An Encounter with the Spirit of Sinai
“To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.” William Blake
I’ve adored these famous lines ever since I first came across them. They put words to something I had experienced myself – a sense of deep connection with the universe – and conjured up a feeling of shared knowing that can dispel any notion of loneliness. And there we were, a group from the Eden Project in Cornwall, travelling to meet some of those most celebrated of loners, the Bedouin, and their Sinai desert home. As we were to find out, they do not feel alone. They feel very much connected.
We’d long since left the Taba – Nuweiba highway. The openness of Sinai’s eastern coast had given way to increasingly narrow and steep-sided wadis as we entered the rugged and roadless interior. It had grown dark, dusty – and very bumpy. We were alone now. Or so it seemed. The jeep’s headlights were suddenly cut by a diminutive, shrouded figure. We slowed and stopped. “Welcome to the desert. Come… share some tea with us. Leave your baggage here… all of it.”
Having gone a long way on trust as it was – the plans for the week were still a complete mystery – we regarded it as a fair call. We would leave the ‘real’ world behind and continue our journey under the guidance of The Makhad Trust, an organisation committed to conserving and celebrating nomadic cultures around the world. ‘Makhad’ is Arabic for ‘a meeting’. Gathered around the nearby campfire with our Bedouin hosts, the timeless and placeless ritual of taking tea became our common bond in this alien setting, the super sweet brew soothing our souls.
This bond would only grow stronger as the setting became more familiar. We would spend the next week living, travelling and working with the local Bedouin tribes, the original denizens of the Sinai. We were to become nomads, if only for a while, reversing the cultural exchange of millenia.
As we fell asleep under the stars that first night, our cares had already started to melt away, like meteorites under the spell of gravity. Some of our group even eschewed the traditional goat’s-skin tent, following the lead of the rug-bound locals, pitching their sleeping bags on open ground. The simple life.
Our first few days were spent experiencing the true essence of the Sinai desert, getting under the skin of this extraordinary landscape that is more rock than sand. As we explored, our modern selves flaked under the sun, just as the ancient rocks around us slowly exfoliated their own past histories. We travelled millions of years in minutes, from the limestone of an ancient sea that caps the highest peaks (a fossil hunter’s paradise), down through sandstones and on to metamorphic rocks from the dawn of this planet. It became second nature to sense this weight of history and natural to be light of thought in its presence. On returning to camp one night, we were greeted by the strangest of sights and sounds. As the gutteral moans echoed around the small valley, it was easy to mistake their sources in the campfire shadows for prehistoric beasts. They were merely our newly arrived camels, with the hump.
As we roved around on foot or by camel familiar patterns emerged everywhere before us, bearing witness to the self-similarity of the universe, what Chaos theorists might describe as fractals. A contour map on a weathered rock here, desert wildflowers creating a savannah woodland in miniature there. Typical way-markers for the Bedouin, it was easy for us to get lost in either. Blake’s lines were never clearer though. Timeless, flowing process begets form upon form, upon form. It is not easy for the human mind to grasp such things completely, but they can certainly be glimpsed; moments of clarity that render your credit card bill immaterial. And over time, as with floodwaters down a wadi, they gradually shape your being.
So, having gotten a feel for the natural history of the region, it was on to Mt. Sinai itself to experience more of the cultural history. A focus for three of the world’s great religions – Judaism, Islam and Christianity – it rises to 7500 ft. amidst the more mountainous south of the Peninsula. Around its base can be found some of the few traditional fixed settlements in Sinai, a legacy of thousands of years of pilgrimage and symbiosis.
Having arrived late the previous night our first glimpse of the great mountain was filtered through fresh almond blossom and framed by the intense blue of a crisp desert morning. We had slept in one of several gardens maintained by Bedouin families for the local monks and pilgrims, sleeping bags scattered amongst the terraced fruit trees and vegetable plots. Fed by harvested rainwater it seemed a veritable oasis in this otherwise barren landscape (the bleakness due as much to overgrazing by the local goats as to extremes of climate). Fresh rocket grew just feet from where I lay; I couldn’t resist this breakfast first, especially as it complemented the bean stew and flatbread prepared for us by our hosts.
Energised we started our ascent, following in the footsteps of countless souls. It’s a relatively straightforward climb (especially in the cooler spring temperatures) and is thus, in these days of mass tourism, somewhat of a honey pot. For this reason we avoided the summit with its small chapel and crowds, heading instead for a saddle a little way beneath. Here we were encouraged to immerse ourselves in the breathtaking scenery that lay around: off we went individually to find solace in our earthly lives amidst the rocky flanks of this holy mountain. As the minutes and hours passed I think we all became what Emerson described as that ‘transparent eyeball’: “I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the universal Being circulate through me; I am part and parcel of God.” Whatever you conceived him to be, it seemed true. And the omnipresent sound of silence bore no contradiction.
As the sun drew closer to the horizon we returned from our isolation and listened as the storyteller amongst us read a passage from Exodus. It could equally have been from the Koran… even A. N. Other, poet. Everything was suddenly laden with meaning as we reaffirmed our humanity. It was as if a new dawn of experience was rising in each and every one of us. Just as a western sunset births an eastern sunrise, it was merely a matter of perspective. Maybe that’s the draw of sunsets – the opportunity to commune with something that is so much bigger than us, but of which we are a part, and on which we rely.
Darkness came, ushering us off the mountain. We were to descend the opposite side, down the famed Stairs of Repentance (all 3700 of them). I believe you are supposed to repent your sins on the way up. The narrow, precipitous route made it all the more believable. In the half-light of a rising moon, it felt like we were passing through a scene from the Lord of the Rings; the flanks of the mountain closing in on every side, eerie apparitions in the shadows at every turn. But the light of salvation soon appeared at the end of our tunnel, down in the valley below. Saints or sinners, we would be staying the night at St. Catherine’s, the oldest continuously inhabited monastery in the world. Founded by Emperor Justinian in AD 527 it was built on the site where it was thought Moses saw the Burning Bush…
The light was almost blinding. We’d gotten used to campfires and torches. Now, as we sat down to eat a late dinner under the stark fluorescent lights of the monastery refectory, strange looks were exchanged as we fumbled with cutlery. All of a sudden, and to some surprise, the modern world had an alien feel. What’s more, the grime of our desert sojourn suddenly surfaced in our consciousness. Out of context, we now felt dirty. After only three days, it was an odd reality check. And not all that welcome, strange as it may seem.
Pre-dawn. We shuffled along quietly, sleepily. The Trust had arranged for us to witness the early morning prayers in the small basilica, a rare opportunity for visitors to St. Catherine’s. We were on hallowed ground indeed and, seated in the old, high-backed, wooden pews, soon became absorbed by the ritual under way. As the incense mingled in the air, so personas melted into the shadows and our collective consciousness focussed on the candlelit prayers and chanting of the Greek Orthodox monks. You didn’t have to be religious to be moved by the spirit in this ancient place, if only for its sheer strength of purpose. As with the Bedouin and their communal fireside tea, here was a timeless practice in a timeless landscape; an opportunity to come together and give thanks for that most cherished of things: life.
And as we stepped out into the dawn of a new day, we were grateful too. Grateful for the chance to simply be here, something we all too often take for granted now in the Western world. One wonders how many of the hoards of tourists that visit St. Catherine’s during the day leave with this feeling. For them, is it merely a window on a hopelessly archaic world? Just another tick in the box… “Hey man, I’ve seen the Burning Bush!” (Which is a species of Bramble incidentally.) We never stopped to find out. The solace of the desert drew us back as the first buses started to arrive. We weren’t ready to return to the modern world just yet.
And besides, we still had work to do. One of the distinguishing characteristics of a trip with the Makhad Trust is the opportunity to give of yourself and get hands-on with a variety of conservation projects, all of which cater to the Bedouins’ self-stated needs. Nothing is imposed. We travelled to an oasis to see some of the Trust’s previous endeavours. Nestled in a high-sided, rocky valley lay the stereotypical island of greenery in the desert, evidence of a locally accessible water-table that reduces the necessity to move flocks and family around.
Amongst the familiar date palms we found a tree nursery, reservoir, compost toilets and a new, palmthatched communal shelter – or makhad; all the combined work of the local Bedouin family (which went back generations in the same location) and previous Trust groups. Aside from these modern additions, the place had been essentially unchanged for aeons. Moses, who is known to have visited the site, would still have recognised it, perhaps even some of the descendants. As history coalesced, you could almost see eternity.
Some of the new facilities at Ein-Khodra cater to day-tripping visitors from the Gulf of Aqaba, utilising economics to conserve Bedouin culture. Others are intended to counter the effects of those very same tourists; their massed developments are inexorably draining the aquifers beneath Sinai, leading to the decline of the acacia trees that are such a symbol of the desert and a resource to the nomad (from fuel to camel fodder). Only time will tell if these seemingly small efforts will have a significant local effect on the global tide of rural to urban migration that the Bedouin are caught within (unsurprisingly, the Egyptian authorities would prefer the Bedouin to settle and modernise). Whether the nomadic way of life has a future in Sinai, or anywhere in the world come to that, is uncertain and may in great part be connected with the fate of the last great wilderness areas and their worth in humanity’s eyes.
Perhaps this group from the Eden Project will do more for the nomadic way than merely help restore a small reservoir. Maybe the final set in this unfolding drama of plants and people – a third and final Dry Tropics Biome – will help to tell the world the story of the nomad and his wilderness. Like me, the people I travelled with were profoundly affected by their time in the Sinai, all having been challenged by the place, not least in terms of how to communicate the essence of the Bedouin and their desert home to the rest of us. The intensity of their journey should bode well, though the experience they recreate will never surpass the real thing. How could it?
Let us hope therefore that humanity can learn to cherish such places and people, instead of denying them a place in this progressive world. Before it is too late. Their value was being shaped by the winds of our thoughts as we took to our camels one last time. Sailing serenely across the desert it was easy to feel the natural rhythms of the world, the timeless process of life through its planetary home. The modern world has grown far from these rhythms it seems – of sun and moon, birth and death, pulse and flow – so far, in fact, it increasingly feels the need to reconnect and syncopate with ‘the environment’. It even begins to question the validity of technological progress and the scientific thought underpinning it.
The Bedouin, like all nomads, are at one with their environment. They are truly embedded – not only in place, but also in time. The past has importance, as does the future. But the present holds sway above all. Standing atop the ‘big dune’, with the sunset announcing an end to our journey, we understood all of this. Our itinerary had been crafted beautifully, building to this crescendo. Yet all was silent. Silent communion… as the sands of time passed by, grain by grain.
And then it was time… the descent back to our own world via 700 feet of sand and our waiting jeeps below. It may have been the only real dune we had encountered, but it was big. We met the moment with gusto, our exhilaration beating out of our hearts and around the surrounding mountains as we raced down the incline. How good it was to be alive.
“Wisdom is not a knowledge of many things, but the perception of the underlying unity of seemingly unrelated facts.”
So said John Burnet. Perhaps the nomadic cultures are the wise ones then, modern humanity’s quest for knowledge becoming one cosmic irony: there’s nothing really to be known… only an eternity to be felt.
It’s been almost three years since the meeting. The experience is still so fresh, despite the shifting sands of time. But what of time… I no longer wear a watch. Perhaps I’m still holding the moment…
Peter Yeo, Eden Project, Sinai Desert