The Jebeliya: Reflections on Development

1] This past May, six students and I experienced some Middle Eastern “development” in the raw.1 Under a vividly blue, sheltering, desert sky, we worked with local residents to build a small dam not far from Mt. Sinai. All was done by camel and by hand — carrying boulders, scooping sand, mixing mortar, and carrying all of the above in a high and narrow gorge where skilled Jebeliya and Egyptian masons pieced together a gracefully curved dam some ten feet high.

[2] I was drawn into the project by the plight of the Jebeliya. These “people of the mountain” trace their history back to the Emperor Justinian, who reportedly brought them from the Black Sea region in the sixth century to supply the material needs of the newly established St. Katherine’s Monastery. They settled in the red-granite mountains surrounding Mt. Sinai and intermarried with local Bedouin, producing what is recognized as a distinct nomadic tribe. Perhaps the area became most economically developed in the mid-nineteenth century, when Abas Pasha, the morose and reclusive ruler of Egypt at the time, ordered a summer palace built on a barren peak not far from the monastery. Possibly as an omen of what was to come, he was assassinated, the project was abandoned, and the economic activity of the area declined. One hundred years later, the Jebeliya moved out of their rugged mountain wadis, or valleys, down to the flatter land around the monastery. Their mountain gardens of fruit trees, enclosed by high stone walls, were largely abandoned.

The Jebeliya: Reflections on Development by Stewart W. Herman

[3] Some fifteen years ago, the tide slowly began turning the other way, thanks in good measure to the Makhad Trust, a small British effort organized by a charmingly quirky and tenacious architect named Danny Schmulevitch. He began cultivating relationships with Jebeliya and responded to their ideas for reclaiming their gardens and rebuilding their mountain economy. The Makhad Trust encourages and supports local garden-owners in deepening their ancient wells to reach the dropping water table; this involves digging through solid granite bedrock to a depth of twenty-five feet or more. Thirty dams have been deepened so far. Makhad also flies in small teams of volunteers to build low stone dams, which serve to capture and retain the runoff from infrequent rainstorms. The precious water seeps into the rocky soil to recharge the long-depleted aquifers. Despite a drought lasting almost a decade, improvements are already visible. Stone walls have been rebuilt, trees planted, and even magnificent outhouses constructed to accommodate itinerant trekkers who arrange to pitch their tents in the gardens. Mini-oases of startling greenery have blossomed in the bottoms of the ruddy granite wadis.

[4] Today most Jebeliya still live in St. Katherine, adjacent to the monastery, or the village of Abu Sila. There they have electricity, water, jobs, schooling, and some degree of medical care — but not their beloved gardens, with olives, pomegranates, almonds and other fruits of the mountain valleys. They have neither the fresher air of higher altitude, nor can they smell the pungent aroma of wild herbs. So they long to reestablish their high gardens. With the help of Makhad and the government, they are making slow, steady steps, one dam at a time. The dam we built is expected to raise the water table in Wadi Zuweitin and nourish the gardens of several families. Nine dams have been built so far, and more than two dozen are at various stages of planning. Eighty-five more families are on Makhad’s list for deepened wells and dams. Interest is keen simply because the families stand to gain so much. Yet only two people actually reside full-time in the mountains, and most beneficiaries of Makhad’s help are not likely to return to their family gardens to live.

[5] Full-blown economic development is not expected, and therein lies the genius of the project. Genuine development, it seems to me, involves five complementary measures of well-being, and the Makhad effort appears to me to meet all five. The first measure is material improvement. In this respect, the wells and dams make it possible for families once again to cultivate the fruit of their orchards and enjoy the land that they treasure. A second measure is historical and cultural preservation. The Jebeliya are not busting into an untrammeled wilderness, but seeking to restore a neglected inheritance from their ancestors. By reviving their gardens, they strengthen the region’s culture and enhance its appeal to trekkers.

[6] A third measure of genuine development is what might be termed the empowerment of individuals. Some ten years ago, Thomas Friedman heralded the spread of globalization by juxtaposing two symbols: the Lexus and the olive tree. Beneficiaries of globalization want to give up neither the shiny technology which improves their lives materially, nor the deeply rooted traditions that ground their lives. The Makhad effort reinforces this kind of both-and empowerment. With a very modest bit of development provided by the dams, the Jebeliya are able to move increasingly comfortably between two worlds.

[7] Consider two women we met. The first was Selima, a young entrepreneur in well-tailored hijab who with a grant from the EU has built a business to sell the crafts that more than 300 local women weave to generate income to support their nomadic families. She drives a slick, new SUV (not quite a Lexus), and conducts her business to help these women preserve their heritage by producing handicrafts with symbols representative of Bedouin culture. The second was an older woman named Amriya, who is the mirror image of Selima in important respects. She leaves the Lexus world of St. Katherine’s village each year to tend her mountain garden for four months. Adorned with traditional dress, she has the gravity of an elder sage but is hardly disconnected. Her hip, grown-up son Saieed sports an iPod and has experimented with solar water pumps. She has shrewdly availed herself of Makhad’s help to restore her garden and stay connected to her natural heritage.

[8] Of course, the empowerment of individuals can spread too far, resulting in gated enclaves for the wealthy and irrigated golf courses spreading into deserts. There remain two further measures of genuine development: social justice and environmental sustainability. The Makhad effort seems to achieve both, thanks to its small scale. Social justice is served by extensive consultation among the Jebeliya for the scheduling and planning of projects. No distant bureaucracy or large institutions intervene. Rather, it takes a full year of local effort to move each dam project from conception to completion. This process seems sufficiently fair that future beneficiaries wait patiently in line. Environmental sustainability is served by the modest scale of construction. The dams are built entirely by hand. Their construction involves simply rearranging the rocks and sand with which the Sinai is so abundantly endowed. Each dam requires 2–3 tons of cement, ferried in on camel back — a mode of transportation which contributes modestly to the carbon in the atmosphere. Once built, the dams fade into near-invisibility against the stark granite of the wadi.

[9] Overall, the Makhad effort operates at a scale tolerated by an environment which cannot support more than a light human footprint. The dams raise the water table by a few feet, providing enough water for the garden families to generate income in the form of fruit and in the form of cash from the trekkers who pitch their tents to enjoy Bedouin hospitality. In any case, the Sinai does not encourage further growth. Year-round residence in the high mountain wadis is all but physically impossible. The ridges and valleys which ring Mt. Sinai are accessible only by foot and camel. It is highly unlikely that the revival of the gardens will encourage the amenities of St. Katherine village to be trenched, strung and blasted up into the mountainous hinterland that rings the village. Moreover, the climate seems to be changing, with less rainfall and earlier seasonal spikes of high temperatures. The high wadis of the Sinai may be receiving less precipitation on into the future. The capacity of the mountains to sustain a human population may continue to decline. There is all the more reason, then, for Makhad and the Egyptian government to encourage the capture and conservation of whatever water is received.

[10] While the future is up to the Jebeliya to decide, I cannot help but wonder if leaving the mountain valleys beyond the reach of such modern infrastructure might be a good thing. With the very modest bit of “development” encouraged by the Makhad Trust, the Jebeliya have the opportunity to remain in touch with their natural heritage of tending their orchard gardens while enjoying the benefits and conveniences of interconnected and technologically enabled town living.


1. Sources: on the Makhad Trust, see: Information about the Jebeliya was provided by Danny Schmulevitch, Gail Simmons and Susie Drummond of the Makhad Trust. For a local sketch of the Jebeliya, see: Jamie Odden, ’10, contributed to this article.

Stewart Herman

Stewart W. Herman is a visiting fellow at the Christensen Center on Vocation at Augsburg University, after having retired from the religion department of Concordia College in 2015.  His Durable Goods (University of Notre Dame, 1997) offers a covenantal account of the relation between management and employees.