Secrets of the Sinai

Herbal treasures belonging to the Bedouin

| May/June 1999

  • 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.
  • A priest with the “Burning Bush” (Rubus sanctus) at St. Catherine’s Monastery.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • At right, a member of the Jabaliya Bedouin tribe walks by a cascade of maidenhair ferns near St. Catherine.
    Photographs by Joseph J. Hobbs

“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.

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