The St. Katherine Protectorate is a UNESCO World Heritage Area found at the foot of the historical Mt. Sinai. It is a site to behold for its well-preserved flora and fauna, as well as for its old traditional ways of livelihood. You can go up to the mountains with a Bedouin who will lead you to a spot where to pick wild herbs and fruits, and witness the people relishing the simple pleasures of life by means of farming, herding goats and hand weaving.
I had taken a 2 ½-hour scenic trip to the renowned site to experience a day of tranquility. There was the soothing cool air, remarkable rock formations, breathtaking valleys, impressive craftsmanship, and on top of it all, the genuine hospitality of the Jebaleya tribe (Bedouin tribe from the mountains).
I started off at Wadi El Arbein, where I visited FanSina (Art of Sinai), a cooperative to provide Bedouin women a source of livelihood making and selling high-quality traditional handicrafts for women.
FanSina emits an air of female independence and creativity. It is composed of a stockroom filled with embroidery materials like beads, yarns, needles, threads, baskets and fabrics; a workshop at the end of the compound where Bedouin ladies can work smoothly a distance away from tourists and visiting men; and a boutique where all the completed works are being sold.
Two Bedouin ladies wearing their traditional black thob (beaded veil) received us as we scanned among their glittering handicrafts. A heap of colorfully beaded purses and pouches, perfectly sewn together with different prints were piled up in one place, several vibrant embroidered bags were neatly piled up in baskets, and sets of shoulder bag with purse made of cotton and ribbons were in another place. Also sold are silver jewelry, particularly a symbolic triangle necklace embedded with beads and stones to protect its wearer from the evil eye.
After shopping a bit, we proceeded with our journey. As soon as we passed a curve, we stopped where an old Bedouin man was waving at us from the porch of his house. He was Mahmoud Mansour, a Bedouin herbalist.
We were greeted by three camels hunched on the ground at the entrance of Mr. Mahmoud’s property. There were olive, lemon and apricot trees planted around his courtyard, whereas a couple of greenhouses stood at the rear end of his big garden where he and his Gebaleya tribesmen work on drying the herbs and fruits they have gathered in summertime from the garden tucked in Wadi Itlah where water wells had been dug out of the mountains to provide water to the plants.
Mr. Mahmoud approached us warmly as we entered and told us that his place is ours while we’re there. He then led us inside his quaint shop where colorful knitted pouches, made by the women of his tribe held together dried products, like thyme, oregano, wild mint, salvia, herbal tea, apricots, apples, tomatoes, mixed spices, powdered tomatoes, a dry soup mix, and traditional baskets for herb-picking.
Our kind host educated us with each one according to his inherited herbal knowledge, passed down from his ancestors. He said that the thyme (zattar) is great for adding flavor to the food as well as for relieving coughs when boiled with water and sugar; the dried leaves of the wild oregano is used as a spice for salads, pizza and soup, and likewise as an appetizer dip for breads when mixed with olive oil; the herbal tea is the Bedouins staple tea mixed with four wild herbs and is an antidepressant; the powdered tomato is for giving body and flavor to soups and sauces; mixed spices, a combination of herbs that is suggested as a meat marinade; and the dried fruits, which has been prepared as their food for the winter months are handy as a healthy snack with no sugar and preservatives, as well as a soup and as an appetizer sprinkled with olive oil, which he also makes in summertime.
After our herbal orientation, he led us back to the porch and excused himself while he made some tea (In Bedouin hospitality, tea making is about one’s honor, regardless of who the guest is). He returned with the sound of clinking crystal cups placed on a tray and offered each one to us. He then placed a rug under the warmth of the sun and invited us to sit there so we warm up from the cool temperature.
We talked further about the herbal food that he makes for guests and the herbs that grow in the mountains, while we drank the aromatic herbal tea. Mr. Mahmoud also explained to me that his brother Hakim (Doctor) Ahmed is the one taking care of the garden and who is in charge of cultivating fruits, vegetables and herbs for eating and for healing. He advised that Hakim Ahmed might be not be in the garden but further up in the mountain picking herbs, and that if I wanted to try and meet the herbal doctor, then he will let his son guide us to him.
I took his kind offer instantly and graciously thanked him for his hospitality. We bid goodbyes and left his place with his son Ahmed Mahmoud.
Our driver Eid drove us off the beaten path a few kilometers away from the junction; from there we went on foot toward the bottom of the mountain, hiking along the coast and into Wadi Itlah, a valley where fresh water flows out from the rocks, providing nourishment to the lush vegetation.
Date trees stood grandly along the moist valley, while wild flowering plants spurt from the rocks as we neared the territory of Hakim Ahmed….Alas! The sight of a marble drinking water basin gave us a clear indication that we were in his territory.
I watched the boy paying respect to an old man who seemed to be his uncle, Hakim Ahmed. After exchanging their customary greetings, the older man turned to me with a genuine smile, inviting us to come inside.
Hakim Ahmed Mansour instantly extended his hospitality by offering us some tea. He led us to a corner where we sat on a sheep-woven rug and waited for the kharoub tea, handpicked from his garden. In a few minutes his assistant arrived with the tea and a bowl dried dates. Hakim Ahmed joined us with a plastic bag full of almonds in his hands.
He jovially cracked open the almonds as we silently enjoyed our tea and dates, plus the almonds that he was gradually handing over to us. He looked so delightful as he was cracking the almonds that when I asked if I could take a picture of him, he quickly agreed and even posed with a warm smile.
When our tea was finished, he showed us his garden below where he was also teaching young Bedouins about agriculture, herbs and healing properties found in plants. The tradition of herbal healing was passed on to him by his parents, thus within his 40 years of practice he has been passing over the tradition to his children and to other Bedouins for the conservation of their heritage and traditions.
In his garden, is a maze of flourishing crops like aloe vera, rosemary, wild mint, olives, onions, tomatoes, apples, strawberries, apricots, figs, lemon, kharoub, rocket salad and lettuce; each specie properly encased with rocks and nurtured by the constant flow of the inbred water flowing from the rich mountain. He also maintains beehives in boxes for cultivating honey, in time for spring and summer.
As for the genteel doctor’s healing abilities, he admitted to only healing from the neck down to the feet, not the head, as he was not taught to heal it. The first thing he does when a patient comes is to interview the patient, and then he performs physical examination by touch to trace the source of the pain. Afterwards, he prepares the herbs necessary for the patient’s case and prescribes it to the patient, either topical or internal. On the other hand, when stitching an open wound, he applies an ancient African method utilizing black ants. In this case, the doctor would guide each ant by the hand, as it bites into the wound, and cuts off the ant’s body, leaving the bite heal the wound naturally in time.
Our breathtaking tour ended abruptly as we needed to head back to town before sundown. However, it ended with a promising greeting by the good doctor and an invitation to return for the honey and as his guest in his cozy lodge.
Mahmoud Mansour: +2 012 6400 782; for organic food and herbs.
Hakim Ahmed Mansour: +2 012 3623 906; Fridays at St. Katherine’s Monastery