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.”
Abbas Pasha was suffering from tuberculosis so one of the reasons he wanted to build his palace in the high mountains was for medical reasons. On the other hand he liked a secluded lifestyle and had other remote palaces. According to traditions he selected the place after placing meat on the top of Mt. Sinai, Mt. Katherina and Mt. Tinya, and it was here at the former that the meat decayed later, suggesting a better environment and cleaner air. Another account recalls that this story was actually made up by the monks to keep him away from the holy peaks. In any case, his selection would have been just as good with magnificent views from the palace over the Sinai mountain range.
Although Abbas Pasha is “best remembered for the emancipation of the fellaheen and the construction of the Cairo-Alexandria railway line in 1851”, he “had a significant influence on the immediate area around St Katherine. Besides the construction of the mountain top palace he commissioned the building of the camel path up to Mount Sinai and the Askar barracks on the way to the monastery, which now lies in ruins.”
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.
There is a graceful little church in very good shape in Wadi Shrayj , passing other somewhat more ruined Byzantine buildings. Further up from the church there are more ruins, some dating back to the Nabatean era (BC 200 – AD 100).
In Wadi Mathar (Wadi Shag) there is a hermit cell under a huge boulder, the remains of the monks who died in there centuries ago are still in the walled-up chamber. Further up is a well preserved monastic settlement with houses and a round building which might have been a storage room.
Byzantine Nawamises, burial places with rocks placed around in circles, are found at many locations, such as at the beginning of Wadi Jebal or in Wadi Mathar. Halfway in Wadi Jebal there is a Roman well before you reach a well preserved Byzantine church next to a walled garden and spring. There is another church at the spring ofAin Nagila, at the foot of Jebel el Bab. You can find ruins of other settlements and buildings in Wadi Tinya, Wadi Shag Tinya, in Farsh Abu Mahashur, and many other places.
The building technique of the Bedouin is taken from the Byzantine settlers, so it is often difficult to tell structures apart. Furthermore the Bedouin often used the ruins in later times. But there are telling clues. Byzantine buildings were scattered close to each other in small settlements, and round buidings are most likely to be from the Byzantine period. While the Bedouin have storage rooms constructed under rocks, they would have been too low for hermits to pray in an upright, kneeling position. “Rounded-walls, niches and shelves and tiny doors are typical of Byzantine stone dwellings. [Charasteristic] how the stones are laid without mortar and the absence of a roof. You can also find traces of ancient water systems or conduits which were used to direct rain water to the settlement and for irrigation use. Typical of the Byzantine era water conduits or channels directed the mountain rains to cisterns or pools. Water conduits were constructed using natural drainage lines in the granite and by cementing flat stones with a natural mortar. The outdoor courtyards are thought to be an area for meeting guests and for cooking. “
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 .
There is a massive Nawamis close to the Oasis of Ain Hudra, as well as a Pharaonic Rock of Inscription. It lies not far from the main road to Dahab, but you should not attempt to find it yourself. You can probably find guides in Ain Hodra, or organize a safari in St. Katherine that includes it.
The Blue Desert (Blue Mountain), just before reaching St. Katherine to the left in a wide open wadi, is to commemorate the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel. Anwar Sadat, who loved the area and had a house in St. Katherine, payed with his life for this move. The display was made by Belgian artist Jean Verame in 1980-81, who painted many of the boulders over an area of ca. 15 km2 and a hill blue. From the air it looks like a dove of peace. A popular day trip from the city usually accompanied by a camp fire and music, it adds a bit of blue colour to the red of sunset.