It is one of the most sacred places in the world and a haven for hundreds of animal species, including the endangered leopard. But now there are fears that the pristine world of Saint Catherine’s Protectorate, a national park in Egypt’s Sinai desert, is being irreversibly damaged by the government’s mega-construction, which includes hundreds of new buildings.
Mount Sinai is located in the park, where, according to the Bible, Moses received the 10 commandments from God. And near the top is the world’s oldest active Christian monastery of St. Catherine, which was granted World Heritage status by UNESCO in 2002.
This is one of the few areas in the world revered by Muslims, Christians and Jews. The site was visited by Pope John Paul II in 2000, hoping to pray with Jewish and Islamic leaders as they enter the new millennium.
And it’s home to rare animals like the endemic Sinai Baton blue, one of the smallest butterflies in the world, dependent on the unique thyme that grows on the mountainsides within the protectorate. Also present are the Sinai leopard, ibex and caracal.
Now there are fears that these and hundreds of other species are threatened by disruptive development, including the construction of five hotels, a theatre, a conference hall, an “outdoor celebration plaza”, a museum and a youth center just a few kilometers from Mount Sinai.
The ministers reportedly said their plan, known as the “Great Transformation Project”, aims to provide more tourist facilities and link the area to Sharm el-Sheikh. The Red Sea resort, located just 50 miles from St. Catherine’s Church, will host the COP27 global climate change summit in November.
The first phase of construction is due to be completed this month and will cost 4 billion Egyptian pounds (£175 million). But the monks who live in the monastery of St. Catherine claim that they received no advice or even notification before the builders arrived at the site. A spokesman for the monastery said the damage would be irreversible.
The government’s approach to the local Bedouin community has become another source of controversy.
Members of the local Jebelia tribe, also known as the “Guardians of Saint Catherine”, have inhabited the area since the Roman emperor Justinian built the monastery 1,400 years ago. But a government vehicle swept away their cemeteries and homes without warning, members of the Jebeliya say.
The founder of a local NGO, who did not want her name published because she feared for her safety, said: “The landscape of their home is irrevocably changing. The survival of Bedouin culture in the face of social exclusion has been a concern for decades. The current development of Saint Catherine threatens to be the final nail in his coffin.”
One report states that a lack of funds could hinder further progress on the current project. But other buildings belonging to Jebeliya are due to be demolished, and they fear retribution if they oppose…