Amid the high mountains of Egypt's southern Sinai Peninsula stands Jebel Musa, "Mount Moses," revered by most Christians and Muslims as Mount Sinai. (Jewish tradition holds that Mount Sinai should remain terra incognita, unlocated, and does not associate it with this mountain.) In this fascinating study, Joseph Hobbs draws on geography and archaeology, Biblical and Quranic accounts, and the experiences of people ranging from Christian monks to Bedouin shepherds to casual tourists to explore why this mountain came to be revered as a sacred place and how that very perception now threatens its fragile ecology and its sense of holy solitude.
After discussing the physical characteristics of Jebel Musa and the debate that selected it as the most probable Mount Sinai, Hobbs fully describes all Christian and Muslim sacred sites around the mountain. He views Mount Sinai from the perspectives of the centuries-long inhabitants of the region—the monks of the Monastery of St. Katherine and the Jabaliya Bedouins—and of tourists and pilgrims, from medieval Europeans to modern travelers dispirited by Western industrialization.
Hobbs concludes his account with the recent international debate over whether to build a cable car on Mount Sinai and with an unflinching description of the negative impact of tourism on the delicate desert environment. His book raises important, troubling questions for everyone concerned about the fate of the earth's wild and sacred places.
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On May 22, 1989, I sat beneath a cypress tree outside the walls of the Monastery of St. Katherine, speaking with one of the monks of that ancient institution at the foot of Christianity's traditional Mount Sinai. Father Makarios and I had just met, and becoming acquainted we talked about politics, weather, and wildlife. Did the fingers of cirrus cloud mean rain was coming? No, he said, and the monastery had not seen much rainfall this year, although a few miles away in at-Tarfa there had been more. Egypt was readmitted to the Arab League yesterday, I told him, thinking news probably came slowly to this remote place. Had he seen many snakes around the monastery? He had not. The monks do not pay much attention to animals, he said, adding that very few of the many tourists who visit the monastery take an interest in nature, either. The area's tourist developers never take the environment into account, he complained. The priest pointed at what he called "unsightly" telephone wires strung down Wadi ad-Dayr, the valley in which the monastery sits. He said that the sprawling hotel complex on the Plain of ar-Raaha, where the Wadi ad-Dayr empties, occupies the sacred place where the Israelites camped while Moses met with God on nearby Mount Sinai. The monks, who claim the plain as their own, had protested the hotel construction to Egyptian officials. The government responded by insisting that the monks owned no more than a 60-meter perimeter around their monastery. Father Makarios mused sarcastically, "Someday they will build a funicular up Mount Sinai."
On June 21 I met with an official of the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency at his office on the island of Gezira in Cairo. I had known him for many years and was surprised by his stern, businesslike manner that morning. Without the usual exchange of questions about health and family he asked my opinion about a project cost-benefit description that had just come across his desk. A funicular was to be built on Jebel Musa (Arabic, "Mount Moses")—the monks' Mount Sinai—and it required his agency's approval. This aerial cable car would run from the hotel on the Plain of ar-Raaha to the western end of the mountain, the proposal read, "to allow the old and infirm pilgrims to have access to the site, and to promote tourism." From the mountain terminus a paved pathway would lead walkers to the summit of Mount Sinai. When completed the project would attract 565,000 tourists yearly. My colleague objected. What would happen to the mountain's unique plant life? What would become of the waste all those visitors would create? Where would their water supply come from? What did I think?
On July 4 I greeted Father Makarios and we sat under our cypress tree. "I bring you bad tidings," I told him, relating what I had learned in Cairo. He reacted as if someone had struck him. Later I thought of something the Byzantine historian Procopius had written in the sixth century when the Monastery of St. Katherine was built: "A precipitous and terribly wild mountain, Sina by name, rears its height close to the Red Sea. On this Mount Sina live monks whose life is a kind of careful rehearsal of death, and they enjoy without fear the solitude which is very precious to them." Already besieged by up to fifty thousand tourists each year, the monks would certainly lose whatever solitude they still enjoyed. "If they do this we are finished," Father Makarios said.
In the months which followed I traveled between the Sinai and Cairo speaking with a variety of people about this mountain and what might happen to it. There was a wide range of opinion. My environmentalist colleague defended Jebel Musa as vulnerable natural habitat. The director of his agency, who approved of the tramway project, insisted that Mount Sinai was just "a geological structure" which construction could not harm. The monks of St. Katherine saw the mountain as a sacred landscape on which such building would be sinful. The area's indigenous Jabaliya Bedouins, who also revere the mountain, objected to the project. Tourists and pilgrims I spoke to rejected the funicular with dismay and disdain.
No one spoke impassively of the mountain and its future. As word of the proposed development spread, the tramway on Mount Sinai became a contentious issue that involved the diplomatic community in Cairo, the international news media, and Egypt's president. The debate brought into sharp focus several difficult definitions and choices that people would have to make. Should there be some distinction between ordinary and sacred places? In a shrinking world what is to become of the wild and special places which are the common heritage of humanity? If unique places can generate tourist revenue how might tourism development avoid spoiling them? How many visitors should be allowed? Is there a difference between pilgrims and tourists, and should they be treated differently? What rights do traditional people have to decide how land should be used? As they read newspaper articles about the Mount Sinai cable car controversy, people around the world reflected on the question "Is nothing sacred?"
There is no universal human reaction of reverence to any spot on earth. Nevertheless sacred places do exist. Believers feel their power and nonbelievers who experience otherworldly sensations at them become believers. Just curious or driven by tourism's "must-see" compulsion, others visit holy places and feel nothing at all unusual; Jebel Musa is just a mountain.
In the setting of its neighboring peaks Jebel Musa is low and undistinguished. But for many people this is one of Earth's greatest mountains. Almost 2,000 years of human experience have enlarged and elevated it. Christian hermits on the trail of the Exodus discovered and protected the mountain's holy places. Byzantine monks and Bedouin shepherds landscaped this granite mass reverently, placing chapels and mosques on its holy sites and observing taboos against harming the mountain. Pilgrims came from as far away as Spain as early as the fourth century, arriving on bended knees and departing with joyous hearts. Travelers came, some of them scholars, others spies and thieves. They wrote about the mountain and its monastery. They brought the world's attention to this unique place but also stole its sense of isolation and some of its cultural treasures. Tourists came in their wake. They have been a mixed blessing. They have spread knowledge of Mount Sinai to the ends of the earth, further enlarging its reputation. They have also invited grand schemes that would change the appearance and the character of Jebel Musa forever.
"Above all else, sacred place is 'storied place,'" wrote theologian Beldon Lane. This book is the story of Mount Sinai. Lane suggested that in our triumphs of history over nature, time over space, and technical mastery of the land over a gentle reverence for life, we have been left exhausted as masters of a world stripped of magic and mystery. Perhaps by telling the stories of the beliefs and experiences that have sanctified Mount Sinai this book will recover some of the ebbing spirit of the place and revitalize those who would care for it.
"Hobbs' book faithfully evokes the natural beauty and religious impact of this exotic locale."
"It is anthropology, geography, history, botany, detective story, Bible study and religious tract, biography, autobiography, travel guide, and finally propaganda for environmental protection.... [and] it succeeds effortlessly in combining all of them smoothly, interestingly, and readably into a neat package."
—Colbert C. Held, Baylor University