The Sinai is one of the Middle East’s most iconic deserts: a wild, elemental landscape that resonates with legend, history and a rich, living Bedouin culture. The Sinai Trail winds through the heart of this desert, connecting a network of old travelling routes and taking hikers on an epic journey between continents. The Sinai is a place like no other; a great passage land through which people have been walking for millennia. From start to finish, from the Gulf of Aqaba to the Roof of Egypt, the Sinai Trail is dotted with highlights; some of best known are described below, but there are plenty more. We’ll leave you to discover the rest of them yourself. Some of them well hidden, so remember to keep your eyes peeled…
Ein Hudera: The Green Spring
One of the Sinai’s prettiest, most fabled oases, Ein Hudera huddles below towering bronze cliffs. European explorers said this was the Biblical Hazeroth, whilst old Bedouin legends – still told in the oasis today – claim a secret door connects it to a store of treasure hidden deep in the earth. Ein Hudera was once a watering point for pilgrim caravans travelling between Jerusalem and Mount Sinai; also for Muslim pilgrims crossing the Sinai on the Hajj to Mecca. Today, it is home to several Bedouin families of the Muzeina tribe, each of which owns a small plot of land, growing dates, olives and zizyphus fruit and offering basic lodgings to travellers. It is one of the most popular spots on the Sinai Trail and the perfect place to take a hiking break, roughly half way between the Gulf of Aqaba and St Katherine.
There are lots of spots to explore. Highlights include the Closed Canyon, a winding canyon between high walls, and the White Canyon; a chasm filled with white, powder puff sand. There are good scrambles up nearby peaks like Jebel Rum too. The oasis is a 45-60 minute walk from the main road between St Katherine, Nuweiba and Dahab.
Hajar Maktoob & Wadi Hajjaj
Hajar Maktoob means The Rock of Inscriptions or The Written Rock in Arabic. Standing in Wadi Hajjaj – Valley of the Pilgrims – it was a famous passing point on old caravan routes, including the pilgrim trail to the Monastery of St Katherine. Armenian, Syriac and Greek writing – mostly recording the names of early pilgrims – plus Christian symbols, like crucifixes and fishes, cover the rock today. Wander the wadi more widely and you’ll find inscriptions that predate this graffiti. The most common inscriptions in Wadi Hajjaj are Nabataean. Thousands of Nabataean inscriptions have been recorded across the Sinai and many remain undocumented. The Nabataeans traded through the peninsula around 2000 years ago, and their script remained in use in the Sinai until the 2nd or 3rdcenturies AD.
Often, Nabataean and pilgrim graffiti are next to each other, on the same rocks. Many Christians made their marks by Nabataean script believing it to be the scrawls left by Moses and his people in the Exodus. For centuries, Nabataean script remained unknown; its origins were correctly identified by scholars only in the 19th century.
The Blue Mountain (or Blue Desert)
The Sinai is famous for red rock mountains. Some writers claim it is from the Sinai’s red mountains – and those on the other side of the Gulf of Suez, in mainland Egypt – that the Red Sea takes its name. Just a short way from St Katherine though, at the foot of these red rock mountains, the rocks are a vivid shade of blue. Scattered across a huge sloping plain, these rocks were painted by Belgian artist Jean Verame to celebrate the return of the Sinai to Egypt after peace with Israel. Verame spent two years trying to get approval from the Egyptian authorities, before President Mohammed Anwar Sadat – Egypt’s peace maker himself – intervened to give his personal approval. With presidential permission, plus 10 tonnes of UN-donated paint, Verame began in 1980 and finished in a year. The paint is beginning to crack and peel, but it still holds; just like peace in the Sinai.
As the Sinai Trail winds through the barren lowland deserts, it can sometimes feel like green is a forbidden colour. This begins to change near St Katherine: green shrubs dot the mountainsides and in the wadis, big clusters of green appear in walled enclosures. These are the mountain orchards of the Sinai, with everything from apricots to pomegranates, pears and almonds. Many orchards date back to early Christian times; thereafter, they were tended to by local Bedouin, mostly of the Jebeleya tribe. This tribe built seasonal migrations around the orchards, using them for food and trade. Cultivation of settled plots was rare in the Sinai and these orchards gave a point of difference between the Jebeleya and other tribes.
Though once central to Jebeleya life, the orchards are now in decline. Bedouin lifestyles have been re-framed around wage-paying occupations since Israel’s occupation of the Sinai and the gardens are expensive to maintain, unable to compete with imports from the Nile Valley. Once, there were over 400 orchards; today, less than 40 are active. Some are now diversifying, styling themselves as ecolodges as well as orchards. Tourism on the Sinai Trail can be key to their survival.
Mount Sinai or Jebel Musa, as it’s known by the Bedouin of the Sinai, is one of the world’s holiest summits: perhaps holy to more people – over a longer time – than any mountain on earth. This is where Jews, Christians and Muslims believe God spoke with Moses, giving him a set of divine laws. Pilgrims have been visiting Mount Sinai for well over 1500 years and it remains popular today. This is the most popular mountain in the Sinai, or anywhere else in Egypt. A small chapel, built in the 20th century from the ruined blocks of a Byzantine church, crowns the summit. Next door is a small mosque, below which there’s a hollow where it’s said Moses once sheltered. These are two of the many historic sites on the mountain. The Sinai Trail takes hikers well off the beaten tourist routes to show a mountain of ancient hermit cells, ruined chapels, wells and orchards.
The mountain known as Mount Sinai today wasn’t always regarded as the true Mount Sinai of religious legend. In early centuries, Christians thought it was Jebel Serbal, a peak 60km away. Others thought it was in North Sinai; a summit like Jebel Hallal or Jebel Maghara. The current peak’s status as the holy summit was only secured with the construction of the Monastery of St Katherine at its foot in the 6th century.
Jebel Katherina is the highest peak in Egypt at 2642m and – like Mount Sinai – it’s another holy mountain. It is named after St Katherine of Alexandria: the young pagan-turned-convert to Christianity from Alexandria, killed by the Romans in the 4th century. Legend has it angels carried her body to the Sinai, laying her to rest on its highest summit. For centuries, the whereabouts of her remains went unknown; then, one day in the 9th century, their location was revealed in a heaven-sent dream to a monk. Monks from the Monastery of St Katherine climbed the mountain, bringing the holy bones down for safekeeping. They are one of the monastery’s greatest treasures today and the monastery itself was renamed the Monastery of St Katherine after their discovery (it started as the Monastery of St Mary).
A small chapel stands on the top of Jebel Katherina today, in memory of St Katherine. Look closely and you’ll see nearby rocks covered with the pilgrim graffiti, old and modern. Further south is a twin peak, with two masts on the top. This is usually referred to as Jebel Katherina too – although some call it Jebel Zebir – and it’s the higher of the two summits (2642m). Whichever peak you ascend, you’ll enjoy one of the most iconic views in the Sinai. On a good day you can gaze out over the sea to both Africa and Asia.
Monastery of St. Katherine
The Monastery of St Katherine is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most iconic features of the Sinai’s rich historical landscape. It stands in the bottom of a rugged valley – at the foot of Mount Sinai – and marks the spot where legend has it God spoke to Moses from a Burning Bush. It was built some 1500 years ago, on the orders of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, and many scholars claim it’s the oldest working Christian monastery in the world. When you see the monastery from outside, with its high walls and corner towers, it looks more like a fortress than a religious institution: but behind these walls, sanctity and tranquillity unfolds, especially outside busy visiting times. Next to the monastery’s main church is a small mosque, built in the 11th century for Muslim visitors.
The Monastery of St Katherine remains a working institution and is home to around 20 monks. These monks follow Orthodox Christianity – reflecting the monastery’s Byzantine origins – and live much like their predecessors, building daily chores around a schedule of prayer and reflection. As important to the monastery’s survival as anybody has been the local Bedouin tribe: the Jebeleya, some of whom claim descent from Christian soldiers who left Europe to protect the monastery shortly after its construction.
Many Jebeleya tribesmen are still employed by the monastery and have guarded it through the turbulent times of Egypt’s revolutions in recent years, honouring the same vow of protection their ancestors took.
Visitor information: Open 8.45am-11.30am every day except Sundays. Fridays only 10.45am-11.30am. Closed on public Egyptian holidays & Orthodox religious festivals.