Saint Catherine downtown on a snowy day
White Catherine, Egypt's White Roof
||5,203 ft (1,586 m)|
|• Total||4,603 (1,994)|
| • Ethnicities:
||Jebeliya Bedouins, Egyptians, Greeks and Russians|
|Time zone||UTC+2 (EST)|
Although Saint Catherine was not established as a city at that time, it was always part of the Egyptian Empire throughout history and it was part of the province of "Deshret Reithu".Pharaonic era
In the 16th century BC, the Egyptian pharaohs built the way of Shur across Sinai to Beersheba and on to Jerusalem. The region provided the Egyptian Empire with turquoise, gold and copper, and well preserved ruins of mines and temples are found not far from Saint Catherine at Serabit el-Khadim and Wadi Mukattab, the Valley of Inscription. They include 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.
Roman and Byzantine era
Saint Catherine City is one of the newest townships in Egypt. There are several schools including a high school, a hospital, police and fire brigade, a range of hotels, post office, telephone centre, bank and other important establishments.
The township's oldest settlement is Wadi El Sybaiya, east of the city's monastery, where the Roman soldiers, whose descendants are the Jebeliya, were accommodated. It started growing into a town after the tarmac road was completed in the 1980s and the tourist trade began. Many of the nomad Bedouins moved to small settlements around the city's monastery, which collectively make up St Katherine's Town. The districts of El Milga, Shamiya, Raha and Nabi Harun form the core of the town — Saint Katherine's downtown, at the end of the tarmac road where the valleys of Wadi El Arbain (Wadi El Lega), Wadi Quez, Wadi Raha, Wadi Shrayj and Wadi El Dier connect to the main valley, Wadi Sheikh. There are settlements in Wadi Sheikh before town and other smaller ones in the valleys.
Saint Catherine is the capital of the Municipality of Saint Katherine, which includes these outlying areas as well. The town's monastery lies in Wadi el Deir, opposite Wadi Raha (Wadi Muka’das, the Holy Valley). Mount Sinai can be reached from the monastery or, alternatively, from Wadi El Arbain where the Rock of Moses (Hagar Musa) and the Monastery of the Forty Martyrs are.
Geography and climate
Köppen-Geiger climate classification system classifies its climate as desert (BWk). It has the coldest nights of any city in Egypt. Its humidity is very low. The highest mountains ranges in Egypt surround the town with many smaller valleys leading from the basin to the mountains in all directions. The township is at an elevation of 1,600 metres (5,200 ft). The high altitude of the town itself and the high ranges of mountains which embrace it provide a pleasant climate, with refreshing mild summer nights and excellent spring, while winterdays are relatively cool for the region and the nights can get very cold on rare occasions, making it sometimes necessary to heat buildings and public places. Different sources give different average temperatures for Saint Catherine's town. Saint Catherine is considered to be one of the coldest towns in Egypt with Nekhel and many other places especially in mountainous Sinai. Infrequent snowfalls in Saint Catherine take place during the winter months of December, January and February, however snow has also occurred in late autumn and early spring.
Saint Catherine Town lies at the foot of the Sinai high mountain region, the "Roof of Egypt", where Egypt's highest mountains are found. Some trekking groups however prefer especially the winter season as they find it more interesting and lovely to hike and climb in these conditions.
The town also puts a great pressure on the water resources, as ground water in the valley is from the mountains. Today water has to be purchased and brought in by trucks. As of September 28, 2011, water from the Nile is being transported to Saint Catherine via a pipe line, built with the help of the European Union.
Saint Catherine is in a region holy to the world's three major Abrahamic religions, Christianity, Islam and Judaism. It is a place where Moses is believed to have received the Ten Commandments; a place where early Christianity has flourished and the Orthodox monastic tradition still continues in present day; a place which the prophet Mohammed took under his protection in his Letter to the Monks and where people still live in respect to others. Many events recorded in the Bible took place in the area, and there are hundreds of places of religious importance in the city. There are two ancient churches, and the Monastery of St Katherine and the Rock of Moses.
Culture and population
The traditional people of the area, the Jebeliya Bedouin, are a unique people having been brought from south-eastern Europe in the 6th century AD. Originally Christians, they soon converted to Islam and intermarried with other nomad tribes. Some segments of the tribe arrived relatively recently from the Arabian Peninsula. Their culture is very similar to other Bedouin groups, but they preserved some unique features. Contrary to other Bedouin tribes, the Jebeliya have always been practicing agriculture and are expert gardeners which is evident in the wadis around Saint Catherine. They have lived and still live in a symbiotic relationship with the monastery and its monks, and even today many Bedouin work with the monastery on its compound or in one of its gardens.
The cold weather of the city, specifically in winter nights, made people used to stay at heated homes early, and keen on growing plants which could produce liquids to warm themselves.
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 techniques used are very similar to Byzantine methods, partly because of the natural environment, and 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 mastered grafting where a branch of a higher-yielding lowland variety is planted on a more resistant but low-yielding mountain variety.
A variety of species of plants and crops grow here, such as almond, because of the moderate climate. Other fruits include apple, pear, apricot, peach, fig, pistachio, dates and grapes. Walnut is rare but grown at a few locations. Mulberry 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 essential to the natives, and found in many locations. 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 regular flash floods, retain the soil — thus called "retaining walls" — and protect the garden from wild animals. A number of gardens have water wells, but these wells freeze in winter and sometimes in spring and autumn. Today usually generators pump the water, but many shadoofs can still be seen. Water is often found at higher elevations, either in natural springs or in wells made at dykes called jidda. The Bedouin built small dams and closed off canyons to make reservoirs. In either case water is channelled to small rock pools called birka, from where it was available for irrigation. Water was flown in narrow conduits made of flat rocks sometimes for miles — they are still visible but today gardens rely on plastic pipes (khartoom). These gardens are a unique feature of the high mountain area, along with other stone and rock structures.
Bedouin houses are simple and small stone structures with cane roofing, either incorporated in the garden wall, or standing alone a bit further up from the wadi floor, away from the devastating flash floods that sweep through after occasional heavy rains. Houses are often built next to huge boulders; natural cracks and holes in it are used as shelves and candle holders.
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 easily visible landmarks, such as in Abu Seila or Farsh Rummana, but most are hard to distinguish from the landscape.
Ancient leopard traps can be seen in many places, either under boulders such as in Wadi Talaa, or standing alone as on the top of Abu Geefa. The traps functioned by placing a goat inside as bait, and the entrance was slammed shut with a big rock when a leopard entered. There are no more leopards left in Sinai; the last was spotted in the 1980s.
In many places big boulders can be seen with oval-shaped marks engraved on the surface. They are marriage proposal rocks, where a lover drew a line around his foot on the rock face next to his lover's foot print. If the two marks are encircled, their wish was granted and they got married. Wishing rocks are boulders, usually a short distance from the main paths, with a flat top — according to local legend, if one throws a pebble and it stays on the top, one's wish will come true.