A sacred valley leads you to a religions complex surrounded by mountains in St. Catherine, the city in the center of South Sinai located on a plateau 1,600 meters above sea level.
With every step taken in this holy city, you see more of its charm. At the entrance of the city there is a picture of St.Catherine, the saint after whom the city was called. Next to it is a picture of the city’s main mosque. Underneath the picture you will read the verses from the Quran that tell the story of God speaking to Moses.
Unlike other tourist cities in Sinai, St. Catherine is a religious destination that has ancient monuments from the three Abrahamic religions. It hosts Mount Sinai, the Tomb of Aaron and the St. Catherine's Monastery, one of the oldest monasteries in the world built in the sixth century AD.
The whole city is a natural reserve. Its houses are built at the foot of the mountain, as if they have sprouted from it. And the people are used to visitors. They will welcome you with a friendly smile. They are mostly from the Al-Gibaliya tribe.
Many of the children from the Al-Gibaliya tribe are called Moses. They are closely linked to the monastery, as most of them have voluntarily worked in it at some stage or received services from it for free. It is a relationship of mutual respect between the monks of the monastery and the residents of the city.
Mohammed Salem Suleiman, a tribesman who owns the oldest cafeteria in the city, told us that Sheikh Shaarawy, the revered Islamic preacher, took off his shoes when he visited the city because it is a holy land.
“Most of the city's residents depend on tourism,” he said. “Thousands of tourists come here every year, even when the city was under the Israeli occupation.”
He called for a national campaign to promote domestic tourism to the city. “It makes no sense that foreigners know St. Catherine and Egyptians do not,” he said.
Farag Saleh of the same tribe told us about his experience when he worked at the monastery. “I was 11 years old. I took tourists on a camel ride to the mountain,” he said.
“This mountain over there is Mount St. Catherine. It is the highest here,” he said. “And that mountain is called Mount Abbas Pasha. It was chosen by Khedive Ibrahim Abbas to build a hospital on it. Do you know that if you put a piece of raw meat up there in the open it would not spoil?”
“And this is Mount Safsafa,” he said. “The city is surrounded by mountains but tourists only visit Mount St. Catherine and Mount Sinai. They come again and again. Like Martina, an Italian tourist. She comes here every year. And Kosmos, a German, has been living here for 10 years.”
Mohamed is a cook who settled here in 2010 and opened a restaurant after 20 years of living in Italy, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands. “People here are nice and easy to deal with,” he said.
Edited translation from Al-Masry Al-Youm