The beguiling strangeness of Sinai gardens

Irish filmmaker Bryony Dunne is making a the desert bloom on screen, linking the land of Moses to the Aran Islands

High up in the rocky crags of Mount Sinai, where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments, there is a series of secret gardens; little oases among the reddish stones and sand. The landscape appears almost lunar, yet the Irish filmmaker and photographer Bryony Dunne found unexpected parallels with the Aran Islands where, generations ago, islanders mixed seaweed with sand to create the soil on which to farm.

Dunne found herself at Saint Catherine, on Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, as part of a project for her Masters course in Unesco World Heritage Management and Conservation. Completing her research, she realised that she wanted to do more with her experience of this extraordinary place than what she describes as a "heavy piece of academic work that only a few people would read". She started a photography project that evolved into a 30-minute film, The Orchard Keepers, which will be screened at Dublin's Chester Beatty Library on Saturday.

“It was my way of sharing the experience,” she says. “It all turned when I met Amariya, the main character in the film. She’s 70 years old, and has had seven children. Then, after a life spent doing what’s expected of her within a Bedouin Muslim society, she went off to live by herself, and has restored one of these gardens. It’s pretty much unheard of for a woman to live by herself like that.”

Another figure in the film is Dr Ahmed, the last surviving herbal doctor trained in the traditions of desert healing. Dunne found herself attracted to these timeless stories. “It is not merely Mubarak and Morsi who are living through monumental times. In their own worlds, the ordinary people of Egypt too are undergoing a revolution.” Unlike the political revolutions, however, the conflicts that are threatening the orchard keepers are those that arise when a way of life is caught between deep tradition and encroaching modernity.


Dark haired and softly spoken, Dunne was born in Co Wicklow, and is now based in Cairo, where she teaches photography at the German University. “I grew up in the mountains, between Lara and Lough Dan,” she says. “It is like being in a different world. Cairo is very intense and chaotic, and at times very frustrating, but it’s a fascinating city. There are 20 million people there, so coming back to Wicklow it takes one or two weeks for me to get to grips with the stillness.”

Despite the city's media reputation, she says she hasn't experienced any "scary moments" in Cairo. "I honestly wouldn't be there if I felt uncomfortable." Nevertheless, terrorism has been another threat to the way of life depicted in The Orchard Keepers. "With the security concerns, all the independent eco tourism that existed has been completely wiped out. The Bedouin received a steady income from that, but now the only ones that come in are the large tourist buses from Sharm el-Sheikh to Saint Catherine's monastery."

This type of commodification of a previously authentic experience is a trap that Dunne feels has also, at times, turned the Aran Islands into pastiches of themselves. The parallels she cites between the Sinai desert and the islands came from a meeting with the Irish filmmaker Bob Quinn, who first drew her attention to the similarities. These are expressed through a book that accompanies the film and features 20 photographic portraits, together with a series of pen and ink drawings.

Many of Dunne’s photographs of the people who eke out their desert gardens have been set up mimicking the 19th-century mobile studios, where a white canvas backdrop has been set up in the desert, emphasising the beguiling strangeness of the place, and the relative artificiality of the process.

Dunne’s next project has an even stronger emphasis on artificiality that exists on the cusp of nature and culture, and the attempt to capture something on the point of being lost forever. She is going to Kenya to film the last male northern white rhino in the world. The rhino, called Sudan, has a 24-hour security detail attached to him to try to prevent poachers from killing him for his horn, prized for its supposedly aphrodisiac qualities – even though he has had his horn removed to try to deter the killers.

Two females have been brought over from zoos, but so far he has failed to mate with them. Dunne describes the strangeness of Sudan’s life, set against the 16th-century Dürer woodcut of a rhinoceros, drawn from a written description. “Five hundred years separate the two,” says Dunne, marvelling at the oddness of the Dürer depiction, a drawing of an animal the artist had never actually seen, now in the British Museum; and an animal that may soon never be seen on earth again.

The Orchard Keepers will be screened at the Chester Beatty Library on Saturday at 1pm. Admission free.