His Eminence Archbishop Damianos of Sinai and Abbott of the ancient Monastery says, "St. Catherine's Monastery is not an institution that can be compared with any other. The global community has been drawn to this holy place through the humbleness and hospitality of the monks and their struggles to maintain the ideals of the early ascetics who came to live on the holy site of Sinai."
"The great and difficult journey into the desert is something desired by all who value inner peace. Therefore the monks consider the continued operation of the Monastery a duty not just to themselves, but to visitors who reach this wilderness from all corners of the world."
His Eminence observes that while the Sinai monks have no wish to burden others, even very modest contributions go far in Egypt. Together with the prayers of the faithful, he says, these will sustain the Monastery in its spiritual goals, which value the peace of one’s neighbor as much as one’s own. As a result the Sinai Monastery has been recognized as a historical force for stability in the region.
How was the current economic problem caused by the reduction in tourism?
As monastics we have always shown hospitality to visitors. And no matter how much we gave away, the pilgrims left more behind them, as tokens of their own love. The monastery operates a hostel for visitors at a nominal nightly rate, fractional to what a commercial hotel would charge. The hostel serves those who come to Mount Sinai not only as Orthodox pilgrims, but anyone simply seeking the special atmosphere of this holy place. And this income had met the needs not only of the salaries of the hostel workers and its upkeep, but covered many expenses of the Monastery itself.
How did the monks live before tourism reached such enormous levels?
Look, as monks we cannot want tourism. In the old days, we had the quiet that monks leave the world to find, in order to live the life of prayer. Monks follow a simple diet and our needs were small. During the period when Sinai was under the administration of Israel, large groups of visitors began arriving from there at our door.
But as monks, in addition to prayer, we are also required to show Christian love and hospitality. So we were forced to develop a program to accommodate these groups, a schedule that would allow 500-700 visitors per day and more, and yet still allow us to conduct our prayer in church and in private too, in order in other words for the monks to retain some semblance of personal life. So now we accept tour groups from 9am -12 noon on most days. The Monastery is closed on Sundays, Fridays, and major feast days.
Now, with the upheavals taking place in the north of Sinai, even though that is a world away from the peaceful atmosphere of this region, many people are afraid to travel here, so tourism is down to a fraction of what it was.
But isn’t this a good thing for you? Since as monks, your love is for peace and quiet ...
When the tourism developed, we had to gradually implement an infrastructure to support it. This means things like the modern means of communication, which need to keep pace with the demands of advancing technology in the outside world. Electricity had to be put in. Not for the personal needs of the monks, but in order to conserve and make available to the public the artifacts of the Monastery treasury – ancient icons, illuminated manuscripts, ecclesiastical objects. The most important of these have been placed on exhibit in a state of the art museum which we built so that visitors could have access to them. To conserve artifacts, to operate museums and the systems they depend on, requires electricity!
The world of the monks was transformed not at their own desire, but from love for those who come here.
A monk leaves the world, but he still loves the world and therefore his neighbor. The Monastery also operates a clinic that treats 15-20 Bedouin or others on a daily basis, who are seen by a physician on the Monastery staff. Evaluation and medicine are all free. As this is strictly an outpatient clinic, the Bedouin will often be referred to treatment facilities in major cities such as Suez. As the Bedouin are intimidated by the idea of hospital care, so much so that often they simply will not go, our doctor will even personally accompany them to distant hospitals to assist their care.
What is the current situation?
Tourist numbers are increasing but are nowhere near former levels. Every time there is a terrorist event, even though these are happening in the North, which is so far away, it affects local tourism, as people are afraid to travel. Tourist companies plan their itineraries a year in advance, so the repercussions of such occurrences on tourism are long-lasting.
Can you give us an example of necessary works the financial crisis is holding back?
One wing of cells has a roof made of tiles from 1920 that are leaking water, so that whole wing needs a new roof. Cells are having problems with mold for this reason. Similar problems exist with the metoxia, the branch monasteries, within and without Egypt.