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Volume 46, Number 2March/April 1995

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The Gardens of the High Sinai

Written and photographed by Dick Doughty

He hadn’t done it yesterday, so now it was time for Saleh Awad to water his garden.

We wound down the short, soft dirt trail. Grape vines, almond trees, apple trees and even young plum trees all crowded the path as if in greeting, or to offer their abundance for breakfast on this hot summer morning. Bove them and beyond the shoulder-high rock wall nearby, red granite stretched up, barren and rough, into high, wind-sculpted peaks that formed jumbled ridges on both sides of this narrow valley. Awad cinched his headscarf down to better shade his sunken, 61-year-old eyes. He fixed his cigarette to the edge of his lips, bent down, and yanked out the plug on his spring-fed, stone water cistern.

Among the 1500 Jabaliyyah Bedouins who live in these central Sinai mountains, the sound of water splashing freely over rock is the sound of life itself, as reassuring as the crackle of a campfire or the pat-pat-pat of bread dough being shaped by practiced hands. As Awad lifted a rock here and shoveled a bit of earth over there, he watched the flow intently, letting pass just so much water and no more into each branch of his network of contoured channels. First to the string beans, then to the corn the water flowed, then to the cucumbers and to the tomatoes—some so big you couldn't hold two in one hand—and finally to the fruit and nut trees: the figs, the pears, the almonds and the walnuts. From this summer's harvest until next, his family will live mostly on what he waters today.

Awad's garden lies at just above 1550 meters (5085 feet) altitude in Wadi Abu Tuwayta, a day's walk, over two high passes, from the town of St. Catherine if you set out with the famous Jabal Musa—Mount Sinai— over your left shoulder. Along the way, in every narrow rock valley, or wadi, gardens appear suspended below the giant walls of cracked, sun-blasted rock like living green islands.

In Wadi Zawatin, a few kilometers from Wadi Abu Tuwayta, 81-year-old Muhammad Zaytan sat cross-legged as he hacked slowly at the earth with his pick. He was, he said, leveling the ground to enlarge one of his gardens. "Now it takes me four days to do what I used to do in one," he said, but he was as quick with his grin as he was dogged with his pick. Every few minutes he rose and lugged watermelon-sized rocks over to the pile that would later form the garden's new wall. His remodeling marked the latest improvement among the more than 300 Jabaliyyah gardens.

Though a few gardens are only years or decades old, most have been tended, ignored, revived and reworked over centuries. Many have fed people for longer than anyone can remember. Mahmoud Mansour, a Jabaliyyah guide well-versed in the region's history, pointed out one garden wall built of stones far larger and smoother than any others. He explained that it was believed to be more than 2000 years old—possibly of Nabatean origin—because the wall is not like the ones built even by the sixth-century Byzantines, the first group to cultivate these valleys on a large scale. "I don't know who built it, but whoever did, they were tough," he commented.

It was in the early fourth century that Byzantine monks first came to live on the plain at the base of Mount Sinai. Two hundred years later, soldiers dispatched by the Roman emperor Justinian arrived to oversee construction of what would become the Monastery of St. Catherine. As laborers, the soldiers brought several hundred serfs from northern Egypt and what are now Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia. In time, the monks alone numbered more than 3000, and many of the laborers were freed. Both monks and freed laborers supported themselves by building gardens in the mountains, where springs were as plentiful then as they are today.

As people of the Mediterranean, the Byzantine monks introduced olives, almonds, walnuts, grapes, figs and pears, all of which the Jabaliyyah now depend on and cultivate with great skill, said Joseph Hobbs, associate professor of geography at the University of Missouri and now an adviser to the Egyptian Environmental Affairs Agency (See Aramco World, March-April 1991). "You can't really appreciate the roots of Jabaliyyah agriculture without understanding their relationship with the monastery," he said.

In the seventh century, when the Muslims brought Islam to Sinai from Arabia, many of the monks abandoned their gardens and the monastery. However, descendants of the laborers remained and intermarried with the far more numerous new arrivals.

Now the Jabaliyyah tribe spends each year as it has since the 700's, keeping warm during the cold and often snowy winters in stone houses in the town of St. Catherine, and living from late spring to late fall in mountain houses adjoining their high gardens. Called "vertical nomadism" by anthropologists, this lifestyle sets the Jabaliyyah apart from other Bedouins, most of whom live by guiding herds of livestock from one desert pasture to another according to the pattern of rains.

"People think Bedouins hate agriculture," said Hobbs. "But the Jabaliyyah see farming as one more means—and a very satisfying means—of making a living in a challenging environment."

Though the Jabaliyyah also support themselves with goat and sheep herding, tourist guiding and wage labor, it is the gardens that provide both their psychological and their economic center. At night, when stars light the sky with piercing intensity and people pay visits to each other by firelight, the cloudy strip of celestial luminescence known to Westerners as the Milky Way appears to the Jabaliyyah as the Line of Fruit. In winter, it sinks low in the sky; in summer, at harvest time, it shines directly overhead, as if to bless by night what the sun has nourished by day.

Awad and his family, like all Jabaliyyah, eat what they grow. A part of his almond crop and an occasional armload of fruit to a passing group of foreign trekkers is all that he ever sells. Many gardens are owned collectively within large families, some of whom keep numerous gardens in the same wadi. To judge by the almost complete lack of migration of young Jabaliyyah to the cities of Egypt, their life, like the land itself, is demanding, abundant and ultimately satisfactory.

The way the Jabaliyyah cultivate their gardens reflects their centuries of adaptation to the demands of land and weather. The rock walls not only mark the borders of a garden—into which it is strictly forbidden to enter without the owner's permission—but also help prevent soil erosion during winter rains.

Even though rainfall totals only four to five inches a year, Mansour said, the mountain slopes absorb almost none of it and thus act as stone funnels, often turning the wadis into small rivers. The rock walls divert the strongest flows around the gardens.

Inside the walls, the Jabaliyyah often employ grafting to help their fruit trees adapt to the desert climate. According to Awad, it is an ongoing art of trial and error. He said he likes the experimentation. "Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't," he said. "The roots of the two trees must be similar. I talk to other men about it and they talk to me, so we help each other."

The most successful traditional grafts use the drought-resistant, spiny zaruur bush (Cartaegus sinaica), one of the 24 local plant species that grow nowhere in the world but in these mountains. Onto the zaruur, which by itself produces only a small, inedible fruit, the Jabaliyyah have long grafted Nile valley figs, "American" apples and several varieties of pears. They first carve a deep notch into the trunk of a mature zaruur bush, and then tightly tie a perfectly fitted branch of the fruit tree into the notch. The grafted branch grows amid the tangled and healthy branches of its zaruur host and, after several years, produces fruit, apparently as a fully desert-adapted tree.

The availability of water and soil have always dictated the placement of the gardens. Some, like Awad's, are fed by both a spring and a well. Other gardens may have more than one of either source. Soil, created over the centuries by winter rains washing down the mountains, has accumulated most abundantly in the wadis where the slope is gentle. Through careful terracing, however, a few gardens take advantage of less common soil deposits on steep terrain.

When the Jabaliyyah dig a well, they are successful more often than not. The surest way to find water, Mansour said, is to search out a dark vertical stripe in the granite of a mountainside. Geologically known as dikes, these stripes are "like pipes," he said, because they are porous, whereas the red granite is impermeable to water. Thus digging where a dike disappears down into the wadi floor often yields a good well. But there are other ways to find water, too: Three years ago Mansour himself discovered traces of a Byzantine garden wall on a slope not far above his own garden, and figured that the ancient gardener must have drawn water from somewhere. After carefully examining the land, he unearthed a serviceable well "in exactly the place where they would have had to make it," he said.

No one has ever challenged the Jabaliyyah's rights to their garden land. To nearly all outsiders, their environment appears precarious, harsh and unenviable. Only one other Bedouin tribe, the Awlad Sa'id, lives about 15 kilometers (10 miles) away, and the Jabaliyyah say relations are good.

In the town of St. Catherine, Jabaliyyah children have attended Egyptian government schools since 1982. Mansour recalled with a grin the teacher from Cairo who complained to him that the children seemed to be more interested in goats and plants than in the textbooks. Later in life, young Jabaliyyah men put in a mandatory year with the Egyptian army. In 1985, the government began to register the Jabaliyyah garden plots. At first most Jabaliyyah found this irritating, Mansour said, but now see it as legal protection against unforeseen future problems. In May, Jabaliyyah lands will become part of the 5000-square-kilometer (1930-square-mile) St. Catherine Natural Protectorate, slated in time to become a full-fledged national park. The internal affairs of the protected area will be managed largely by the Jabaliyyah themselves.

The protected status will allow the Jabaliyyah tighter control over visitors to the high gardens, who nearly always arrive as tourists. Shaykh Muhammad Abu Haym, leader of the Jabaliyyah for more than 30 years, said that on some days in summer, more than 100 tourists hike out from St. Catherine on Jabaliyyah-led treks. Although litter is a growing nuisance along the trails the Jabaliyyah maintain among the high valleys, and the supplies of mountain firewood are becoming depleted, tourism means income for the tribe, he said. His small crowds, he added, are far easier to cope with than the tens of thousands who annually tour the nearby Monastery of St. Catherine and trudge up the time-worn steps of Jabal Musa.

The Jabaliyyah minimize the trekkers' impact by requiring visitors to employ Jabaliyyah guides. "The guide keeps them from getting hurt or lost," says Awad. "If they sneak up the mountains [without a guide], the people here catch them. I would report them to the tourist police." Guides also serve the trekkers by helping them to understand Jabaliyyah life and by admitting the visitors into family gardens and sharing a bit of the harvests.

Inside Mansour's own garden, on a steep slope in Wadi Itla'ah just about three hours' walk above St. Catherine, he keeps for visitors three blankets, two teapots, a few cups, a few bowls and a few utensils in a battered trunk under the ledge of a large boulder. His is sort of a recycled garden, he explained, one that lay ignored for hundreds of years until he revived it and called it his own five years ago. We walked slowly from one painstakingly leveled terrace to the next as he pointed out the figs, apples, pears, pomegranates and, on the highest terrace, the spring that nourishes it all. We came to rest under the shade of a pomegranate tree, spread out one of the blankets and built a fire for tea.

Not for the first time, I spoke of how impressed I was by the workmanship in this and so many other gardens. He smiled and shrugged lightly. Mostly he enjoyed it, he said. Some days he and his wife work there together while their young son plays among the rocks and trees. Sometimes the work gets difficult, especially in years when the winter rains are slight. But, he added, "if you don't get tired, you don't feel life."

Dick Doughty, Assistant Editor of Aramco World, is co-author of Gaza: Legacy of Occupation—A Photographer's Journey, to be published in 1995 by Kumarian Press.

This article appeared on pages 20-27 of the March/April 1995 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1995 images.