The sixth-century Saint Catherine's Monastery is a treasured Christian pilgrimage site in a region increasingly controlled by ISIS.
SINAI — The intercity bus that left from Cairo gradually empties at every stop on the way, as soldiers and tourism workers return home from their work in the capital. The landscape changes to refineries and oil platforms at sea as the bus enters the Sinai, and the journey is interrupted by multiple military checkpoints, manned by young policemen.
My ultimate destination is Saint Catherine's Monastery, a 6th-century monastery in the Sinai desert, the last Christian stronghold in a peninsula devastated by an ISIS insurgency. Long roiled by attacks targeting the significant Egyptian military presence in the area, the Sinai has become more dangerous since the local ISIS affiliate turned its attention to foreign targets last year.
The new recruits, armed with makeshift iron shields or crouching in deep trenches, rarely see anything but intercity buses like this one driving by. The Sinai is effectively a war zone. They ask where we are headed, and nod us on when we tell them our destination is Saint Catherine's.
After eight hours of driving on empty roads, we reach the resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh, on the southern tip of the peninsula. Eighty hotels have closed here in the last few months, and the city only sees 10% of the tourists it attracted during the golden years of tourism. Since the bombing of a Russian airliner flying from Sharm el-Sheikh to Saint Petersburg last October, even Russian visitors have abandoned the Red Sea resort. Today, only Arab tourists still flock to Sharm, and "burqinis" outnumber bikinis on the city's beaches.
We drive past deep gorges and columns of sand as we continue on to the world's oldest monastery, deep in the Sinai desert. The journey becomes a pilgrimage through the cold air and silence of the night. All of a sudden, early in the morning, the pouring rain gives way to a monastery surrounded by olive and cypress trees.
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Saint Catherine's Monastery panorama — Photo: Egghead06
Next month the monks will harvest the olives and the grapes for the mass wine, in time for Orthodox Easter. Only about 20 monks are left in this ancient monastery built on a biblical site, alone and forgotten in a dangerous region where Christians have increasingly been targeted.
A small door opens in the medieval monastery's thick walls, as the church bells ring to announce the morning mass. A Byzantine church stands beside a mosque, cloisters and several houses, all surrounded by towering walls built at the foot of Mount Sinai. The jagged granite mountain soars into the sky overhead.
The silence is broken by the odd long-haired monk passing by, then it goes quiet again after they disappear in the labyrinthine paths inside the monastery. Tourists no longer come to Saint Catherine's because they're afraid of traveling to the heart of the Sinai. It is the sign of our defeat in the face of fear, for even package tours and tacky souvenirs would be better than the abject silence that reigns over Saint Catherine. Christians have weakly succumbed to fear, abandoning the historic place and leaving it to its own fate. Today, only a few Muslim visitors curiously approach the monastery.
The monastery's beauty is striking not for its opulence but for its ancient simplicity. The basilica's cedarwood doors, carved 13 centuries ago during the reign of Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, are a marvel in the middle of this barren desert. In this relic of history you feel immersed in a simpler, magnificent time, one that feels so distant yet troublingly familiar.