The Christian fortress-monastery, known as St. Catherine’s, planted solidly in the valley at the foot of Mount Sinai in the Sinai Peninsula, has withstood over these last 1,500 years wars, plagues, famines, endless threats of financial ruin, and in the current era another kind of peril, tourists. This month, however, it issued a rather desperate plea. It and the several hundred Muslim Bedouin who have protected it since Mohammed ordered them to do so in the 7th century, are enduring almost total impoverishment.
The Egyptian government, aware that churches were being torched all over Egypt by the infuriated Muslim Brotherhood, feared for the safety of the venerable monastery, the Prophet’s protection notwithstanding. So they ordered the building closed to the public early in August, creating an economic disaster in the town beside it, whose Bedouin residents depend on the monastery’s once-booming tourist traffic for their livelihood.
With the highways came thousands of tourists
Life changed radically for the monks of St. Catherine’s early in the 1980s when the construction of highways turned the monastery into a prime tourist destination. Soon about 350 tour buses day were arriving along with miles of cars, most with Israeli license plates. Hundreds of camels were on hand to take the tourists up the mountain trails. By 2011, the monastery was receiving 4,000 visitors a day.
There was much for them to see. The monastery library preserves a collection of early biblical manuscripts second only to those of the Vatican. It was here in 1844 that a researcher found the 1,600-year-old Codex Sinaiticus, at the time the oldest almost completely preserved manuscript of the Bible. It is now in the British Library. The monastery also carefully safeguards a copy of the Achtiname, in which the Prophet ostensibly conferred his protection. Then too there is the collection of icons, some dating back to the 5th and 6th centuries.
Empty hotels, broken glass, dead trees
With the beginning of the current strife in Egypt, however, the flow of tourists began to decline. Today, though the government has allowed the monastery to reopen, the tourists have all but disappeared. At the Taba crossing between Egypt and Israel the customs halls stand empty. An Associated Press story records the desolate monastery town: “Beach hotels stand like shells in the sand. Wind blows through broken glass. The decorative date palms are slumped over, brown and dead.” The impoverished camel drivers have had to sell their animals at steep discounts to buy food.
Meanwhile, the stout walls of the old building stand immoveable, seemingly imperishable. Like the Christian Church itself, St. Catherine’s has survived darker days than these. In a way, its long past offers a surety for the future.