EDITOR’S NOTE (Nick Stamatakis): If you have a passion for Archaeology as I do and faith in Orthodoxy, you cannot help but feel absolute despair and disgust at the development project below at the historic monastery of Saint Catherine’s at Mt. Sinai, Egypt. After seventeen centuries of peaceful co-existence between the Greek Orthodox monks and the Bedouins who protect the monastery, the Egyptian government is now ready to turn it into a tourist site ready to accept thousands of tourists daily!! The place is fairly small and such numbers of people just walking through it will cause great damage…
When will the bureaucrats realize that you cannot industrialize faith? There is a limit to how many people can be accepted as visitors in places like Mt.Athos and St.Catherine’s…
Maybe the Greek Foreign Ministry could intervene? Or the many diplomats of Greece and Israel in the US?
Below is the news from middleeasteye.net along with an older piece by TIME magazine describing the beginning of the problem…
source – www.middleasteye.net
Egypt: South Sinai’s Saint Catherine ‘destroyed’ by new development project
City resident have expressed concern for its future as an ancient heritage site, citing what they describe as its ongoing “destruction” and the lack of a clear vision for its development.
“What is sold to us as development is in fact ruining this ancient and beautiful city,” Ahmed Ali, a tourism worker in his mid-40s and a resident of Saint Catherine, told Middle East Eye.
‘What is sold to us as development is in fact ruining this ancient and beautiful city’
– Ahmed Ali, a tourism worker
“The view to most of the ancient sites of the city will be blocked by the concrete buildings now constructed in it within the new development project.”
People like Ali are taking to social media to share their opinions with both fellow Egyptians and the authorities.
Some of the photos they have posted show important parts of the city being razed to the ground.
One resident said he can see nothing but bulldozers pulling down important parts of the city, including ancient buildings, and substituting them with blocks of concrete that do nothing but deface Saint Catherine.
Another said the city has turned into a place full of dust and rubble that seems nothing like the city he has known for many years.
Called the “Great Transfiguration”, the development project for Saint Catherine is personally sponsored by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
It aims to capitalise on the importance of the city for the adherents of three religions – Islam, Christianity, and Judaism – by turning it into a major spiritual attraction.
Egyptian authorities started implementing the Great Transfiguration project last year, putting into effect a plan that will see the construction of dozens of new facilities and infrastructure projects.
Most of the facilities will be constructed in the areas around Mount Sinai and the Saint Catherine Monastery, which is almost the oldest functioning monastery in the world.
One element of the project is the construction of a spiritual shrine on the mountains surrounding the city’s Holy Valley, according to Egyptian Housing Minister Assem al-Jazzar.
The development project aims to link important sites, like the al-Tor Mountains, with other parts of Sinai, including the Red Sea resorts of Sharm el-Sheikh and Dahab, through a modern road network, according to the minister.
However, Assem al-Jazzar said that the development project for Saint Catherine would not interfere with its environmental or visual nature.
“The project will originally aim to protect the nature of the city, which qualifies it to become an international destination for spiritual tourism,” he said.
The city’s development would include a hydrological study to protect Saint Catherine against floods in the future, according to information released by the government about the project.
It will also include an upgrade of the Saint Catherine Monastery, the restoration of some churches inside the monastery, the introduction of a new lighting system in the city and the surroundings of the monastery, the introduction of small golf electric cars to ease the movement of the city’s visitors, and the construction of a series of bazaars and convenience stores that sell different products to visitors, including Bedouin attires and handmade products.
‘The project will put the city on the tourism map once more, a long time after it suffered neglect and was shunned by tourists because of the lack of the necessary services’
– Talaat al-Anani, head of Saint Catherine City Council
“This is one of the most important development projects to be implemented in the whole of Sinai,” Saint Catherine City Council head, Talaat al-Anani, told MEE.
“The project will put the city on the tourism map once more, a long time after it suffered neglect and was shunned by tourists because of the lack of the necessary services in it.”
According to Anani, four billion Egyptian pounds (roughly $256m) have been specified for the first phase of the development project, which should be completed by June this year.
A similar amount of money would be allocated to the second phase of the development project, which should be completed by the end of this year as well, he added.
Saint Catherine is located in the southern part of Sinai, a territory in the northeastern part of Egypt, which shares borders with Israel and the Palestinian Gaza Strip.
The city is surrounded by sites of great importance to Christians, Muslims, and Jews, including the al-Tor Mountains, Mount Sinai, and Saint Catherine Monastery.
In 2002, Unesco declared the city, which is inhabited by around 10,000 people, a World Heritage site.
Christians and Muslims believe that Mount Sinai was the place where Moses received the Ten Commandments from God.
Saint Catherine is also believed to be a place where early Christianity flourished.
The monastery is by far the most important place in the city. It is believed to have been established in 530 CE by Byzantine emperor Justinian I.
The monastery is also believed to have provided refuge to Christians at different historical phases, especially during the 7th century.
During the Islamic conquest of Egypt, Muslims had special respect for Christian houses of worship, leaving the monastery intact.
This probably encouraged monastery monks to welcome Muslim soldiers and construct a small mosque for them near the monastery.
The mosque is still functional, giving Sinai’s Bedouins and Muslim visitors a place where they can perform their prayers.
Most of the monastery is still intact, retaining its original appearance since the 6th century.
Some of the icons of the Saint Catherine Monastery were painted before the 8th century. The library of the monastery, which was established 1945, contains thousands of the world’s oldest manuscripts.
The city’s residents blame the ongoing development project for replacing the original and ancient character of the area with modern buildings made of concrete that will erase its value as an ancient site.
“This is why we reject this so-called development project,” Yasmine al-Kashef, another city resident, told MEE. “The project will just obliterate the city’s identity.”
Al-Kashef and other residents refer to the destruction of dozens of old trees to give way for the construction of new roads.
‘This is why we reject this so-called development project. The project will just obliterate the city’s identity’
– Yasmine al-Kashef, resident
They specifically talk about the construction of a new road between al-Tor Mountains and Saint Catherine.
The road is expected to cut the distance between the two points, making it easier for people to travel between them.
“Is this worth the destruction of this important area?” one of the residents of the city asked.
Another resident called on city lovers to hurry up and visit it before it is totally destroyed.
“We wake up every day to discover that some buildings have been demolished and others made of cement constructed instead of them,” the resident said. “Those who want to see what remains of the city should hurry up and visit it now.”
Nonetheless, city officials say the city is being developed as planned. They deny what they describe as “claims” that the city is being destroyed.
The official spokesman of the Ministry of Housing did not return calls by MEE for a comment.
Nonetheless, Suleiman Etewei, a representative of the city in the House of Deputies (lower chamber of parliament), described what is going on in Saint Catherine as a “comprehensive modernisation process”.
He said the project, which includes a large number of infrastructure and service projects that will benefit the city’s visitors and residents, would turn Saint Catherine into an international, environmentally friendly city.
“What is being said about the destruction of the city has nothing to do with reality,” Etewei told MEE. “People should wait until the project is completed, instead of jumping to baseless conclusions.”
A billboard on a road six miles north of Sinai’s Monastery of St. Catherine says, “At this site will be 500 villas, a tourist village with 250 rooms, two hotels with 400 rooms, shopping center, school and hospital, supplied by all facilities.” The “great and terrible wilderness” described by Deuteronomy is on its way to becoming a tourist trap.
The pilgrim will no longer have to make the 2 1/2-hour climb from the monastery, on the steep steps carved in rock by Byzantine monks who began the task in the 6th century. Unless better angels intervene, there is to be a cable car to whisk the pilgrim up the volcanic rock. At the upper terminus, according to one plan, he will find a restaurant, a casino (which in Egypt is not a gambling house but a nonalcoholic nightclub) and probably an asphalt walkway lighted at night to take the visitor to where Moses and God met.
“In other parts of Africa,” the author Paul Bowles remarked, “you are aware of the earth beneath your feet, of the vegetation and the animals; all power seems concentrated in the earth. In North Africa the earth becomes the less important part of the landscape because you find yourself constantly raising your eyes to look at the sky. In the arid landscape the sky is the final arbiter.” Is that the reason the three great monotheisms (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) were born in the desert, the reason that all the specialized deities left the earth and went into the upper air to coalesce into one invisible God?
The Lord “descended upon ((Mount Sinai)) in fire,” Exodus records. The Lord gave the Law to Moses there: “And all the people saw the thunderings, and the lightnings, and the noise of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking . . .” Today a visitor sees the massive granite front of Horeb that rises perpendicularly out of moonscape and in the autumn and winter months may be surrounded by sudden clouds, thunder, lightning and lashing rains.
“Whosoever toucheth the mount shall surely be put to death,” said the Lord. For over 3,000 years, the occupiers of the Sinai peninsula, from Justinian to the Prophet Muhammed to Abdel Nasser and Golda Meir, took the site under their protection. Mount Sinai is enclosed in a convective divinity that is primitive and powerful. The mountain seems to gather thousands of years into a prismatic clarity. The Egyptian Ministry of Housing and Reconstruction, however, is not awed.
The tourist pressure has been building for years. Today some 30,000 visitors a year come to Mount Sinai. Most arrive in buses from Cairo or else take a twice weekly Air Sinai flight that lands at an airstrip built by the Israelis during their occupation. If the Egyptian government’s plans go according to projections, some 565,000 tourists — an almost 1,800% increase — will arrive every year. What is wrong with that? That part of the Sinai is a wilderness populated mostly by Bedouins and the 17 Greek Orthodox monks at St. Catherine’s monastery. Egypt urgently needs hard currency. The other tourist sites, the pyramids at Giza, the temples at Luxor, are overwhelmed by foreigners. Why not open up a sluice of tourism to the Sinai?
There are three irretrievable losses waiting here.
The first is to the monks of the Greek Orthodox monastery. St. Catherine’s sits in a wadi at the foot of Mount Sinai. For 14 continuous centuries, the monks have prayed there. Since the middle of the 6th century they have placed the skulls and bones of dead monks in the monastery’s charnel house. In one corner of the monastery, surrounded by a protective wall, is what tradition says is the Burning Bush, a large, dense bramble whose leaves have been coming out olive green for 3,000 years. The monks’ medieval tradition of hospitality to the wayfarer was never meant to accommodate tour buses. The volume of tourism is exhausting the monks. Increasing the load of visitors to an average of 1,500 a day would swamp the monastery. The monks might have to close down. ! Or perhaps the government could hire people to impersonate monks — a sort of Williamsburg pageantry. (Do prayers performed by impostors have any spiritual voltage?) Or the government might make the monastery a museum. Or a hotel. What would the ministry do with the skulls?
The second loss would be to the environment. There are 812 species of plants in the Sinai, half of them found in the high mountains around St. Catherine’s. Of those, 27 are endemic, found nowhere else in the world, according to Joseph Hobbs, a University of Missouri geographer who has studied nature on the massif. Ibex browse and graze on Mount Sinai, virtually tame, because the Bedouins never hunt them, regarding the territory as sacred. The contemplated tourism would arrive in that nature like a neutron bomb.
The third catastrophe would be visited upon the idea of sanctity itself. No one would propose to raze the old city of Jerusalem, which contains some of the holiest sites of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, in order to make way for parking lots and discotheques. But because Mount Sinai is mere raw nature, somehow it is more vulnerable to the idea of “development” — a business word suggesting (ridiculously in this case) improvement.
Somewhere this bulldozing desanctification for money must end. If the attraction of Mount Sinai is its holy wilderness, and even the physical effort required to approach it, tourist development threatens to destroy the uniqueness and transcendence of the pilgrimage. The Egyptians are often haphazard about protecting their dead treasures. Now they seem ready to sacrifice a powerful, living mountain that is in their care. Perhaps they will make the cable cars in the shape of calves and gild them. The golden calves can slide up and down Mount Sinai and show God who won.