But a violent insurgency and military crackdown sweeping across Egypt’s northern Sinai peninsula has brought an unwelcome quiet to the south, where the Bedouin tribes make their money from tourists.
In August, the Egyptian government closed St. Catherine’s Monastery to visitors as a precaution. It was only the third closure in 50 years. While the monastery reopened its doors again after three weeks, Egyptian security forces are now everywhere, shepherding the handful of foreigners into the area in armed convoys.
The monks at the monastery, and the Bedouin who make their living as guides here, stress that the violence is taking place 300 miles to the north.
In the northern Sinai, the restive tribes have been sabotaging natural gas pipelines, and smuggling weapons, drugs and gasoline through their network of tunnels with the Gaza Strip. In the power vacuum created by Egypt’s upheaval, the Bedouin there have raised the black flag for militant jihad, and are waging a guerrilla campaign of extortion, kidnapping and targeted assassination against the powers of the state.
Militants in the north have launched near-daily attacks on Egyptian security forces. In August, gunmen ambushed trucks carrying Egyptian police recruits and executed 25 on the side of a road near a peacekeepers’ checkpoint.
But in the south, the Bedouin tell their children the story of how the Roman emperor Justinian brought their tribe of mason-warriors to the Sinai in the sixth century to build the walled monastery here, and protect the monks with their lives.
“We teach our children that the monastery gives us life,” said Suleman Gebaly, a guide and local chronicler. “This place puts food on our table.”
The descendants of these Justinian serfs continue to honor their task, and so do the monks in black frocks, with their long gray beards and ponytails, who devote their days to vespers and prayer and to their magnificent library, which preserves in the high desert air some of the oldest, most precious manuscripts in Christendom.
Industrial tourism came to the monastery with the building of paved highways in the early 1980s. Until recently, the monastery drew throngs — sometimes 350 tour buses a day, a thousand visitors or more — from the beach resorts at Taba, Dahab and Sharm el-Sheik along the Red Sea coast, a diver’s paradise.
Now one or two buses come a day. On a recent morning there was a tour group from India, and later a few stragglers in a couple of vans.
Camel drivers who bring visitors on the three-hour climb to the top of Mount Sinai say they are desperate for work.