When you walk through the Sinai today, it can feel like a land where green is a forbidden colour – like an elemental realm of bare rocks and windswept plains, the fabled ‘waste howling wilderness’ of the Bible in which few things survive. Move into the highlands around Saint Katherine, though, and you’ll find small, walled plots of trees in the wadis – vivid flashes of greens, pinks, and snow whites in the early springtime. These are the mountain orchards of the Sinai, where everything from apricots to pomegranates, pears and almonds is grown; and they are one of the most remarkable and historic features of the Sinai’s landscape.
These orchards developed in early Christian times, growing out of a basic survival necessity and developing slowly into the more sophisticated horticultural plots seen today.
Over the centuries, orchard gardening became central to the culture of the local Bedouin tribe – the Jebeleya – as well. They designed their seasonal migrations around the orchards and relied on them for food and trading commodities. Gardens became key to local survival. Cultivation of permanent, settled plots of land was rare in Bedouin culture, and the gardens represented a critical point of difference between the culture of the Jebeleya and that of other tribes.
Though once central to Jebeleya life, these orchards are now in decline. Bedouin lifestyles have been reframed around wage-paying occupations rather than the more traditional alternatives, and decades of drought have made gardens expensive to maintain. There were once over 400 orchards, but less than 40 are currently active. Today, some gardens are diversifying, restyling themselves as hiking lodges.