Apart from the Monastery of St. Catherine and Mt. Sinai (Jebel Musa) – more information in the appropriate sections – there are many other places worth visiting. They can be divided, with some overlappings, into four groups: areas of religious, historical, cultural and natural importance.
Beyond the many religious places found around the Monastery of St. Katherine and on the top of Jebel Musa (Mt. Sina) and Jebel Safsafa there are many other churches, monasteries and holy places in the area and a bit furhter afield. The most notable ones are described below.
The Chapel of St. Katherine is on the summit of Jebel Katherina, the mountain where the body of the saint from Alexandria was placed by angels, according to Christian beliefs. The saint, born as Dorothea in 294 AD, was educated in pagan schools but converted to Christianity for which she was executed. Her body vanished, but some three centuries later, monks guided by a dream found it on the mountain. It was brought down and placed in a golden casket in the Monastery what became known since the 11th century as the Monastery of St. Katherine.
Hajar Musa (Rock of Moses) in Wadi el Arbain, where Prophet Moses fetched water from the rock. A holy place to all the big monotheiostic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Locals believe the twelve clefts on it represent the twelve springs mentioned in the Quran (Sura 2:60). It is also mentioned in the Exodus as the rock which sustained the children of Israel (1 Cor. 10:4). There is a small Orthodox chapel next to it. According to Swiss orientalist Johann Ludwig Burkhardt the Jebeliya Bedouin believe “that by making [female camels] crouch down before the rock […] the camels will become fertile and yield more milk”. There is also a Bedouin marriage proposal rock in the walled compound.
The Monastery of the Forty Martyrs, in Wadi el Arbain “was constructed in the sixth century in honor of the forty Christian martyrs who died in Sebaste (central Turkey). Monks relate that forty Christian soldiers from the Roman Army in the third century were commanded to worship pagan gods. They refused and were put to death by being exposed at night to the bitterly cold winds off a frozen lake. Those who survived until morning were killed by the sword. […] In the grounds of this monastery is a chapel dedicated to the hermit Saint Onuphrius. Coming from Upper Egypt, he was said to have lived for seventy years in the rock shelter at the northern end of the garden, until he died in AD 390.”
The Monastery of Cosmas and Damianos in Wadi Talaa, named after the martyred brothers who were doctors and treated locals for free in the 3d century AD. The garden of the monastery, looked after by a Bedouin family, has a long olive grove, some tall cypress trees, other fruit trees and vegetables. There are more gardens belonging to the Monastery further down in the wadi.
The Chapel of Saint John Klimakos, or St. John of the Ladder, was built in 1979 in Wadi Itlah to commemorate his devotional work in the 6th century AD. Also spelled St. John Climacus or Climax, the saint spent forty years in solitude in a cave above the existing chapel. Read more…
One of the prime historical attractions in the area is the Palace of Abbas Hilmi I. Pasha, who was Viceroy of Egypt between 1849 – 1854. The palace was built on a mountain called at the time Jebel Tinya, but later named after him and today calledJebel Abbas Basha. The palace has never been finished as he died before it was completed, but the massive 2 meter-thick walls made of granite blocks and granite-sand bricks still stand firmly. The open quarry on the top of Jebel Somra, just opposite Jebel Abbas Basha, is still visible with many huge blocks lying around. Other blocks were cut from Wadi Zawatiin, at the beginning of the ascent to the palace. The bricks were made on site while the mortar, made of lime and water, was burnt in kilns in the surrounding valleys. To be able to carry out the work, first he had to build a road accessible to camels and donkeys in order to transport the supplies. The road, starting at Abu Jeefa and going through Wadi Tubug and Wadi Zawatin are still in use today.
Grandson and successor of the great reformist Mohammed Ali Pasha, Abbas Pasha was in many ways the opposite. He had “a lasting distrust of foreigners [and] strongly opposed many of the Western inspired change introduced by his grandfather Mohammed Ali Pasha (1805-1848) and he is remembered as a traditionalist and reactionary who undid many of his grandfather’s modernising reforms. His secretive and suspicious nature led to much speculation over his death; it is uncertain whether he was murdered or died of a stroke.”
There are hundreds of ruins of Byzantine monasteries, churches and monastic settlements in the area, some of them not much more than a pile of rocks, others difficult to distinguish from Bedouin buildings, but there are several very well preserved ones. Many can be found in the wide and open Bustan el Birka area, approachable from the settlement of Abu Seila or Abu Zaituna, including churches, houses on hills overlooking gardens in the wadi floor, buildings in clusters and hermit cells under rocks. They are among the best preserved ones and they can be easily reached from the village.
A bit further afield, at Serabit al-Khadim, there are ancient turquoise mines and Pharaonic temples from the 12th Dynasty, dedicated to Hathor, Goddess of Love, Music and Beauty, and from the New Kingdom dedicated to Sopdu, the God of the Eastern Desert. It can be reached from Wadi Feiran via Wadi Mukattab, the Valley of Inscription by camels or 4WD . Read more…
The Jebeliya are skilled gardeners and craftsmen who have been building gardens, houses, store rooms, water dams and other structures in the mountains for centuries. The techiques used are very similar to the Byzantine methods, partly because of the natural environment, partly because of the interaction between the Bedouin and the Monastery. In fact, they have received seeds from the monks to start crops. They grow vegetables and fruit in stone walled gardens called bustan or karm, and masteredgrafting where a branch of a better yielding low land variety is planted on a more resistant but low yielding mountain variety. Some of the plants are only found here in Egypt, such as almond, because of the moderate climate. Other fruits grown include apple, pear, apricotes, peach, fig, pistachio, dates and grapes. Walnut is rare but grown at a few locations. Mulbery grows wild in some of the wadis and they belong to the whole tribe. Wild figs, tasty but small, grow in many places. Olives are very important, as manifested in the derivation of the arabic name, zaitun, found in many location names. Vegetables are not grown to the extent as in the past because of less water. Flowers and medicinal herbs are grown everywhere.
The gardens are usually built in the wadi floors in the main water course, and are encircled by massive stone walls. These walls have to withstand the regular flash floods, retain the soil – thus called retaining wall – and protect the garden from animals. Water wells are either built in the garden or a number of gardens have one. Today usually generators pump the water, but you can still see many shadoofs. Water is often found at higher elevations, either in natural springs or in wells made at dykes called jidda.
Smaller rock shelters and store rooms are constructed under boulders and in walled up caves, and are found everywhere in the mountainous area. Some of them are well visible landmarks, such as in Abu Seila or Farsh Rummana, but most hard to distinguish from the landscape.
You can see ancient leopard traps in many places, mariage proposal rocks,Wishing Rocks. Read more…
The views from the highest mountains in Egypt are spectacular, and there are many other natural sights in the wadi system. There are springs, creeks, water pools, narrow canyons, steep wadis with huge boulders, amazing rock formations, barren plains with islands of lush vegetation. On the top of the mountains there are many interconnected basins with a unique high altitude ecosystem, home to the World’s smallest butterfly and other rare plant species.
The highest mountain in Egypt is Jebel Katherine, and there are many other peaks in the area over 2000 meters. Jebel Katherine can be reached via Wadi el Arbain or Wadi Shag, either way a full day. Usually the trek makes a circle, with sleeping at the top. There is a small orthodox church at the top, it is closed for the public. The Monastery constructed a small stone hut where trekkers and pilgrims can stay for overnight in cold weather. There is usally candle and matches in case you forget, but you can leave some if you got too many. There is also a broom and rubbish bins, and people are expected to clean up after themselvs. From the peak there are spectacular views over Mt. Sinai, and on a clear day you can see the whole central High Mountain Region.
Jebel Abbas Basha is another popular peak, from here you can see the village as well as the rest of the high mountains. It can be reached in one day, but if you want to stay for the sunset, it is better to make it in two days, either sleeping on the top or in Wadi Zawatin or Wadi Tinya at the base of the mountain.
A little further is Jebel el Bab, which could be visited in two long days, but better included in a 3-4 days trek visiting other places as well. On the way up from Wadi Jebal you pass Masba Abu Gharun , a rock formation resembling the head of a mountain goat. Other popular peaks in the area include Jebel Ahmar, Jebel Serbal,Jebel Banat, Jebel Sana.
There are many small ponds flowing under the rocks in lush Wadi Talaa Kibira, leading down to the biggest water pool of the area, Galt el Azraq, the Blue Pool. Its colour is actually changing according to the regular floods; one brings sand from higher up, the next takes it further down and cleans the pool. It is safe to swim in it.
There are permanent pools at the top of Wadi Shag Tinya, the Kharazet el Shag, in a dramatic setting. The water from Wadi Tinya drops into a granite pool from which it flows done to other pools and falls into a deep wadi, some places running under rocks, at other places resurfacing again. The water is clean enough to drink in the upper pool.
There is a 1000 years old mulberry tree in Wadi Tubug, which is protected by tribal law. From Wadi Tubug you can descend to Sid Daud, a narrow and steep path leading through small caves under the boulders. Read more…
• Dr. Evangelos Papaioannou: The Monastery of St. Catherine – St. Catherine’s Monastery
• Wadi Arbaein & Wadi Shrayj, A Walking Trail Guide – National Parks of Egypt Protectorates Development Programmes
• Wadi I’tlah & Wadi Tala’, A Walking Trail Guide – National Parks of Egypt Protectorates Development Programmes
• Larry Roeder: http://members.fcac.org/~lroeder/muzeina.htm
• Larry Roeder: http://members.nova.org/~lroeder/tuara2.htm
• Jebel Abbas Pasha, A Walking Trail Guide – National Parks of Egypt Protectorates Development Programmes