As pilgrims continued to visit Sinai from the fourth century, large numbers would arrive by camel caravan through several established pilgrimage routes. After the Muslim conquest in the seventh century, some decline in pilgrimage numbers occurred, though this varied according to the ruler in power. Pilgrimage increased again after the Crusades (the Crusaders did not control the area, but facilitated access) and as the popularity of Saint Catherine grew in Europe. Following the Protestant Reformation, pilgrimage from Europe declined until more recent times.
Given the Monastery's remote location, travel was not easy. Access was limited to camel caravan until well into the 20th century. As one travel journalist who visited in the 1930’s recounted in his memoir, it was necessary for anyone who journeyed to St. Catherine’s by car to travel in two cars, in case the first broke down in the desert. In the 1950s, though, the Egyptian government paved roads to oil fields and mines in the western Sinai and also developed a dirt track to the Monastery, which allowed travel via taxi from Cairo. A paved road to the Monastery was finally completed in the 1980’s, and tourism soon increased to monumental proportions.
With the world’s encroachment on their isolation and the consequent loss of their solitude, the monks now faced a double burden. They worked to accommodate tourist needs without sacrificing their spiritual responsibility to preserve the Sinai way of life as a living tradition.
The Monastery fathers also engage in many forms of philanthropic work, continuing until today their ancient custom of providing medical care to the surrounding population. This began in the Monastery’s first centuries when the early monks operated a hospital. In the 1980s and 90s the Monastery fathers built new medical and dental clinics, including donated state of the art laboratory equipment from Greece, providing free treatment to anyone seeking help, whether Bedouin, tourist, pilgrim or monk.
The Bedouin tribe living near St. Catherine’s traces its descent to families sent by the Emperor Justinian to defend the Monastery. With great dignity the Jebeliya (from the Arabic “jebel” for “mountain”) tribesmen have maintained their centuries-old tradition of co-operation with the Monastery fathers throughout all the ensuing centuries. Monks today recount how the Bedouin sprang to the Monastery’s assistance on their own initiative during the 2011 Egyptian revolution when the police force was suddenly inactivated. Likewise, the monks have shared their material resources with the Bedouin throughout the centuries, doing whatever they can to relieve the profound poverty of the region.
Largely under Muslim rule since the seventh century, the Monastery worked hard and successfully to promote peaceful and cooperative relations between Christians and Muslims. Before his ascendancy to leadership in Arabia, the monks received the founder of Islam, Mohammed, with their traditional hospitality, as was their custom in caring for all pilgrims. Subsequently, having apparently understood that the newly emerging state harbored ambitions that extended beyond the Arabian Peninsula, they acted preemptively by requesting a letter of protection (Dr. Alexandros Kyrou, Salem State Univ). For his part, Mohammed was sufficiently impressed by his experience at the Monastery that in 628, before concluding treaties with various tribes in the region, he granted the Monastery the requested letter, called the Achtiname. This forbids attacks on the Monastery, exempts it from taxes, and grants privileges not only to the monks, but also to other Christians. The charter was renewed under subsequent rulers, and during Ottoman rule, the Pasha of Egypt annually reaffirmed its protection. The Monastery has also maintained excellent relations with the Egyptian authorities in modern times, as well as with the Israeli authorities during their administration of the Sinai from 1967 to 1982.
With the rise of radical Islam and in the wake of the Egyptian revolution, the 21st century has brought new challenges to Sinai’s singular history, placing great pressures on the ancient Monastery to maintain the unique way of life whose example provides an unparalleled paradigm of multicultural exchange and tolerance to the world. While newcomers have tried to incite the Bedouin to extreme actions and some are trying to displace the Monastery from its ancient site, the neighboring tribes have maintained their loyalty to the Sinai monks, refusing to impinge upon a relationship of mutual cooperation whose antecedents predate the written history of the region.
For their part, living according to their Christian ideals, the monks do not proselytize, but simply witness to their faith through their continuing efforts to hand on the spiritual tradition they received unblemished to those who come after them. As a result, the Sinai brotherhood continues to enjoy enormous respect throughout Egypt and the world.