot at the bottom of the mountain where three thousand Israelites were slaughtered at the command of Moses for worshiping the Calf, the cave where the prophet Elijah hid when he was fleeing the wrath of Queen Jezebel of Israel after he had slaughtered four hundred prophets of her god Baal), introduce them to Jabaliya guides, answer their questions. They have to worry about labor relations and negotiations with government officials, about visiting scholars who want to study their priceless manuscripts and their priceless icons, about correspondence with theologians and church officials throughout the world.
Still, the waves of the modern world have not had it all their own way, they have not quite drowned out all the deep primitive colors and holiness of the past. People still come to Sinai to cleanse their souls as well as to bronze their skins..
And there are times when it can seem as if the fourth and the twenty-first centuries can co-exist tolerantly if not altogether happily, breathing the same unpolluted mountain air far from the clutter and the crowds and the smells and the frantic traffic of the Nile Valley..
On the morning of my last day in Sinai, I listened to the monks -- including the one who lives as a hermit in a cave on the mountain-side but comes down to join the others for services -- singing their eternal song of praise to God.
I had lunch by the swimming pool in the many-star restaurant in the town a half mile down the road, in the Plain of ar-Raaha (where the Israelites, it is said, camped while they beheld the thunder-and-lightning display of God's meeting with Moses on the mountain top), a few years ago a ramshackle collection of Bedouin huts and tents, now grown into a bustling town of 6000 inhabitants, containing shops and restaurants and a bank and a helicopter pad, a microwave transmission tower and a luxury hotel which the monks have nick-named The Golden Calf.
In the afternoon I took tea with Mohammed Mansur, an elder of the Jabaliya, who offered me apricots off the trees in the rock-walled gardens he has created around the sturdy modest stone house he has built up the mountain-side to get away into the suburbs far from the overgrown Katriin. While his black-veiled wife served us sweet tea, he proudly showed the well he is digging to make sure his fruit trees will not die in years of drought -, he digs a couple of hours every day, he is down about eighteen meters, and figures he has four more to go to hit the water table. In the summer he takes his thirty sheep up the mountain to pastures above the snow line, and sleeps in a cave, as any of his forebears might have done. He also runs a refreshment booth for tourists on the camel path to the summit of Jebel Musa. And he is also a government bureaucrat: every day he mounts his camel and rides off as one of the thirty-five guards to patrol the Saint Katherine Natural Protectorate which opened two years ago and covers some 1740 square miles of wadis and jebels , home to six Bedouin tribes and a startlingly rich assortment of secretive wild life which manages to pick a living out of the rocks, including the rough-tailed dipodil, the silky jerd, the Egyptian spiny mouse, the sand fox and the rock hyrax (which is described as a rabbit-sized very distant relative of the elephant), the ibex, the striped hyena, and, according to a 15th-century visiting friar, a wild ass which brays twenty-four time in twenty-four hours, "and by this means the inhabitants tell the time in the night." He knows every cranny in all these mountains and can recognize every one of the several hundred plant species growing in them (including twenty-seven found nowhere else in the world) which can sprout at flood time in the region. He can lecture back-packing tourists about proper disposal of garbage and instructs them not to disfigure the rocks with graffiti, he can set their bones if they break them, he can show them where to find chucka partridges, black wool Bedouin tents, the spoor of species of predators that were thought to be extinct in the area, like hyenas and Arabian wolves. He tracks down illegal building or rock-quarrying or trapping of rare falcons. He explains to his fellow-shepherds that the occasional sheep killed by one of these beasts would bring in less cash than the tourists who spend days in the countryside looking for a glimpse of the predators. He lectures them against the reckless use of guns, which only appeared in these parts at the time of World War I and have had a devastating effect on the wild life which brings in the tourist dollar.
Like any elder anywhere, he disapproves of modern innovation. "People" he says, "aren't interested in the mountains and gardens the way they used to be. Instead they have coffee shops and are mechanics. People worked harder and better in the old days." Still, he seems reasonably satisfied, and his wife even more so, with the television in the living room and the freezer on the porch. He is convinced that things are going to get worse, but he has no fear. "If you do good deeds in life, like fixing a bird's broken wing or planting a tree anyone may eat from, these things will earn you Paradise."
By evening, I was in Dahab which starting out a few years ago as a collection of wretched mud huts, had become a favorite way-station for hippies, and is now full of just about everything. Its main street running along the waterfront was all lights and noise and bustle. a man came out of his record shop to offer me his two best-selling pirated CD's, of works by Oul Kathoum and Sting, for the price of one. "You see," he said, "every one have good time in Dahab." And so it seemed, with foreigners and Egyptians lurching gaily through the clean clear starlit air, so far from the stresses of New York or Hamburg and the dank filth of the Nile. making their way through offers of taxi rides and camel rides, visits to stores selling traditional Bedouin robes and stores selling traditional Bedouin T-shirts reading CAMELS CAN GO FIFTEEN DAYS WITHOUT DRINKING BUT I CAN'T, stores selling spicy foods, tattoo parlors, belly-dance parlors, internet cafés.
I was having dinner in a restaurant jutting out on the water where the waves murmured and clattered beneath the tables loaded with fresh fish and octopus from the Red Sea, when a wave in the historically unpredictable way of the Red Sea rose out of nowhere and drenched me and the table, and on the loud speakers, perhaps coincidentally, there came a sound of women shrilly rejoicing as they must have rejoiced 3200 years ago (according to the calculations of Archbishop Ussher) after a greater wave disposed of Pharaoh's chariots, and Miriam the sister of Moses "took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances."
For this fleeting moment of time at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Lawrence of Arabia was right after all. The Sinai was a jolly desert.
©2002 Robert Wernick
Parts of this text appeared in Smithsonian Magazine, May 2002