Deep in the mountamous southern reaches of the timeless desert, where religious tradition says God spoke reproachingly to Moses from a burning bush, a more mortal struggle of wills s beginning to unfold, quietly and out of sight of the bustling world beyond the sandy horizon.
For 14 centuries, the Greek Orthodox monastery of St. Catherine, nestled in the shadow of the legendary Moses Mountain, has withstood marauding nomadic tribes, flash floods, earthquakes and the adventurism of the likes of Napoleon Bonaparte, among other invaders.
Secluded in their utter remoteness, St. Catherine's monks have been known to let whole eras go by without notice; a visitor in 1946 was astonished to learn they had not yet heard of World War Ii and that some were unaware of World War I.
The outside world has forced itself on the abbey, however, since the 1967 Six-Day War; as many as 100,000 foreign and Israeli tourists now descend on the black-frocked monks each year.
With the return of this part of the Sinai to Egypt just a month away, the monks are making a desperate bid to protect the aesthetic beauty and solitude of Mt. Sinai from what they fear is an even greater danger -- man's fondness for building monuments to his own achievements. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who has seemed almost preoccupied with Mt. Sinai since the peace negotiations between Egypt and Israel began, has vowed to build there a $60 million "shrine to peace." He plans a mosque, a church and a synagogue, a symbol of unity where believers of the three major monotheistic faiths can pray together.
In an unlikely alliance, the Greek Orthodox archbishop of the Sinai and a well-known Israeli architect from Tel Aviv have joined in a yet-unnoticed campaign to persuade Sadat to change his mind about Mt. Sinai.
Archbishop Damianos, in one of his infrequent interviews with a journalist, said Tuesday he had instructed his church office in Cairo to propose to Sadat the building of a peace shrine -- and its invevitable tourist facilities -- about 25 miles northwest of Mt. Sinai, near an airstrip now used to shuttle tourists to the area.
The site, which has a distant view of Mt. Sinai but is hidden from the view of the monks, was selected by Israel architect Mt. Goodovitch, an avid Sinai aficionado whose best known buildings and monuments are in the desert.
Goodovitch has drawn a futuristic design not of houses of worship, which Damianos maintains would symbolize an unrealistic and undesirable merger of religious faiths, but disparate monuments to peace topped by the Moslem crescent, the cross and the Star of David.
Each monument would consist of massive, irregularly shaped 30-foot-wide steel cylinders from which visitors could gaze upward at the clear desert sky.
While other architects, including Israelis, have scrambled to draw plans for a Mt. Sinai shrine, this is the only one the monastery has approved and the only one known to have been presented to the Egyptians.
The Israeli architect has met here several times with Damianos and, according to the archibishop, has presented the only site with which the monks could comfortably live. Known as Nebi Saleh, the site is at the junction of the monastery road and ancient caravan routes leading from Israel and Egypt. It is on a board plain on which hotels would be built.
Setting out on a tour of the site, the archbishop, an ebullient and seemingly tireless man with a flowing beard, said, "That's the place, I'm sure! I feel like I've known it all the time."
Actually, it was his first visit there and, after a drive at breakneck speed, he jumped from behind the wheel of his jeep and ran excitedly up a steep slope, his black frock flowing behind him.
"This is safe. This is safe," Damianos kept saying, not without giving the impression that any place 25 miles from St. Catherine's would be "safe."
With the signing of the peace treaty last year, the monks were at first enthusiastic about the Sinai's return to Egyptian control. The change seemed to portend fewer and perhaps more decorously dressed tourists.
"We have a duty to history and the sanctity of this place," a monastery spokesman said then, "it is better for us to be in a traditional society. Egyptian women do not show us their arms and their shorts."
But with Sadat's statements about building a shrine of three faiths atop Mt. Sinai -- and his wish to be buried there -- the monks have become increasingly nervous about the future of the granite peak. Sadat's later plan to stage a Roger Vadim-produced entertainment extravaganza there did little to alleviate their fears, although the celebration has been postponed until next year.
The archbishop said he met Monday with Egyptian Sen. Farad Whaba, new governor of the southern Sinai, and other Egyptian officials to discuss the impass. Most of the officials had never seen Mt. Sinai before, the archbishop said, and they seemed to agree that little could be built atop the sharp peak of the mountain, which can be ascended only by the steep stairs hewn out of the rock by monks years ago.
While seemingly aware that the Egyptians could cause the monastery trouble, Damianos talked circumspectly about the pending change of Sinai rule, stressing that the monks had adapted to rule by the crusaders, the Mamelukes, the Ottoman Turks, the Egyptians and the Israelis.
"Everyone lives with hope," he said "We have hope. The monastery has had difficulties before, but we are still here. So we are very optimistic that this holy site will remain as it is."
But he also seemed keenly aware of Sadat's strong sense of symbolism and deep need to secure his place in history -- particularly Islamic history -- as the instigator of the peace treaty.
He also said he was aware that one of Sadat's closest friends, Osman Ahmed Osman, Egypt's biggest building contractor and the most likely overseer of Sadat's long-dreamed-of development of the Sinai, would be influential in future decisions on Moses' mountain.
"We must convince them that the monument to peace does not have to be built at Mt. Sinai. That is not important that it must be built here," the archbishop said.
In fact, Mt. Sinai has little importance to Islam, although it is mentioned in the Koran and classical commentators have depicted it as the mountain where Allah spoke to Musa (Moses) and where the law was given to the children of Israel during their 40 years of wandering from Egypt.
For Jews, however, it is the essence of religious life, and religious Jews mention Moses' confrontation with God several times a day in prayers.
Despite this association, the Israeli government is keeping a low profile in the issue, partly because the actual topographical location of Mt. Sinai is disputed among scholars and also because after Nov. 19, the mountain will be out of Israeli control.