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A sacred site for Christians, Jews and Muslims, St Catherine's monastery is where the past and present seamlessly intertwine.
The road to St Catherine's monastery is smoother than - to borrow Lalu Yadav's famous expression - Hema Malini's cheeks. You can keep a glass of whisky by your seat in a bus moving at over 100 kmph and it won't spill. If you are the type who enjoys the beauty of desolation, the view outside is bound to turn you on. There's hardly a tree in sight. Just brown, unbreakable rocky mountains on both sides. Most of them are shorter than the Qutub Minar and hardly any wider than a football field. Driving past them you feel they are almost chained to one another like striking factory workers standing in solidarity. And they also remind you Morgan Freeman's line in the classic prison drama, The Shawshank Redemption, "Geology is the study of pressure and time.
" In these eastern parts of Egypt, you see both at work.
The rocks distinguish one mountain from another;they are hard at some places, crusty in other areas. They glow in a multitude of colours: brown, black, red, green, even white. Our guide Abdel Ahmed is expansive. "These mountains are 60 millions years old. The red ones have iron ores, the green malachite, the black is due to the presence of magma (lava). Limestone and sandstone make the others appear white, " he says.
Ahmed is the excitable type. He even gets excited finding a few shrubs in the desert. "You get about 800 kinds of shrubs in the Sinai peninsula," he says proudly, even as a fellow journalist stifles a yawn. "These shrubs can survive the hottest of weathers, " he continues pointing towards a tiny bush as we drive by. The shrubs are barely the height of a ladyfinger. Nobody would notice them in greener climes. But in these desert-like conditions, they add to the rainbow of topography. They are food for camel and herbs for Bedouins, the desert people.
Habak (white mint) is a popular herb used by the Bedouins to flavour their tea. Ahmed generously offers me a small packet lying next to him. The herb is a mix of dried and crushed and whitish green leaves as if someone has mixed lime with grass. A couple of days earlier we had travelled to a Bedouin village, about 30 kms away from the resort town of Sharm-el-Sheikh where we were staying, and had sipped several glasses of extra-sweet habak-scented tea. The minty flavour notwithstanding, the herb looks exactly like marijuana. I get visions of Mumbai custom officials at the airport looking quizzically at the sachet and grilling me. I decide, rather regretfully, to return the packet.
We drive past several Bedouin settlements and stop near an oasis. Surrounded by a few date trees and the soft centre of a sweet water well, the oasis is one of those miracles of nature, God's gift to the thirsty in the middle of a desert. St Catherine's, one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world, is still three hours away. Built in sixth century around the place where Moses saw the Burning Bush, the monastery is built of granite and looks more like a fort. The castle-like appearance must have been prompted by the fact that it lies in an area dominated by another religion. Yet in its 1400-years-old history, the much-venerated Greek Orthodox monastery has never been conquered, damaged or destroyed.
On the contrary, over the centuries it has received special charters of protection: from Mohammed, the founder of Islam, the Turks as well as Napoleon. The story goes that St Catherine monks sent a delegation to Medina in 625 AD requesting Mohammed's patronage and protection. The request was granted. The monks were also exempted from paying taxes. A copy of the original document is showcased in the monastery's Icon gallery. There is also a medieval mosque within the premises of the monastery. Building it was a tactical move to prevent the monastery from being destroyed. Napoleon's Declaration of Protection, also kept in the gallery, maps out the rights and privileges of the monastery. One can see the original 1798 version with its signature, Buonaparte.
Part of the monastery's pull lies in its staggering collection of rare Christian manuscripts and other artefacts that's second only to Vatican's. You have to pay 10 Egyptian pounds (approximately Rs 60) for an entry to the Icon gallery. There's a rare 10th century Bible written half in Greek and half in Arabic and a gems-studded chalice gifted by King Charles VI of France. There's much more and the tour is certainly value for money. What also attracts the devout is the Chapel of the Burning Bush, a modest structure of immense religious significance. A few feet from the Chapel is the Biblical bush itself, a rare species of the rose family called Rubus Sanctus. St Catherine's monastery makes you think about the power of religion. Extremely well-maintained for its age, it is inhabited by a small group of monks even today. History isn't always about the past; sometimes it is intertwined with the present.
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