The first time I hiked in the desert and rocky gorges of the U.A.E., I was surprised to see several members of my group spending time around the sparse, feeble-looking plants found on our way, engaging in enthusiastic discussions that included more Latin words than English, and taking numerous photos from all angles. In my ignorance, I would not have even noticed these dry-green patches that blended so well with the surrounding sandy colors and that, based on my naïve criteria, could hardly qualify as “botanical treasures.”
Fast forward a few years: my knowledge has, sadly, remained as limited as ever, yet, my appreciation for the wisdom incorporated into the plants of the desert has grown immensely. It is precisely their scarcity that makes them now stand out in front of my eyes, and I am in awe with the abundance embodied in the symbiosis between this seemingly desolate environment and its human inhabitants. As such, during my recent hike on the Sinai Trail (*), I was inspired to put together a brief botanical notebook, enclosing the information the Bedouins shared with us, the memory of each discovery, and the intense aromas of the herbs that I can still smell in my dreams.
Acacia tree (locally called “talha”)
The desert acacia tree is so precious and sacred that every Bedouin stops by its side and praises its value. It can be easily recognized from its broad, flat-topped silhouette, as well as its pea-shaped flowers, small leaves, and disproportionally huge thorns (so big and dangerous that we were advised to be very careful while walking under the trees as the spikes that are unavoidably scattered on the ground, can penetrate even the soles of hiking shoes and cause severe injury).
These acacias are originally Savanna plants that travel from central Africa through the camels – the latter representing their natural (and sole) means of reproduction. They grow in warm places, so we encountered them much more frequently at the beginning of our hiking trail, while we were closer to the sea level. As we progressed into the desert and got entangled among the sandstone mountains, they became scarcer; we stumbled upon them again several days later in a wadi dotted with so many acacias that the locals tenderly refer to the place as “Namibia.” Our Bedouin guides explained that, although we were at an altitude of around 800 m, we were surrounded by granite mountains (as opposed to the sandstones that had been dominating the landscape so far) allowing for more water to be retained in the ground and the acacias to flourish.
The well-known, fragrant flowers are eaten by the camels that, with their nerveless lips and bony upper jaw, crunch the small branches directly from the tree and devour them, unbothered by the deadly thorns. During blooming season, camels often wander in the desert in search of their beloved delicacy. The tree’s fruits are brown, curly seedpods that, being rich in fibers, are consumed by the goats. Finally, to humans, the acacias offer their shade which is surprisingly fresh under the scorching sun, their bark with which the Bedouins dress goat-skin flasks to keep the water cold, as well as their wood for cooking. Their valuable presence in the desert is protected by the austere Bedouin Law that strictly forbids the locals to destroy the trees or abuse the use of their gifts.
Wild Capers (locally called “lasaf”)
In the Sinai desert, the Bedouins do not eat the unopen buds of the capers shrub, as we commonly do in the Mediterranean basin. Instead, they wait for the fig-shaped fruits to ripe and, when the reddish peels crack open, they suck the creamy, ochre-colored filling that is replete with round seeds the size of chocolate chips. The plant’s leaves and flowers resemble those I have seen in Greece; the size of the desert bush though is significantly bigger. Capers thrive in dry, warm places; hence we encountered them only during the first days of our hike, at low altitude. The taste of the fruit is remarkably similar to Dijon mustard: tasty, mildly spicy, but not easy (for me) to swallow it the “Bedouin way” – i.e., plain – without, at least, a piece of bread. Still, curious that I am, I carried one fruit till dinnertime and mixed its contents with my rice for extra flavor. It was not bad at all!
Since palm trees need water to thrive, we encountered them only a few times along the Sinai trail. The first ones that we discovered were perched on a slope of Wadi El Melha (the Salty Wadi), at a junction of granite and sandstone mountains which, due to the different minerals involved, allows for water to be withheld on the ground. As we were resting under the trees’ shadows, snacking on a few dates harvested from the branches over our heads (the fruits looked dry and unpolished, yet they were among the best dates I have ever tasted), we were introduced to the magic of the Bedouin stories:
“Once upon a time, there was a guy who was hunting in Wadi El Melha” Musallam, our Bedouin leader from the Tarabin tribe, said, while the rest of us sat on the ground around him with the usual enchantment the starting phrase of a tale always casts. “He was hunting for a full day but, by sunset, he had not managed to kill any animal yet. The night fell, and he found himself in the part of the wadi that we are now, having nothing to eat and afraid to continue walking through the darkness. As he stopped, he noticed a few palm trees and the ripe dates that were hanging from the branches. He picked a few and dined on them, throwing the pits into the ground for new trees to grow. In the morning, he returned to his home but kept coming back to this spot, eating a few dates each time and leaving the pits in the sand. Gradually, the number of palm trees increased, and this little corner turned into an unexpected oasis in the dry wilderness of the wadi. Years passed, he got married, and, as his family grew, his visits to the palm trees became less frequent, until they came to an end when he died of old age.
Now, it was his sons who kept passing by to enjoy the gifts of the palm trees. There came a time, though, when one of his sons decided to harvest more than just a few fruits so that he could store them in his house for his family, or even sell to other tribes. In the night, in his dream, a ghost appeared whispering in a clear voice: “if you take the dates, I will kill you.” When he woke up in the morning, he the story with his brothers who tried to dissuade him from going, but he rejected their arguments with a wave of his hand. The second night, the ghost came again to his dream to repeat the threat, and, in the morning, he ridiculed once more the warning. The night before he set off to the wadi, the ghost appeared for the third time, but, again, the son refused to be influenced by the recurring appearances. The next day, no sooner had he climbed a palm tree to cut the dates when he fell and broke his neck, dying on the spot. Spooked by the ghost, his brothers never approached the place again, and, since then, the palm trees thrive, offering their dates to the passersby. We, the Bedouins, still believe that the whole wadi is protected by the good ghost so that the wealth hidden in its corners belongs to everyone and not just a few. So, we all pass by the palm trees, rest under the shade, eat a few dates and throw the pits on the ground for new trees to grow, but we leave the rest for the next travelers to enjoy.”
We saw palm trees again three days later when we arrived at the Ein Hudera Oasis. There, each tree was planted many years ago by different, one-family tribes, and the produced dates are considered to be unique since, according to the legend, Moses stayed for a few nights in this oasis on his way to Jerusalem. Today, as the lives of the Bedouins are changing, and modernity unavoidably sneaks into their practices, many oases are left unattended and fade away. The surrounding tribes, though, make an extra effort to keep Ein Hudera alive, hosting many of the passing travelers, or getting together during the harvest season to collect the dates and celebrate.
We encountered the last palm trees in the Mt. Katherine region where, despite the altitude and the colder weather, they can thrive because of the abundant underground water. “Do you know that you can make flour out of a palm tree?” Nasser, our Bedouin guide from the Jebeleya tribe, asked. We looked back in silence and some surprise, waiting for further explanations that he was obviously eager to share. “Take the trunk of a palm tree,” he continued, “cut it in half along its length – its interior is white – and hollow both pieces out. Put the amount of this white wood you have carved out into a big barrel filled with water and leave it. After a while, the water turns white. Strain, add fresh water, and, when it turns white, strain again. Repeat the process as many times as needed for the water to remain clean. After straining for the last time, you end up with a white powdered residue at the bottom of the barrel: this is the flour, and we use it in cooking. A full trunk can give enough flour to last a family a year. Of course, Bedouins do not cut palm trees for this reason. We just take advantage of broken trees, when our intervention does not cause any harm.”
Manna bush (locally called “tarfa”)
We encountered manna bushes in Wadi Frea (the Wide Wadi), at the beginning of the trail, but they seem to be frequent in several other low-altitude regions of South Sinai. The ones we saw were quite big, with soft branches and thuja-like leaves, reminding me of the trees that thrive in the saline environment of the beaches in Greece. Although, as we were told, manna has a somewhat salty taste, it produces a wax-like resin that softens under the sun and is sweet and aromatic like honey. Based on the plant’s name, the connection with the Biblical manna that fed Moses and the Israelites on their way through the desert is not difficult to make. Scientists, however, are skeptical about whether it is truly the same plant since it is hard for such a sugar-based gum to feed many people over several days. For the Bedouins, though, this is a providential present, and, given their affinity for sugar, they eagerly search at the base of the bush’s trunks for the honey resins.
Rimth is a medium-sized bush that we repetitively encountered during the first days of our hike in warm areas with low altitude. Its branches seem to have a vertebrate structure, yet, when peeled, one can see that they are single, solid twigs. They are used to heal rash skin symptoms, kids’ stomach pains, or toothache fever. The camels love rimth, but if they have not eaten it for a while, they initially get a bit sick, as if intoxicated, since the plant has hallucinogenic qualities as well.
Rateet is a rather porous and watery bush encountered in the same territory as rimth. Despite its refreshing substance, it is not one of the camels’ favorites. The Bedouins boil it and drink it to heal kidney stones. Also, the water that is included in its branches is often used to help young plants grow till their roots are strong and deep enough to find water on their own. The locals put a few rateet branches into a plastic bag, open small holes, and bury it close to the roots of the plant. As the days pass by, water drips from the bag keeping the earth around the roots moist. The bag is replaced when the branches dry out, and the process is repeated as many times as needed.
Bedouin Vaccination against Scorpion bites
Although this note does not refer to a plant, it includes a natural and intriguing recipe used by the Bedouins as vaccination against scorpions. When a baby is born, the parents roast a small scorpion, a wasp, seven grains of wheat, and a few black seeds of a plant locally called “khabet baraka.” A person who has already been doubly vaccinated (as described below) and is regarded as a healer, spits into the mixture and then, the lot is grained into powder and fed to the baby on a silver coin. The baby should get very sick for a week but, after that, he/she is immune to the scorpion’s poison. If the baby does not get sick, the process should be repeated. To make the child even stronger, the parents may decide to give him (her) a sugar cube that has already been sucked by a healer (hence, retaining his saliva). A person who has been doubly vaccinated this way has healing powers on others, and his/her saliva (or, even, urine) can be used either for the vaccination of other babies or as quick medicine applied on the spot in case of a scorpion bite. Such healers are not allowed to kill any animal, not even a mosquito or fly unless the animal they kill is destined to serve as a meal. It was exciting to know that Musallam, one of our Bedouin guides, was a healer, and, Nasser, our companion during the full 12 days on the trail, had also received the vaccination when young.
This is a ground-crawling bush with laced, arrow-shaped leaves and peach-sized fruits that are bitter and poisonous. The Bedouins distill the fruits and mix the liquid with wax and olive oil to use as a medicine for rheumatism. We encountered most of them during the first days of the trail, so they seem to grow in a warm climate, at low altitude.
The fruits of the oshor tree look like unripe mangos; however, they are soft like small balloons. The Bedouins crush the porous peel and use its juice as medicine for the toothaches. We encountered an oshor tree on the second day of the trail, close to a small oasis and a Bedouin settlement, so possibly it grows when there is enough underground water.
A ground-crawling bush with leaves and flowers covered in some kind of fuzz (possibly to retain water from the humidity in the air). This plant can produce a potent drug which, we were told, if taken twice, it can prove lethal. Encountered on the second day of the trail, on flat, sandy terrain.
This small bush is the go-to medicine for all Bedouins, and they always carry it with them. The leaves are small and have a fuzz that allows the plant to retain the humidity found in the air; as such, it can live for more than just one year, even if there is no rain. The locals boil it and drink it as medicine for allergies, as an antibiotic, or against poison. It is encountered quite frequently in most of the South Sinai area.
It is a middle-sized bush with a remarkable aroma, repetitively encountered in the sandy terrain of the first days of the hike. Its leaves are used in boiled water to heal a stomachache.
The Bedouins brew the leaves of this medium-sized bush into tea and use it for colon cleansing. The plant is encountered in areas similar to those where baithran grows as well.
Ratam is a large bush with long, plain twigs, and can be used as a compress to fight yellow fever and back pains. We encountered it somewhere in the middle of our hike, in sandy terrain and mild altitude.
A small, thorny bush, quite frequent in the middle part of our trail, in sandstones and mild altitude. It is another favorite snack of the camels.
Aijelan twigs look (to my amateur’s eyes) very similar to ratam. The Bedouins boil and drink them to cleanse the kidneys. I drank such a tea after dinner once, hoping that it would not keep me awake with an increased need to urinate (though I was reassured that the effects start 12 hours after consumption). Ultimately, I did not notice any difference, so maybe I was too cautious and drank too little! We encountered it in the middle of our trail, in sandy terrain and mild altitude.
The Finger of the Lady
It is a beautiful, middle-sized bush encountered on granite ground and moderate altitude. With its long clusters of flowers, it can be quite impressive among the barren landscape of the rocky mountains (unfortunately, all the flowers we saw were already dry, so we did not have the chance to enjoy them in their full glory). Its leaves are used as an herbal tea to cleanse the system from poison.
Another beautiful bush found amidst the granite mountains, as we were moving closer to Mt. Katherine. The Bedouins drink it as a tea to cleanse the body from excessive salt. It is also very aromatic and, as I attached a small branch on the stripes of my backpack, it kept me company for several days on the trail.
The rotama bush was our precious ally once we were away from the acacia trees and before we entered the highlands of the Sinai Peninsula: it was the plant that provided us with wood for our cooking fire. Once again, we were witnesses of the locals’ respect towards nature since they never use branches that are not fully dead and dry, or they have to face the consequences of the Bedouin law. Of course, one might say that any wood that is not completely dry cannot be burnt, and, thus, is useless; however, the Bedouins’ attitude transcends the practicality of the issue and their respect towards the available resources is carefully weaved into their daily code of conduct.
It is a large, porous bush which prospers only at an altitude around 1400 – 1600 m. The Bedouins smash the soft branches and produce an oily liquid which, when mixed with water, becomes foamy and is used as a cosmetic soap, leaving the skin not just clean but soft and nourished as well. Indeed, the feeling was delightful – though, of course, the experience might have been enhanced by the fact that we had not properly washed for several days in a row.
A bush that looks like wild thyme or oregano with a similar aroma, found at an altitude of 1400 – 1600 m. Another beloved camels’ snack.
This is one of the 17 plants that are endemic only on Mt Katherine. Due to the season, we just saw a small dried bush with flower buds on top of each twig, so I am not sure what it looks like during its blooming time. It has medicinal qualities that are used for the stabilization of the pancreas function.
We encountered this small bush on the Mt Katherine territory. When fresh, it is collected, dried, and crushed into a powder which is added to the butter to preserve it or is consumed to prevent vomiting (hence, it is frequently used by pregnant women). It is salty and, indeed, when I rubbed my hand against its leaves and licked my palm, it tasted as if I had been holding potato chips.
A small, aromatic bush encountered in the Mt. Katherine area, belonging to the same (fagonia) family like samwa. Foxes tend to leave excrements in the middle of the bush, defining their territory.
The specific type of thyme was encountered at an altitude of around 2000 m (a bit below the top of Mt. Moses). It is considered to be significant because, based on recent researches by scientists in the area, a tiny butterfly – the blue bottom butterfly – that is living next to this type of thyme was discovered for the first time. It has been categorized as the smallest butterfly in the world; it is endemic in the region, can be found only at this altitude, and lives for just 2-3 months, when the temperature is neither too cold nor too hot. Unfortunately, our visit did not coincide with the best season for us to see them.
On our way down from Mt. Katherine summit, we collected a few twigs of mountain tea and used them to prepare an herbal infusion during the last camping lunch of this hike. It was quite exceptional – I was sorry I did not collect more.
These flowers (which look a bit like daisies) can close their petals on a reflex when a few drops of water land on their central disc. This movement allows their seeds to fall and, hence, the flower multiplies. Even though the lehias we saw were already dry, their petals did move when we splashed a bit of water on them. The Bedouins use the flower’s reaction to describe a drizzle: “it didn’t rain much, just enough to move the lehias.”
My last memory from the Sinai trail, after the olive tree groves, and the gardens with the pomegranate, the almond, apricot, and quince trees of Mt. Katherine region, is Dr. Ahmed Saleh’s small shop in St Katherine village. Its corners are stuffed with numerous bags full of herbs from the Sinai mountains, carefully harvested and blended to ease any ailment, the whole ambiance reminding of secret stores and potion ingredients in Diagon Alley. I left with a bag of Bedouin tea and wild oregano in my suitcase, carrying some of the Sinai aromas back home.
(*) I hiked on the Sinai Trail in October 2017; the autumn season affected many of the plants I saw on the way, as they were already quite dry after the summer months. The hike lasted for 12 days, starting from the North-East side of the peninsula close to Nuweiba, went through the flat desert, numerous wadis, sandstone and granite mountains, and ended at Mt. Moses and Mt. Katherine. It was guided entirely by Bedouins, and three tribes were involved, depending on the territory: the Tarabin (in the beginning), the Muzeina (in the middle), and the Jebeleya tribe (in the area around Mt Katherine and Mt. Moses)
Photos: © Konstantina Sakellariou
Disclaimer: all the notes above are based on the information shared by our Bedouin guides, as I understood it myself during our 12-day hike on the Sinai Trail. Also, the names of the plants are transliterated according to my understanding of the pronunciation and, it is possible, they include some inaccuracies. Any comments or corrections are welcomed and appreciated.