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Hidden Gardens of a Sacred Landscape (Egypt)

The Makhad Trust works to restore the mountain gardens of the Jebalia Bedouin in St Katherine’s governorate, Sinai, Egypt.

by Alice Gray


Mahmoud, a Makhad field worker, shows the way to Wadi ‘Tlaa, an oasis
amidst the barren rocks of the high mountains.

I first heard about this great organisation from Jeff Anderson, one of the graduates of my most recent permaculture course in Qasr A Sir. Since I had decided to take up an offer from some friends to use their house in Dahab for a month whilst scoping out the sustainable farming scene in the area, I decided to get in touch.

I managed to get through to the Cairo office very quickly and got a very positive response from Lena, their coordinator — but Mahmoud and Susie, the field workers, were out visiting farms and couldn’t be contacted by phone due to poor reception in the mountains. So I kicked my heels for a couple of weeks, hoping that I would manage to make contact before returning to Palestine to teach another Permaculture course.

Eventually the waiting paid off and I got a phone call from Mahmoud, inviting me to come to St. Katherine’s to see their work.

The Makhad Trust works to restore and deepen the wells that feed the Bedouin gardens in St Katherine’s Protected Area, South Sinai, Egypt. These gardens are the province of the Jebalia tribe, and have been cultivated by them for hundreds of years. They take advantage of the unique topography and geology of the region to cultivate orchard crops, vegetables and grains in this apparently arid and unforgiving landscape.

Getting a bus to St Katherine’s proved to be complicated and eventually impossible in the timeframe I had left to me. Sinai is nothing if not laid back, and buses tend to run between major centres once or twice a week if you’re lucky. So in spite of dwindling cash reserves (apparently freelance permaculture teaching and consultancy with marginalised communities doesn’t make you fabulously wealthy — who knew??), I decided to hire a private driver to take me from the tourist resorts on the coast into the high mountains. It turned out to be worth every penny.

Mahmoud met me at the Fox Camp and immediately took me to see the community wells that the Trust recently made for nearby Bedouin families. It is worth noting that water in the high mountains is very scarce, and the tourist hotels have theirs trucked in from springs lower down the mountains and use it to fill swimming pools and run showers. The Bedouin, if pushed to it, will do the same — but the trucked water is very expensive and of poor quality compared to the mountain springs and harvested rainwater that can be accessed if you know how.

Apparently the water table has been dropping due to declining rainfall in recent years, so that wells that had been deep enough to access it 50 years ago (4 or 5 metres) no longer suffice, and the wells need to be deepened to up to 14 metres. The water table can be accessed at the junction of the two rock types that comprise the St. Katherine’s mountain range — permeable black basalt rock and impermeable red granite. Characteristic ‘dykes’ of darker rock running down from the saddles of the mountain ridges mark these places and the Bedouin have been taking advantage of them for many years.


A well deepened by the Makhad Trust to about 12 metres. These are dug out
with hand tools since there is no road access to the gardens.
Cement is carried in on camels.

The work of the Makhad Trust stems from the will of the people to rehabilitate old systems and keep the gardens alive, boosting production of fruit and vegetables for the local market and enhancing livelihoods and self sufficiency. They work primarily with the Jebalia Bedouin, who historically have been the ‘farmers’ of the Sinai, since they occupy the area of highest annual rainfall dotted with pockets of clay soil that holds the water well. However, they have recently begun to extend their work to dig wells to supply drinking water to needy communities from other tribes. The Jebalia, incidentally, are of Romanian origin and originally came to the St. Katherine’s area many hundreds of years ago as soldiers in the employ of the famous St. Katherine’s monastery.

Having seen the gardens and community wells that were reachable by car, I assumed my adventures were over, having imposed enough on Mahmoud’s time. Not so. He asked me if I would like to see one of the many dams that the Trust have built with the help of teams of international volunteers, warning me that it would probably take us about 6 hours to trek there and back. Despite having a savage case of period pains that made me feel as if I had been kicked in the womb by a particularly vindictive mule and a stomach veering distinctly to the liquid side, I agreed that this was an excellent idea (reasoning that these chances don’t come along every day).

I was quite happy, however, when Mahmoud went on to say that we couldn’t start until 3pm on account of the intense heat. Having not eaten all day and having slept badly in the hair-dryer hot winds of Ras al Shaitan, with mosquitoes nibbling my eyelids and hippies crooning around camp fires, to the dulcet tones of my friend throwng up all night with a case of food poisoning, I was not exactly in the best state to embark on a mountain trek. Gratefully, I repaired to my hostel to eat spaghetti, lie down for a while and contemplate the potential folly of my actions.

I needn’t have worried. When 3pm came around and we actually got moving, hitching a ride to the start of the hike and climbing up a steep path away from the roads and into the mountains, I immediately began to feel much better. Mountains and deserts, I find, often have this effect on me; dispelling vestiges of physical weakness with their rugged, demanding terrain, their emptiness and their clean air. It’s the best cure for a hangover. And, my instincts were right — this was no trek to miss out on!

Wadi ‘Tlaa, where we were trekking to get to Two Carob Trees Dam, is truly spectacular. It springs itself on you unexpectedly, as you wonder through the bare rocks of the jagged mountains, admiring the tenacious herbs that somehow cling on in this forbidding environment. Suddenly, the tops of date palms come into site and you find yourself beholding something that resembles an oasis out of a fairy tale: some kind of Garden of Eden scenario, with verdant green trees that appear to sping up out of the rock itself, and the sound and smell of running water.


The first garden in Wadi ‘Tlaa. The well that feeds it was restored by Makhad.

As you continue, the wadi gets better and better, wth garden after garden filled with healthy trees of date, carob, apricot, mulberry and olive — with vegetables and grains growing in their shelter. The walls to keep out the livestock of camels, dokeys, goats and sheep are well maintained and neatly set out, and the produce is delicious. Mmmmmmmmmmm. I managed to catch the end of the apricot season and the beginning of the mulberries. Sweet, sweet fruit, bursting with juice that runs down your chin and goes all over your clothes when you bite it. The water is beautiful as well — cold and clear and refreshing.

We stopped off on our way to visit a few gardens and enjoy the inevitable sugary tea made with mountain herbs. One of the stops was with a venerable old Haj called Dr Ahmed, a local medicine man who has a teaching centre at his garden. Apparently people come from all over Sinai to see him.


Dr Ahmed at his mountain teaching centre


A haja surveying her ripening grains


Enjoying the view whilst eating apricots….


Mmmmmm…..apricots

So we meandered along happily for what must have been several hours, eating fruits, drinking tea, chatting with our hosts, stopping in this garden and that. Eventually we reached our objective (although I’d forgotten by this point that we actually had one), that being Two Carob Trees Dam. As we rounded another corner in the wadi, we were alerted by the sounds of splashing and a certain cool air quality of the presence of a quantity of water nearby. Looking down we saw a bunch of children frollicking in a pool of water, watched over by their mothers. As we passed this happy scene, the reason for the pool became apparent — the tidy little dam across the wadi with one carob tree below it and one above. Two Carob Trees Dam.

Apparently this one was finished by the Trust not so long ago, although I forget exactly when. It was maybe even just last autumn. At the time we saw it there was no water in evidence behind it, although as Mahmoud remarked, the water has dropped below the level of the sediment behind the dam and is seeping slowly into the pools below, and continuing down the valley ‘helping all the farms below’. Yep. Slow, spread and sink. Beautiful.


Two Carob Trees Dam at the time of our visit (beginning of June 2013)


The same dam running with water in winter time


The group who built the dam. These dams apparently cost only approximately
1500 pounds sterling to construct and take about 5 days to build with a team
of 10-20 people. All the supplies are carried in on camels.

After the dam, we climbed to the top of the pass and made our way back to the village of St. Katherine’s and the hostel in time to enjoy a home-cooked dinner and a great view of the stars over the mountains. In the morning I made my way to see the main attraction in the area — the famous monastery. Now this was a little bit sad to see. Obviously the monastery was originally constructed in this remote area (where Moses is said to have received the 10 commandments) in order to enjoy the peace and solitude of these beautiful mountains. A few pilgrims would have gone to the expense and hardship of reaching it. Today it is a tourist attraction, seething with visitors, gift shops, guides and kids trying to sell you bits of rock. Little of the serenity that originally graced it truly remains. Having experienced the magic of the remote gardens, I found it a somewhat obnoxious place whose true character has been all but lost beneath a veneer of commercialism and consumer tourism. It is the quiet power of the gardens and the kindness and dignity of their keepers that hold the true magic in this area… and the steady, competent work of the Makhad Trust the inspiration.

Thanks so much to Mahmoud, Fares and Lina for hosting me and showing me these treasures. Let’s hope it’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

3 Comments

  1. What a beautiful place. I’m so glad you decided to make the trek and even more delighted that you chose to share it with us here!

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