With the COP27 in Egypt, plenty of the world’s political leaders gather in Sharm El-Sheik to discuss the faith of the world. Due to increasing heat and climate change, especially African countries and those already deserted will suffer the most. However, only a stone’s throw the tribes of the Bedouins managed to adapt impressively to the deserted land and even adopted a tribe from Romania.
Pictures: Mohamed El-Desouki (if not mentioned otherwise). Text: Thorsten Veblen
The barren environment of the Sinai Peninsula requires all the survival skills of the people who have to make a living in this world. At the same time, the 80 to 300,000 Bedouins remained largely faithful to their nomadic traditions until today, when people migrated from the Arabian Peninsula between the 14th and 18th centuries.
St. Catherine‘s Monastery
But there they encountered Byzantine monastery of St. Catherine, founded about 330 AD and still one of the oldest continuously operating Christian monasteries in the world. The monastery houses a library as well as a bush that numerous pilgrims identify as the burning bush that would have prompted Moses to free the Israelites from Egyptian slavery. (FC: dibrova, 2022)
Blossoming almond tree in march, camp close to St. Cathrines cathedral
Health seems to have been one of the first points of contact between the two religions. The hospice in St. Catherine’s can be dated back to the year 600 AD. From the 1970s onwards, this health care mission to the monks, pilgrims and Bedouins in the region grew even stronger and was the only care facility in the entire southern Sinai.
The lands of the Bedouins
Especially the Jabeliya tribe, whose ancestry can be traced to Eastern Europe, probably Romania, leaves when the Roman Emperor Justinian recruited stonemasons from there to expand the monastery with a fortress and basilica. Over the centuries, the Jabeliya adopted Islam and semi-nomadic traditions – their wage labor for the monastery did not allow for a fully nomadic life, which eventually distinguished them from the other full-scale nomadic Bedouin tribes of the region. In the process, the Jabeliya produced two types of dwellings: first, mud huts, and second, the beyt al-shaar, woven from goat hair, famous for its water-repellent properties and strength. While the Egyptian state left the Bedouin to their self-government, tourism boomed during the Israeli occupation of the Sinai, massively expanding the job opportunities of the Jabeliya. (Source: strifeblog.org, 2019)
Bedouins lead the way
Tourism remains an important part of the Bedouins’ income today in South Sinai. With their camels, they guide Egyptian and international tourists through the impassable mountains of the Sinai Peninsula. But these forms of work make the Bedouin communities extremely dependent on irregular jobs. Especially after the Israeli occupation, when they were accused of collaboration by the Egyptian government for tapping into the new income opportunities under Israeli occupation. Nowadays, also tourism becomes a hard business. Hiking off the beaten path comes with a lot of bureaucratic hurdles. Even Egyptian residents have to obtain permission from the police since the country is rough and scarcely inhabited and in an emergency, no one will hear. The trails are not clear and change due to the weather conditions. However, Bedouins know the way thanks to their century-old knowledge of the environment.
Baking bread in the desert
Due to the dry lands, only those Bedouins living in coastal areas, for example in Sharm El-Sheik are used to fish. Most others eat goat, chicken and eggs, but one of their most traditional staples is bread with olive oil and cheese, often also spiced with Za’atar, a herb related to thyme. Though, on long expeditions in the mountains, they use to bake their bread in the desert. They carry flour, sugar or salt, if available, and mix it with water to a doe. This mass is baked in open fire from coal directly over the desert sand.
Hussien Garden, Wadi Boleaa
Fruits and dried fruits provide for the sugar. Here in Wadi Boleea, about two days hiking from St. Catherine, a Bedouin presents his harvest of winter apples.
The Wadis are mountain valleys, which fill with, water very fast, when it rains. The water masses are compressed between the mountain flanks and can create raging rivers. However, once the thunder is gone, the desert starts blossoming with grass and bushes. Here evolution created species, which only exist in St. Catherine.
White-crowned Black Wheatear
From big mammals such as the Arabian Leopard (last seen 1996), the Nubian Ibex (400 in South Sinai counted) and Striped Hyenas to small mammals and birds, like the White-crowned Black Wheatear as pictured above, and butterflies the wildlife of Sinai has a lot to offer.
Here the desert fox
Or Abu al Husain, how the Bedouins call the fox in their native language.
Winters on Mount Sinai
While the summers in the desert are harsh, the winters in the mountains demand no less adaptability from people and animals. Here hikers with beds transported by camel discover the mountains.
Bedouine gazes into Wadi Gharba
Despite the authority of Egyptian government, the Bedouin tribes still live by their own set of laws, the El`Orfi. Also called Besha among some tribes, it is a system of jurisprudence that is also foreign to the Koran. Decisions on important issues are made at tribal meetings by consensus of the participants. Only sheikhs, respectable men whose authority derives from wealth and personal talents, speak on behalf of parties. For example, in disposing of resources or land.