Mountain of the Lord

Beyond the war zone, Mount Sinai remains a refuge in a landscape of strife

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On the morning of my last day in Sinai, I listened to the monks sing their eternal praise to God. By midday, I was lunching on the poolside terrace of a luxury hotel in lively Katriin. In the afternoon, I took tea with a Bedouin elder, who offered me apricots from trees in the walled garden surrounding his sturdy stone house on the mountainside.

During the summer, the Bedouin Mahmoud Mansour takes his 30 sheep to mountain pastures above the snow line, where he sleeps in a cave, “as any of my forebears might have done,” he says, smiling. As an employee of the Egyptian government, he also patrols—on camel—the St. Katherine Natural Protectorate, which covers 1,740 square miles and which supports a rich assortment of desert wildlife: ibex, hyena, endangered North African wolves, the Egyptian spiny mouse, the sand fox and the rock hyrax (a rabbit-size, very distant relative of the elephant).

“I know every single cranny in these mountains,” says Mansour. He has helped stop illegal construction of houses, put an end to unauthorized rockquarrying and cracked down on poachers trapping rare falcons. He explains to his fellow shepherds that the occasional sheep, killed by the desert’s wild beasts, is far less valuable than the potential revenue brought in by the tourists.

Still, he mourns the passing of many traditions. “My people,” he muses, “are no longer interested in the mountains or in gardens. Instead, they open coffee shops and work as mechanics.” He is troubled that camels, once a Bedouin’s most precious possession, are turned loose to run wild in the desert. But he remains optimistic. “If you do good deeds in life, like fixing a bird’s broken wing or planting a tree anyone may eat from,” he avers, “these gestures will earn you Paradise.”

By evening, I was in Dahab, not long ago a sleepy beachside hamlet, now another stop amid a concrete line of resorts running for miles along the shore. The town’s main street, parallel to the waterfront, was all lights and bustle. Foreigners and Egyptians lurched gaily through the starlit air. With waves lapping at one side of the road and mountains rising in the distance, the stresses of Cairo and the dank filth of the Nile seemed far away.

I was having dinner in a restaurant jutting out on the water when a wave, in the unpredictable way of the Red Sea, rose up and drenched me and my companions. Over loudspeakers, we could hear the voices of women singing, as they must have done 3,000 years ago after a much greater wave disposed of Pharaoh’s chariots. According to Exodus, Moses’ sister Miriam, celebrating that dramatic deliverance, “took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances.”

For a fleeting moment, Lawrence of Arabia had it right after all. The Sinai seemed a most “jolly desert” indeed.

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