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St. Katherine

South Sinai

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 St. Katherine
St. Katherine Municipality, South Sinai, Egypt
Administration: South Sinai Governorate (El Tur) and St Katherine's City Council
Population: 4,603 (1994)
Elevation: 1586 m (5200 ft)
Coordinates: 28° 33' ; 33° 56'
Districts: El-Matar, Wadi Mandar, Wadi Elagramiah, Wadi Abo Selah, Wadi Asbaeia, Wadi Tarfa, Wadi Sheikh Awwad, Wadi Leboud, Wadi El-Arbaien, Wadi El Marwa, Wadi El-Zeitonah, and Wadi Nabi Saleh

St. Katherine is one of the newest cities in Egypt, with all amenities of a modern place: there are several schools, including a high school, a hospital, police and firebrigade, a range of hotels, Post Office, Telephone Center, bank and all other important establishments. Few decades ago it was not more than the annual gathering place of the Jebeliya Bedouin at El Milga plain and a few more or less temporary settlements. The oldest settlement in the region is Wadi El Sybaiya, east of the Monastery, where the Roman soldiers, whose descendants the Jebeliya are, were accomodated. It started growing into a city after the tarmac road was completed in the 1980s and the tourist trade begun. Many of the nomad Bedouins moved to small settlements around the Monastery, which collectively make up St. Katherine's City. The districts of El Milga, Shamiya, Raha and Nabi Harun form the core of the city, 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 wadi, Wadi Sheikh. There are settlements in Wadi Sheikh before town and other smaller ones in the wadis. The Municipality of St. Katherine includes these outlying areas as well.
The Monastery lies in Wadi el Dier, opposite Wadi Raha (Wadi Muka’das, the Holy Valley). Mt Sinai (Jebel Musa) can be reached from the Monastery or, alternatively, from Wadi el Arbain where the Rock of Moses (Hajar Musa) and the Monastery of the Forty Martyrs are. The High Mountains literally surround the city with many smaller valleys leading from the basin to the mountains in all directions. The high altitude provides a pleasant climate, with refreshing cool summer nights and warm and sunny winter days.

Avarage temperatures in the St.Catherine area

Max C°
Min C°

Practical Info
Bank Misr: in mall, cash advances on Visa and MasterCard.
Sun-Thu 9 AM - 2 PM, 6 PM - 8 PM
Telephone Centrale: opposite Mosque, 24 hrs
Post Office: opposite Mosque, Sun-Thu 9 AM - 4 PM
Hospital: opposite Plaza Hotel, Raha Plain
Police: branches at the Monastery, HQ in El Milga
Hotels: El Milga, Raha Plain, Wadi Sheikh
Shops, Cafés, Restaurants: groceries in every district, hardware and clothes in El Milga, supermarkets in the mall close after midnight, restaurants close around 9 PM
Transport: petrol station (24 hrs), minibus station and bus station in El Milga

Religion: St. Katherine is in a region holy to the World's three major religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is a place where the children of Israel wandered in search of the promised land and where Moses 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 region. Just in the town itself there are two ancient churches, and the Monastery of St. Katherine and the Rock of Moses are only a short distance away.

History: "From time immemorial, Sinai has been one of the world's important crossroads. In the 16th cent. BC, the Egyptian Pharaos built the way of Shur across Sinai to Beersheba and on to Jerusalem." Sinai provided the empire with Turquoise, gold and copper, and well preserved ruins of mines and temples are found not far from St. Katherine at Serabit al-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. This was called the "Land of Turquoise", but its present name, according to some sources, is after Sin, "the moon goddess worshiped by the prehistoric inhabitants of the desert." Romans and Nabateans used its routes and there are Nabatean ruins right in St. Katherine in Wadi Shrayj and in Wadi Raha.
Hagar, wife of Abraham (known as Prophet Ibrahim to Muslims) dwelled with her son not far in Firan Oasis (Wadi Feiran) as mentioned in the Bible (Genesis 21:21). According to traditions Moses, also a prophet to Muslims, lived in the area for 40 years as mentioned in the book of Exodus.

"Moses was discovered as a baby in a papyrus basket floating amongst rushes at the edge of the Nile. The Pharaoh at the time had cammanded that all newborn Hebrew boys be thrown into the Nile, but his daughter found the baby, rescued him and brought him up on the Pharaoh’s court, naming him Moses.

As a young man Moses was sentenced to death for assaulting and killing an Egyptian foreman who had beaten up an Israelite labourer, and to escape execution he fled to the Sinai mountains. Here he met and married one of the seven daughters of Jethro and lived for forty years with his father-in-law, tending his flocks and cleansing his soul. One day god revealed himself to Moses in the Miracle of the Burning Bush and ordered Moses to save the children of Israel from captivity.

God parted the Red Sea to allow the six hundred thousand Israelites to be led to the plain beneath Mount Horeb (now Jebel Musa/Ras Safsaafa). Moses spent 40 days and 40 nights on Mount Sinai, during which time God presented him with two stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments. While waiting for Moses to return, they were visited by Moses’ brother, Aaron, who made them a statue of a golden calf to worship. On returning from Mount Horeb, Moses was so outraged at this worship of an idol that he smashed the tablets. He then returned to the mountain where God instructed him to carve two new tablets. At Moses’ request God also revealed himself in a flash of light, but first He cut a cleft in the rock to shield Moses from His blinding glory.

Exalted, Moses descended the mountain with the new tablets and with instructions from God to lead the people to the Land of Canaan (present day Israel). The Israelites built the Ark of the Covenant to house the tablets, and the Ten Commandments of the Lord became the basis of Jewish and Christian religion and social organization."

Mount Sinai, A Walking Trail Guide - National Parks of Egypt Protectorates Development Programmes

The Israelites are belived to have camped at the foot of Mt. Safsafa at Wadi Raha (meaning the resting place) while Moses climbed the mountain. A rock formation at the foot of Ras Safsafa resembles a cow and is said to be the place where the Golden Calf was made. In the 7th century "another great prophet of Israel, Elijah [Eliyahu], came to this area, seeking refuge from the rage of Queen Jezebel. A cave in a chapel on Mount Moses dedicated to the Prophet is the traditional site where he lodged and spoke with God (1 Kings 19:9-15)."
From early Byzantine times (AD 300 - 700) the area has been home to many Christian monks who escaped persecution. Orthodox Monasticism was strengthened when Christianity became the official religion of the empire and the Monastery was founded. Ruins of Byzantine churches and monastic settlements are found in several locations in and around town, the best preserved ones in the basins of Jebel Ras Safsafa, in Wadi Shrayj and in the area around Bustan el Birka, and scattered all around the High Mountain Region. To protect and serve the Monastery people from the Balkan were brought by Emperor Justinian whose ancestors still live here.
In more recent times Napoleon donated the belltower to the Monastery, and Abbas Hilmi Pasha, Viceroy of Egypt made some constructions in the area, including the camel path to Mt. Sinai and his palace on Jebel Abbas Basha. After independence from the English Sinai became part of Egypt, but was lost to Israel in 1967. Anwar Sadat brokered the peace deal with Israel in Camp David in 1978, for which he payed with his life. He loved Sinai and had a house in St. Katherine as a mountain retreat. To mark the peace a Belgian artist painted huge boulders blue in a desert not far, since called the Blue Desert or Blue Mountain.

Culture: The traditional people of the area, the Jebeliya Bedouin, are a unique people having been brought from Southern-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, Palestine and Egypt. 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 very evident in the wadis around St. Katherine. 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.

Nature: The town is within the St. Katherine Protectorate, which was established in 1988. It is a unique high altitude desert eco-system with many endemic and rare species, including the World's smallest butterfly (the Sinai Baton Blue Butterfly), flocks of shy Nubian Ibex, and literally hundreds of different plants of medicinal value. The region has been decleraed a UNESCO World Heritage Area. Some of the species are endangered, but there are many wild animals, birds, flowers to see. There are many Sinai Agamas, foxes, rock Hyraxes. Harmless for people, foxes regularly visit the town at night to steal and scavange. Rock Hyraxes are frequenting gardens, and there is a wide range of migrating and resident birds. Also, there is a large number of feral donkies in the mountains who migrate to the town and lower lying areas (reportedly as far as El Tur) in the winter and go back to graze for the more plentyful summer. Many of them belong to families and are stamped with a wasm mark. However, they put a big pressure on the eco-system and there is a move to reduce their numbers by the St. Katherine Protectorate. One of the principal goals of the Protectorate is to preserve the bio-diversity of the fragile eco-system, with an emphasis on the Nubian Ibex and the wild medicinal and aromatic plants. The St. Katherine Protectorate is another major job provider in the area, although the number of local Bedouins employed fell back sharply since the innitial EU support ended, according to locals sources.

Geography and Climate: St. Catherine lies at the foot of the Sinai High Mountain Region, the "Roof of Egypt", where Egypt's highest mountains are found. The town itself is at an elevation of 1600 meters (5200 ft), which makes it a pleasant retreat in the hot summer months. Winters, on the other hand, can be cold, but the days are usually sunny enough to feel comfortable outdoors (most locals still wearing only sandals with no socks), but at nights it does get sub-zero temperatures. Some trekking groups however prefer especially the winter season as they find it more comfortable to hike and climb in these conditions. This is the only place in Egypt where it snows on a regular basis, even in the village, although snow remains only in the mountains. Snow is the best source of water as it melts slowly, thus releasing water at a steady pace, replenishing the underwater cachment areas better. Water from rains flows down fast in the barren mountains, which may cause flash-floods and less water remains. Climate change is strongly effecting the area, there are less rains and snows and, although there are still many permanent water sources in the mountains, the area is drying. Old people recall that in olden days there was at least one rain in every 40 days, and even younger people recall how much greener the valleys were. The city 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. There is work under way to connect the town to the Nile via a pipe line which is expected to be completed in 2008.

Facts and Figures

Population Increase in Southern Sinai (1982-1994) and Ministry of Planning Year 2017 Target Populations

St. Katherine
South Sinai
Source: Arcotech-July, 1994 for 1982-93 figs, and ministry of planning for 1994 and 2017 figs

Population of St. Katherine by settlement (1998)

Settlement Population*
El-Oskof El-Hamami
El Ramthi
Settlement Population*
Sheikh Awwad & Gharba
Sebaia (Soweria)
Sebaia (Elbasra)
Sheikh Mohsen
Beiar (EL-Tor)
Nasab (lower)
Nasab ( upper)
Source: Survey carried out by St. Katherine Protectorate
* Population includes men, women and children

Ethnic Composition of South Sinai (1993)

Region Total Population Bedouin Population Bedouin as % of Population
El Tor
Abu Zeneima
Abu Rudeis
St. Katherine
Sharm El Sheikh
Source: Census 1986 and Arcotech- July'1994

"The population of South Sinai accounts for less than 0.1% of Egypt's total. The National Plan expects population to increase from a 1994 base of 39,992 to 672,583 by 2107."

"Assuming a natural growth rate of 3% to the year 2017, the Bedouin population would become a minority in St Katherine's Protectorate dropping to 36% of the total population of the Protectorate, if Ministery of Planning targets are achieved. "


• Dr. Evangelos Papaioannou: The Monastery of St. Catherine - St. Catherine's Monastery
• Mount Sinai, A Walking Trail Guide - National Parks of Egypt Protectorates Development
UNDP Global Environment Facility

 Related Links

St Katherine Protectorate (Important Birds Areas of Egypt)

"Four primary avian habitat-types can be identified in the National Park: mountains, wadis, plains and oases. Mountain habitat includes hilly country and slopes, as well as narrow small wadis, gullies and ravines. These are usually poorly vegetated at lower elevations, although higher up very thin vegetation cover shrouds the mountain slopes and diversity is fairly high. Wadis contain much of the vegetation in the region. However, frequent flash floods render many of the narrow wadis and torrent beds plantless. Several plains and plateaus are found at high altitude. Elwat El Agramya is one of the largest. Some wadi beds, particularly at lower elevations, are very wide and plain-like. The largest and best-known oasis is Feiran. Many orchards and small areas of cultivation are scattered in wadis, particularly at higher elevations. ... The resident bird community of the St Katherine Protectorate includes the majority of Egypt's Sahara-Sindian biome-restricted species. Many of these species are not well represented or are not present at all in any other IBA in Egypt."

BirdLife International

Honor codes of the Bedouin

"Ird is the Bedouin honour code for women. A woman is born with her ird intact, but sexual transgression could take her ird away. Ird is different from virginity, as it is emotional / conceptual. Once lost, ird cannot be regained. [1]
Sharaf is the general Bedouin honor code for men. It can be acquired, augmented, lost and regained. Sharaf involves protection of the ird of the women of the family, protection of property, maintenance of the honor of the tribe and protection of the village (if the tribe has settled down).[1]
Hospitality (diyafa) is a virtue closely linked to Sharaf. If required, even an enemy must be given shelter and fed for some days..."



Information and statistics about the St. Katherine Protectorate and the Bedouin tribes living in the area.

United Nations Development Programme

St Catherine's on the list

"The UNESCO World Heritage Committee added the monastery in Sinai to its list of protected sites at its meeting in Budapest on 28 June. Jill Kamil describes what has been tabled as mixed property -- cultural and natural [...] The first steps to conserve the natural and cultural features of South Sinai were taken back in 1996 when the St Catherine Protectorate was declared under the management of the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (EEAA) and the commission of the European Union. The aim then was to conserve the area by laying down certain rules for visitors. These included respecting the sanctity of the land; protecting its large variety of flora and fauna (some unique to Sinai); forbidding visitors from removing or interfering with animals, plants or rocks; requesting them to dress conservatively when visiting the monastery and to respect the local cultures of the Bedouin (seven different tribes live in or around the protectorate); and ensuring that people remove their litter or place it in the bins provided."

Al Ahram Weekly

St. Catherine

The village of St. Catherine's has more to offer than just Mount Sinai - By Kate Durham

Egypt Today

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