Allan Manham’s postcard from... Sinai
At the end of October 2008, a group of five friends, acquaintances and I completed an eight day walk through the Sinai. We set out from Gatwick to Sharm el Sheikh and then Dahab where we were to be joined by Sam as expedition leader, Claire the expedition medic, and two Bedouin guides, Amr and Salama. We were transported to Al Kalm, an eco village owned and operated by the local Bedouin tribe, the Jebaleya, who were to provide six camels for the expedition as well as three Bedouin boys to care for the camels and generally tend to our needs.
The walking route through Wadi Feran, Sinai’s largest and also one of its most archaeologically important stretches of terrain had to be revised due to thunderstorms and heavy rain for the first time in ten years. The plan was for the camels to carry all our gear, food and water leaving us each with only a day bag for essentials. We planned to sleep in the open, protected from the cold night time temperatures by our insulated sleeping bags. And as we soon discovered, we certainly needed them.
All three of the West’s great religious traditions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – know Sinai as a holy land, a vast expanse traversed time and again by prophets, saints, pilgrims, and warriors. Sinai is most familiar to many as the “great and terrible wilderness” through which the Israelites wandered for forty years. However, it was also the path by which Amr swept down into Egypt in 640 AD, bringing Islam in his wake. In recent years, and for the first time, the history of Sinai seems to be emerging as a story about the land itself – its artifacts, its people, and its extraordinary natural beauty – rather than the story of those who pass through that land. Today, it is the Sinai’s coral reefs, its striking mountains and deserts, and its enormous cultural heritage that hold the future.
What did take most of us by surprise was the undulating terrain of Wadi Feran, with its peaks and ragged outcrops of rocks comprised mainly of pink granite and sandstone. The usual expectation of desert as a featureless expanse of sand stretching into the distance proved wide of the mark, as we coped with steep descents and climbs over the unforgiving rock alternated with walks along the wadis, which are in essence dried river beds. At times even the heavily loaded camels were forced to take detours due to the precipitous routes our guides took.
Our guides on the trip came from the Jebalaya tribe which means ‘the people of the mountains’. Since the sixth century AD, the Jebalaya have lived in the high mountains of Sinai, protecting the monastery and guiding people in need. They are pastoral nomads - pastoral, because they raise goats, sheep and camels - nomads because they move these animals to wherever rain has fallen and pasture sprouted. They have no fixed dwellings - home is a goatskin or camel wool tent pitched with sturdy wooden poles.
In the vast silence and brooding solitude of the Sinai, simply encountering another person was - and in some regions still is - a rather unusual and noteworthy event. A new face is always cause for great interest, for happy generosity and careful etiquette, and for common civility. As the only other humans we encountered after leaving our base camp were Bedouin, we became quite used to the chance meetings with the occasional solitary Bedouin or two, miles from anywhere, usually en route to their “garden”, an oasis with a very meagre supply of water from wells dug deep into the sand and rock and where they incredibly managed to cultivate tobacco, figs, grapes etc. They always stopped to chat to our guides, exchange ‘the news’ light up a cigarette and then pass on. As we were travelling with guides, we were at liberty to use these oases to stop over the hottest part of the day and rest. The production of lunch during these stops never ceased to amaze us, as it appeared to be conjured out of nothing, something that seems inimitably part of the Bedouin character. The unfailing politeness and respect shown to us over the course of the eight days left us with a sense of privilege in encountering these special people.
All of the food preparation during the walk was done by our guides, with the most basic of implements and a minimal amount of fuss. Every morning, by the time we had dragged ourselves out of our sleeping bags (and dawn came early) a fire had been lit and welcome coffee was already on the boil. This was shortly followed by a breakfast of bread, eggs, alternatively boiled or as an omelette, feta cheese, honey etc. Bread was baked daily by the ingenious method of flattening out very thin discs of dough like a pizza maker, which was then cooked rapidly on a well used, discarded top of an oil drum, or alternatively a larger less flattened round was placed in the glowing embers of the fire, covered with more embers and then beaten on a rock when cooked, to get rid of the burnt outside. This supply of bread proved ample for breakfast and again later for the other meals of the day. Later on during the walk, interested parties were invited to try their hand at bread making. Not as easy as it first appeared, but a satisfying skill once mastered. The diet was simple but nutritious and suffering stomachs gradually became accustomed to the ubiquitous use of pulses and grains.
The High Range of the Sinai is a region of massive, barren, granite peaks rising to 2600 m, amidst deep, narrow and steep gorges. The trek took us to the impressive, rounded, red granite summits while in many of the dry river beds – wadis - we delighted in a landscape of streams and pools and lined with lush vegetation. At the centre of the range is Mount Sinai. At its foot stands the Monastery of St. Catherine, a unique treasure of Byzantine art and culture, dating back to the sixth century A.D. The entire High Range is strewn with hermitages, chapels, gardens, paths and other remains of the great early monastic movement. The awe inspiring landscape and the profound spiritual experience it engenders are as powerful today as they were hundreds of years ago for the thousands of Christian hermits who chose to spend their lives in the area. This atmosphere added to our group’s special experience. What in a sense made the walk special, was the fact that we were a disparate group of individuals, all highly visually literate, confronted with a series of visual stimuli. It all came to an end much too soon.
Photos by Sam McConnell