Few countries are as blessed with gifts as Egypt. It has a unique geographic location linking Africa and Asia and overlooks two seas that are vital for international trade. It has the Nile River. It has a long-standing history that continues to impress and puzzle experts and historians for its contributions to early human civilisation in many fields. It has an affectionate, creative and resilient population. And it has the only spot in the world where the God of the Abrahamic tradition actually revealed himself to one of his prophets, on the way to the top of Mount Sinai.
Considering the significance of that part of south Sinai, also home to the Saint Catherine Monastery, one of the oldest in the world, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in person has been overseeing an ambitious megaproject to preserve and develop the natural and religious heritage of south Sinai and to serve the local community. Entitled The Greatest Transfiguration in the Land of Peace and involving over 1000 workers, the project will be completed by the end of 2022. Its first phase, involving roads, hotels and services, should open in April.
President Al-Sisi said on Sunday that the megaproject would be “a gift from Egypt to the whole of humanity for its unique spiritual value that stems from bringing the three religions together”. Despite many differences in beliefs, all three religions honour and revere the Prophet Moses. To Muslims, he is known as kaleemu Allah, or the man to whom God spoke directly at the spot where the Burning Bush was to become a pilgrimage site to Christians from all over the world.
Equally important is the fact that the project, supervised by the Ministry of Housing and employing internationally renowned architects, will be integrated into the effort to develop the entire region, maximising the use of its tourist, archaeological, environmental, religious and medical potential. Minister of Housing, Assem Al-Gazzar recently said the first stage of the Great Transfiguration at the Monastery of Saint Catherine was being implemented at an estimated cost of LE 4 billion.
That money has been used to fund 14 major projects: paving roads connecting Saint Catherine to the nearby cities of Sharm El-Sheikh, Dahab and Al-Tour, providing vital infrastructure, including water and electricity, building mountain hotels and developing the Saint Catherine Airport to receive direct flights from Cairo and other Egyptian tourist hubs such as Sharm El-Sheikh and Luxor, as well as Europe, namely Greece.
Studies are also being carried out in preparation for holding a Sound and Light show showcasing the history and spiritual significance of the area, as well as extending cable cars to Mount Sinai and other famous mountains. To serve expected population growth, the megaproject includes building housing units, a hospital, a school, a market, a mosque and a church.
Through the joint efforts of the ministries of Tourism, Antiquities and Environment, Saint Catherine will be promoted as a unique spiritual spot for religious tourism. Among the projects under construction is a “Peace Square” where Christians, Muslims and Jews can pray and meditate together. All development projects are designed to maintain the holy nature of that area, with no construction planned close to the religious sites or natural enclaves. The Monastery of Saint Catherine is already being renovated in cooperation with UNESCO to preserve the invaluable ancient manuscripts that have been in its library over centuries.
Since taking office, undeterred by threat of terrorist groups in Sinai which has all but disappeared, President Al-Sisi has prioritised the development of the entire Sinai Peninsula, which makes up one third of Egypt’s territory. With a population of one million people, 300,000 in south Sinai and 700,000 in the north, there is tremendous potential to develop and transform Sinai.
Sinai has already been connected to the mainland through several tunnels and first-class roads, overcoming a major obstacle that limited movement. Several megaprojects that have been carried out in northern and southern peninsula over the past seven years, including the Greatest Transfiguration, will help to improve the living conditions of the local community and provide thousands of jobs for young Egyptians from all over the country, enabling many to move out of the overpopulated, noisy, and polluted big cities. The ambitious development plans in Sinai will hopefully increase its population to up to three million people in a few years.
Hopefully soon, tourists from all over the world will have a new spot to visit in Egypt, thanks to the Greatest Transfiguration project, and the unique, long history of this country of many gifts.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 January, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.