'Would you like to travel to Arabia?' asked Professor Kastner.
'Why not,' replied Niebuhr, 'if someone defrayed the expense?'
- Between Carsten Niebuhr (18th century German explorer) - the sole survivor of the first scientific expedition to Arabia, and his professor at the Gottingen Academy.
I only knew I wanted to get to Jordan.
After a brief search online, the only affordable way was to fly to Sharm el-Sheikh in the Sinai and travel overland to Jordan. There is a reason why the flight to the Sinai was so cheap: an attack at a Sufi mosque rocked the town of Arish in Sinai a week before I booked my flight. Although the North Sinai had long been known for its lawlessness, attack of such scale was rare. With more than 200 dead and 100 injured, it was the deadliest attack in Egyptian history.
Despite the rock bottom ticket prices there were few tourists on-board my flight. Until a few years ago Russian tourists were still flocking to the Sinai for an affordable package holiday away from the cold winter at home. All that changed in 2015. In October a bomb exploded on the Metrojet Flight 9268, killing all 217 mostly-Russian passengers on-board. Around me today were mostly Egyptian migrants looking for a cheap way to get home.
Situated between Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel, the Sinai was where ancient Egyptians came to mine for copper and turquoise - much in contrast to its rather colourful modern history. In 1956, Britain and France invaded the Suez Canal at the Sinai in order to topple the Egyptian president and to halt his attempt at nationalising the canal. The subsequent failure had shown the world that Britain could no longer dictate their own interests in far-off places. It was here that Britain's role as a world superpower came to an end - but it wouldn't be the last time that Britain goes to war under a false pretence in Arabia.
A decade later, Israel would occupy the Sinai - a region three times the size of Israel itself. Wars would continue to haunt the peninsula for years to come, making it one of the deadliest frontiers in the world: in 1973, 1,200 tanks gathered here in what was to be one of the biggest tank battles in history. It was only in 1982 that fifteen years of Israeli occupation finally came to an end.
Being far and remote from the heartland of Egypt, the Sinai’s inhospitable landscape made it hard for any authorities to exert control over the peninsula. The 1978 Camp David Accords had allowed Egypt to regain control of Sinai – but it also came with the condition that the region had to be demilitarised: paving way for armed smugglers and militants to operate freely in the area.
Since the 1980s the Egyptian government had already invested heavily in the South Sinai towards tourism. The 90s and 00s was the ‘Golden Age’ for Sinai's tourism. The hotel owner of where I was staying were originally from Cairo and came here in the early 90s. They made a fortune simply by selling pirated music tapes here.
But once you are there you realised why tourism hasn't really facilitated stability in the region: almost every owner of the local businesses were Egyptians from other parts of the country. These medinans, the 'City Arabs' from the cities of Egypt, often despised the local and native Bedouin population of the Sinai.
Government and private investments would fuel further local grievances as they were often discriminated against the local population - who were generally seen as poor and uneducated. Unable to benefit from tourism and seeing land developments as local 'land grabs', there are now increasingly more locals who views the current local administration merely as another form of occupation - only that it is now an Egyptian one replacing a former Israeli one.
As the medians from cities like Cairo or Alexandria prospered in the Sinai, most of the indigenous population concentrated in the northern part of the peninsula continued to be neglected. Finally, during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution the situation exploded. Militant jihadis would take further advantage of the instability and power vacuum, attacking checkpoints in the Sinai and seizing control of villages that had long resented the Egyptian authorities.
They would however, be certain about a few places they were sure to visit – which would have been the St. Catherine’s Monastery and Mount Sinai at the very heart of the Sinai Peninsula. Desert travelling was very different back then, and a great deal more difficult. Most visitors to the Sinai would have set off from Cairo, where they would acquire a dragoman - essentially a fixer who would help to translate and help out with the logistic of supplies and transport. It wasn’t an easy task: for instance each traveller would require the help of about five camels just to carry their supplies.
'The approach to Mount Sinai' (1839) watercolour painting by the Scottish artist David Roberts (1796-1864). Notice how almost everyone carries a musket with them. Travellers often carried firearms with them, and in my guidebook there were detailed pages over which firearms to acquire before the journey.
Today the journey to the heart of the peninsula had been made significantly easier - and cheaper. Tours start at 11PM during which minivans would take tourists to the foot of Mount Sinai. The territory around these mountains however, still belongs to the Bedouins today and it’s still obligatory that you are with a Bedouin guide. These ‘sons of the desert’ had long abandoned their nomadic way of life and today rely predominantly on tourism.
On top a humble chapel and a small mosque were built to mark the occasion, On the rocks around them are graffiti, in Armenian, German, Russian and all languages, carved out of rock by centuries of pilgrims. You don’t need to be religious to appreciate this place. It was as if the sunrise is God’s paintbrush; lifting the vast landscape out of complete darkness, transforming in front of you layers of ordinary sandstone mountains into a canvas of starkly contrasting orange and blue. It is one of the most majestic views I have ever seen.
Then we began the descent towards the old monastery at the valley. Early Christian monks believed that profound silence and isolation brings them to be closer to God, and they often seek seclusion by establishing themselves around some of the most barren landscapes. After all this was the environment where Moses and even the Prophet Mohammed received their first revelations from God. And in the Sinai is where the most extreme form of life in solitude took place.
‘…a barren land extends for a great distance, unwatered and producing neither crops nor any useful thing. A precipitous and terribly wild mountain, Sinai by name, rears its height close to the Red Sea […] On this Mount Sinai live monks whose life is a kind of careful rehearsal of death, and they enjoy without fear the solitude which is very precious to them.’
- Excerpt from ‘The Foundation of the Convent, 7th century’ by Procopius
The first monks in the Sinai arrived here in the 3rd century, and like many others I have seen in Syria and Iraq, the earliest eastern monks took refuge in the caves on the sheer cliff faces. Later they were to found the monastery on the site where the relics of Saint Catherine of Alexandria were supposedly discovered, apparently ‘flown’ there by angels. Conveniently, they would also locate the ‘Burning Bush’ there as well.
Just as their patron Saint Catherine had refused to renounce her faith in the face of death, monks here had endured and resisted conversion for centuries. There were already records of monks being massacred dating back to the 4th century. And it was only in the 6th century that the Byzantine Emperor, Justinian the Great, ordered to garrison and fortify the monastery – subsequently giving it an almost fortress-like appearance today.
In one fascinating tale, in the 16th century the monks presented to the conquering Ottoman commanders a patent of protection. The document, dating back to 624 AD, was from the earliest days of Islam – and most importantly verified by the handprint of the Prophet Mohammed himself. Legend has it that Mohammed passed by the Sinai when he was a young merchant. A monk who foresaw he was going to be a great prophet, asked him to to place his handprint on this document of protection. The Ottoman army, apparently satisfied with the document, left them in peace.
The story might sound too good to be true: but the fact that the monks had survived in this hostile environment – both against the natural elements and constant attacks are an extraordinary feat of survival and nothing short of a miracle. It was only half a year ago when ISIS militants attacked a checkpoint near the monastery, killing three Egyptian policemen. St. Catherine's Monastery however, has meanwhile survived as one of the oldest continuously working monasteries in the world.
‘The journey is a weariness of the flesh from beginning to end, and ought not to be attempted except by persons of vigorous constitution.’
- Excerpt from ‘No Pleasure Trip’ (1878) by Philip Schaff
Back in downtown Dahab, in my well-worn safari shirt and beat-up walking boots, I guessed I must have stuck out from most who came for the beach. But ultimately there is some comfort in knowing that all of us stuck out here in one way or another: after all we were all holidaying in this little safe haven surrounded by the lawlessness beyond. Here are the bikinis, numerous diving schools and a British pub called 'Churchill'. And it was only a few checkpoints away in the north where Israeli jets are covertly bombing, and where villages came under the control of 'Wilayah Sayna’, the ‘Sinai Province’ where jihadi militants are fighting to claim the Sinai as part of ISIS's new caliphate.
Since I had really came to go see Jordan, it was time to continue east towards the Jordanian port of Aqaba. Along this road, back then littered with skeletons of camels and at times the driver behind too, was where Christian pilgrims continuing towards Jerusalem would have met Muslim pilgrims on Hajj from Egypt. Today the skeletons were replaced by the Egyptian army’s numerous checkpoints, the only thing that separates the holiday havens and the anarchy beyond.
A huge flagpole on the shoreline appeared on the horizon, signalling the arrival to Aqaba. The huge Arab Revolt flag flew proudly on top. The flag, frequently mistaken as the Palestinian or Jordanian flag, was in fact the mother-flag of almost all Arab nations. In July 1917, to the great surprise of the Ottoman garrison, Lawrence of Arabia and his romantic army of Bedouin rebels on camelbacks descended upon Aqaba. And it was their story that I had come to Arabia to follow.
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I like to travel, and I like to find out about things so I have created this blog to share what I saw on my journeys.
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