Secrets of the Sinai

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A Jabaliya orchard near St. Catherine. Unlike many of the Bedouins in the Sinai, the ­Jabaliya have had a long history of being “close to the land” and have eschewed the nomadic existence in favor of farming.
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A priest with the “Burning Bush” (Rubus sanctus) at St. Catherine’s Monastery.
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Jabaliya Bedouin Achmud Mansur, selling local ­medicinal herbs to tourists at St. Catherine’s Monastery. The Jabaliya are the main ­inhabitants of the small village that has grown up around the monastery, where they operate many of the kiosks, restaurants, and services offered there since the opening of the ­region to tourism.
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A Bedouin standing at 7,000 feet, south of St. Catherine. About 2,000 Jabaliya Bedouin live near Mount Sinai. “Jabaliya” means ­“mountaineers” and is often rendered as “people of the mountain,” referring to Mount Sinai. Unlike other tribes, the Jabaliya aren’t Arabs but are ­descendants of Bosnian and Wallachian serfs brought by the Emperor Justinian during the sixth century to build and service St. Catherine’s Monastery; another theory holds that the Jabaliya are descendants of Romanian and Egyptian slaves.
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At right, a member of the Jabaliya Bedouin tribe walks by a cascade of maidenhair ferns near St. Catherine.

“The Sinai landscape as a whole is rocky and parched, but ­between ­boulders large as houses and in dried riverbeds called wadis, the red granite desert ­explodes into green.”

Achmud Mansur looks out across the vista of barren, pointed peaks of the Sinai mountains. It’s late afternoon, but the sun is still blinding in its brightness. He squints and toes the dry earth with the tip of his sandal.

“I love my work,” the Bedouin says after a long silence, with an intensity that often permeates his speech. “It is like a son to me. It is like gold, it is so precious. People are walking on top of plants that could cure them, and they don’t even know it. This is happening everywhere. All over the world, people like me can’t pass on [what they know] because everyone is sitting by the television.”

He looks at me seriously, and I stop scribbling in my notebook.

“Yehudit,” he says, using my Hebrew name, “these things are not difficult. Anyone can learn. But when people ask me, I say I am poor. Because if people realize profit is involved, they will be interested only for the profit. This work must come from your soul; it must be your life.”

Herbal savant

I first heard of Achmud two months before our meeting, when I traveled from my home in Jerusalem to the Sinai–a peninsula that splits the Red Sea and bridges Israel and Egypt. For eight days I hiked in the south-central mountains with the Society for the Preservation of Nature in Israel, a conservation group. The Sinai landscape as a whole is rocky and parched, but between boulders as large as houses and in dried riverbeds called wadis, the red granite desert explodes into green.

As we hiked past beautiful, hardy herbs, I pestered people for information about the plants. Each person–our group’s Bedouin guide, the camel drivers who handled our supplies, the men we met tending the wadi orchards–told me: “Ahh, you must talk to Dr. Achmud! Dr. Achmud can tell you!”

Achmud’s reputation, I have since learned, extends far beyond the 2,000-member Jabaliya tribe, to which he belongs and which controls the heart of the Sinai wilderness near St. Catherine’s Monastery. On subsequent visits and during a weeklong stay with Achmud’s family, I watched tourists from Cairo flock to his herb stand, which sits near the path to the monastery. I heard incredible stories about Egyptian TV crews and rich European eccentrics visiting as well–all seeking the insights of this humble, but fiercely passionate, forty-six-year-old herbalist.

A region of contrasts

Mount Sinai is believed to be the peak on which the prophet Moses received the Ten Commandments after leading the Israelites out of Egypt. Achmud’s tribe is intimately identified with this famous site; in Arabic, jabaliya means “the people of the mountain.” In a.d. 527, the Greek Orthodox Church built one of the world’s first monasteries here around the alleged burning bush; the plant, now fruitless, is the extremely rare blackberry-type shrub Rubus sanguineus, specific to this region.

Today, the Sinai desert and the nomadic Arabs who live here are undergoing incredible change. The seventeen Bedouin tribes populating the Sinai Peninsula are ethnically and culturally connected to the camel- and goat-herding nomads who populated the Middle East for thousands of years. Though only an estimated 6 percent of all Bedouins still live the ­traditional nomadic lifestyle, modernity didn’t reach the Sinai Bedouin until 1967, when the peninsula was captured from Egypt by Israel during the Six-Day War. In 1981, as part of the Camp David Accords, Israel ­returned the Sinai to Egypt. In the ongoing chess game of Middle East peace, however, the Muslim, Arabic-speaking Bedouin–who comprise most of the 200,000 people living here–adamantly maintain their independence.

Nevertheless, modern politics has left its mark. The fourteen years of Israeli ­occupation unleashed the modern world on a culture literally as ancient as the Bible. One monk told me that, as recently as 1964, the 120-mile drive from the Suez Canal to the monastery took ten days and two Jeeps–one to pull the other out of the sand. Today, the trip takes three hours. Roads carved for the Israeli military have been paved by the Egyptians; in some places, the roadside is dotted with gaudy billboards touting five-star resort projects. The transition from ancient to modern culture is still under way: Inside rock huts, electric burners sit in old fire pits embedded in dirt floors; outside, camels are parked next to Toyota pickup trucks.

Burning as healing

In the past, the most common medical treatment among the Sinai Bedouin was using fire to burn the area of the body that hurt; they believed that this practice released the evil spirits causing the illness. Israel’s social welfare system brought the latest in Western medicine, at no cost, to the tribes, and though longevity rates have soared, Achmud is the only traditional herbalist left in the entire Sinai Peninsula.

As Achmud scrambles effortlessly up peaks that soar as high as 8,500 feet in search of the plants his grandfather, Saleh Umbarak, taught him to use, he tells me proudly that everything he knows has been passed down during the past 500 years. Hours later, peering through glass cases where he is drying hundreds of plants in pursuit of a cure for AIDS, he reveals a thorough understanding of viruses, contagious diseases, and even genetics. Though Achmud credits everything he knows to his grandfather, who is perhaps the only herbalist here whose reputation as a healer outshines Achmud’s, you’ll never find Achmud burning anyone’s skin.

Like most Bedouin, Achmud’s life is governed by the seasons. In the summer he travels around Sinai, from seashore to mountaintop, gathering plants. In the fall, he hires two workers who help him process herbs in his “factory,” just over the hill from his home. The factory consists of four stone rooms; in one of them he often counsels patients. The dried plants are stored in bags made of woven camel hair and used throughout the year. A few miles away, he owns more property, fashioned into a garden, and it is here that we have our lunch of cucumber, tomato, tuna, and fire-roasted pita.

In the winter and spring, Achmud spends his days at his herb stand. Thousands of tourists stream past every day, and when tour buses unload, his five-foot-long open-air store becomes a circus.

Most of the Europeans passing the herb stand stop out of curiosity, usually speaking to one of Achmud’s workers in English (English is taught in the Egyptian-run schools), who then translates the ailment into Arabic. The tourists might buy a few packages of dried herbs or vials of herb extract. Few Americans are here, but a busload of U.S. soldiers stationed in Sharm el Sheik gawk awkwardly at his products and snicker once they’re a safe distance away. Achmud’s most enthusiastic followers by far are Israelis and Egyptians, who often know his reputation very well. Some are old friends, whom he embraces warmly.

Hebrew and Arabic are quite similar linguistically and, amid the crowd’s dramatic gesturings for remedies for stomach pains and bad knees, I catch words such as “rheumatismus.” A chorus of shouting and jubilation erupts when two Israeli couples and their families arrive. One couple holds a wide-eyed six-month-old baby. The crowd is speaking far too quickly for me to understand, but finally, after ten minutes, Achmud pauses to explain.

“These people!” he says, beaming, ­referring to the child’s parents, “they couldn’t get pregnant, and now they have a child! Look!”

Achmud disappears again into the crowd, and the ecstatic new father tries to help me, having overheard me fruitlessly hollering into the mayhem, “Did you treat them? Hey, was this from the herbs?”

The father taps me frantically: “Yes! Yes!” he shouts. “He treated me last year!”

The best of Israeli medicine had been ineffective, the father explains, and he and his family had returned to Sinai, all the way from Haifa in northern Israel, to thank the doctor in person.

“Dr. Achmud,” he beams, “he works miracles!”

Back in Israel, research sheds light on Sinai plants

Avraham Shaked, a geologist, hasn’t lived in the Sinai for many years, but it’s a place that is clearly etched into his heart.

Enthusiastically, he peers over his desk in the office of the Society for the Preservation of Nature in Israel (SPNI) in Jerusalem.

“The Sinai,” he tells me, “is why I forgot to have children and raise a family.”

Shaked first went to the desert to work as a tour guide, then went on to become one of the founders of the SPNI Field School in Sinai–which may be the greatest legacy of Israel’s occupation here. The school has conducted and supported pioneering research in archaeology, anthropology, ecological conservation, and the study of traditional medicine.

It was during Shaked’s tenure as the field school’s last director (the field school closed when Sinai was returned to Egypt) that the University of Jerusalem’s School of Pharmacology and the Volcani Institute, the research arm of the Israel Ministry of Agriculture, conducted major tests on herbal remedies of the Sinai. However, Shaked explains, virtually none of the findings has been published in English.

Zohara Yaniv, a plant biochemist, led the Israeli research team, which was supported by a seven-year Israeli government grant. Team members interviewed prominent herbalists from Druze and Bedouin communities across the Sinai and Israel and followed up on their findings with scientific testing of medicinal plants.

“We had over 100 ‘informants,’ none of whom was younger than sixty years old,” Yaniv explains. “They were all old because there are no young people who go into this anymore.” Her remarks echo Achmud’s observations about the dwindling interest in traditional medicine in the Sinai.

“The goal of my team was to learn about the secondary compounds,” Yaniv continues. “This is not the sugars, fats, and proteins, but instead the compounds made by the plants for their own purposes, such as self-defense. These are what have therapeutic value.”

And it wasn’t an easy project.

“First, we had to be accepted by the communities, in terms of collaboration,” Yaniv recalls. “Then we had to be sure of the identification of the plant, because the same plant can be known by five or six different names.”

The researchers needed to visit their informants during each season. They also learned that the plants were impacted by the time of day they were collected.

“At certain times, the compounds aren’t there,” Yaniv says.

Yaniv and her team learned this last lesson the hard way. Perhaps the most famous remedy used by Achmud’s grandfather, Salech Umbarech, was the prickly shrubby burnet, Sarcopterium spinosum, for treating Type II diabetes. When the root is cooked in water and taken every day, the compounds reputedly act like insulin, lowering blood sugar.

“To test this,” Yaniv explains, “we pulled them out in February because the ground is easier. When we gave [the root] to rats with diabetes, nothing happened. But, when we retested it in the summer, we found a lot of activity. It’s one of the Sinai medicines we know is working.”

In most of their other scientific tests, Yaniv’s researchers were able to verify the traditional reputation of medicinal herbs. Of the hundreds of plants described by the informants, however, only a small percentage was tested by the scientists.

The Sinai, in other words, is still harboring many secrets.

“The problem is, you need a lot of money,” Yaniv says, “and funding agencies always want some guarantee they’ll get something back. When I go for funding, I have to get it on plants that are commercially important right now–and do the other research on the side.”

Rare abundance

The Sinai is home to some 800 species of plant life, according to geographer Joseph Hobbs in his informative book, Mount Sinai (University of Texas, 1995). More than 400 of these species are found in only 2 percent of the peninsula–in the mountainous territory of the Jabaliyan. This delicate ecosystem is also home to twenty-seven of the Sinai’s thirty-one endemic plants, which are found nowhere else in the world.

“There is something to say about the condition of the desert” and the way its environment impacts plant growth, Yaniv says. “There is obviously a great deal of work still to be done.

“Folklore is a good approach [for science]. I admire the herbalists. They are all extremely serious professionally. And of course meeting them on their own grounds, in their own tents, is very colorful–and very impressive.”

Joysa Maben Winter’s articles have appeared in The Quest, Na’Amat Woman, and many newspapers.

Joseph J. Hobbs is an associate professor of geography at the University of Missouri-Columbia. He recently served as team leader of the Bedouin Support Program of the St. Catherine Natural Protectorate project.

David W. Tschanz contributed technical support to this article.

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