There is adventure travel, and then there is whatever Margeret Frei was doing in this tourist mecca emptied of all other tourists. St. Catherine is a picturesque town nestled in a bowl of towering granite mountains, one of which tradition says Moses descended 1,600 years ago carrying the Ten Commandments. The local Bedouins are gracious and low-key, the scenery is top-rate, and ordinarily the place teems with day-trippers arriving in buses to visit the 5th century Greek Orthodox monastery at the base of Mt. Sinai (around a sizeable shrub reputed to have ben the the burning bush). St. Catherine, in other words, adds a certain depth to a South Sinai tourist experience grounded in the world class snorkeling and the sun-baked lassitude on offer at the post Red Sea resorts an hour or two to the south and east.
But on an early autumn weekday Frei, who hails from Konstanz, Germany, was the only tourist visible in town, and even she had been specifically warned away. “My embassy told me they were afraid the trouble from the North would travel to the South,” said Frei.
The trouble in the North is actually the small matter of a war, a low-intensity, but vicious conflict pitting the Egyptian military against Islamist extremists. The Sinai insurgency is the subject of my story in this week’s print edition of TIME, “A Great and Terrible Wilderness,” and reporting for it brought me to the Bedouin Guest House, where Frei was the only non-journalist in the place. She was an itinerate soul, comfortable with herself and the silence with which she took a seat in the open-air lounge that serves as lobby, and pealed an apple. At mid-afternoon she had already walked up and down Sinai – a fine trek, especially on a camel, but one most tourists do at night, partly to see dawn break from the summit, where both a mosque and a church stand cheek by jowl, but also to keep down the heat. Not much bothered Frei.
She had been to Egypt several times before, and on this visit found the vibe in Cairo after the coup far more discomfiting than anything going on in Sinai’s south. “It took me a while to get used to it,” she said of the capital, and see the country I’m used to.” She stayed four days — “not a very long visit, for me” – then headed to Sinai for two weeks, despite what turned out to be repeated warnings. The first, from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Frei said she knew to disregard outright: No one in Berlin can be relied upon to know what’s happening on the ground. Bureaucrats will reflexively assume the worst and issue a travel warning just to be on the safe side. Indeed, many governments issued blanket warnings against travel to any part of Egypt, even though Cairo’s upset was entirely localized and the Sinai fighting was going on near the Mediterranean coast.
Sinai’s south was another story for several reasons. One was who lived there: The Bedouins around St. Catherine date themselves to the 5th Century construction of the monastery, which they say their ancestors were sent from Romania to help build and stay and guard. “The monastery is the heart and the Gebalya tribe the body,” says Soliman al-Gebaly, a local journalist who, like most of the Bedouin around St. Catherine, also works part time as a tourist guide.
But Sinai’s rugged and striking southern reaches are also heavily guarded by uniformed Egyptian forces, who man checkpoints protected by looming armored personnel carriers. The resorts of Sham al Sheik are walled and fortified, having been attacked by car bombs a decade ago. The culprits were jihadis from the North, where extremism has taken root in a way not seen in the south. But the attacks did put the resorts on the map as a target.
“There are repeated incidents where people from the North came here and made problems,” says Sheik Mousa, a Gebalya tribal leader. “But they can’t. Why? Each tribe has its borders. If one person comes, we’ll finish him.”
These sort of assurances mean little to most holiday-makers, who understandably prefer their vacations as care-free as possible. But it did cut ice with the Egyptian authorities. Archbishop Damianos, who made St. Catherine a tourist mecca, says it was the assurances of Gebalya tribal leaders that persuaded the Tourism Police to allow the monastery to re-open its doors to visitors, after a three week closure from Aug. 15 that was described as entirely precautionary, not based on any specific threat.
“People forget how far from here the fighting is, 500 and more kilometers,” says the archbishop, an affable Greek who wields a magnifying glass at his cluttered desk. “In another two months we hope the tourism will be back. Of course,” the cleric adds, “history moves in waves, and sometimes we don’t know if we’re at the peak or at the trough.”
Just so. Two weeks later – after several European governments had lifted their travel advisories on South Sinai – a car bomb exploded outside a police station in El Tor. The city lay on the Gulf of Suez, far from both St. Catherine and the southern resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh. But it was undeniably in Sinai’s South, which during our own brief visit had felt entirely safe, if a bit lonely.
It turns out that even Frei had hesitated after the second warning. It came from the German embassy in Cairo, diplomats whose local knowledge she respected. “I had to think about it,” she said, “because if something happens, people always say: ‘You’re crazy.’”
“A few years ago,” she went on, “I was in Mali…” Specifically, the north of Mali. Frei had spent six weeks in the Sahara with a camel caravan carrying slabs of salt between the salt mines of Taoudenni and Timbuktu. It was time travel in the back of beyond – bliss, she says, but a bliss grounded partly in ignorance. At the time, she he had no idea that Al Qaeda was roaming in the same area. “It was fine and I had a good time,” Frei said, and took a long pause. “And a bit later I found out it was not good.”