This pristine place otherwise called, the Moses Mountain is still a virgin territory that fills the fortunate few with a soul stirring experience.
It is a sanctuary for travelers, no matter of what faith or none, in search of peace and quiet, away from the madding crowd, and earthly concerns.
Travelers to Egypt most likely have on their agenda the Great Pyramids of Giza, Cairo, Luxor, perhaps a Nile cruise, or even a taste of the Sahara. But there is a jewel of a place that is often overlooked, on the Sinai Peninsula. Sharm el Sheikh, just a short flight from Cairo, is a popular resort town on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula, protruding into the Red Sea. It has inviting beaches, streets lined with shops selling souvenirs, snorkeling and scuba diving equipment, and restaurants boasting of fresh catch from the Red Sea. An attractive tourist joint, but nothing too different from other seaside resort towns. But, it is Sharm’s backyard that is unique, indeed physically, culturally and spiritually uplifting: Mount Sinai. I’d like to share my experience there.
On the day of our arrival, a bus picked me and Mike up from our hotel at midnight for a three-hour ride to Mount Sinai, and the Monastery of Saint Catherine situated at the foot of the mountain. This Greek Orthodox monastery, is said to contain the original burning bush mentioned in the Old Testament, where in God appeared to Moses. The bus ride was a bumpy one across rocky terrain. Surprisingly, it was full; the passengers were mostly young folks on holiday from Europe. At a checkpoint, a couple of Egyptian border guards came onto the bus to inspect travel documents, even though we were traveling within Egypt. Security was apparently tight on the Sinai Peninsula. As we continued, it was pitch dark outside. At three in the morning, we arrived near the Monastery. All the other passengers alighted and, equipped with flashlights and hiking sticks, scurried toward the starting point of a mountain path winding uphill.
“Where are they all going?” Mike asked the bus driver.
“To the top of Mt. Sinai. Moses Mountain, we call it,” the driver answered.
“Sunrise at six. Very beautiful.”
“I don’t think we are equipped for that,” I said, kicking myself for not having a flashlight and hiking boots.
“Bedouins can take you up on camels.”
The minute we got out of the bus, as if knowing our intention, a bunch of Bedouin boys, in turbans and long robes, and no more than thirteen or fourteen years of age, came up to solicit business.
“Camel ride up Moses Mountain?”
Mike and I were soon safely ensconced each on a camel. The ride was easy, actually pleasant, as we ambled up the mountain path, our camel boys leading the way. The summer night air was chilly but refreshing. In the pitch darkness of the wilderness, a thousand bright stars sparkled in the heavens, like glittering diamonds on a bed of black velvet. I took in deep breaths, and closed my eyes. Here I was, in the Sinai Peninsula, at four in the morning, on a camel going up Moses Mountain – things we would never imagine doing in our lifetime. The sensation of calm, peace, and self-satisfaction could not be explained, only experienced.
Just as I was thinking how effortless and pleasurable it was going up Mount Sinai, our camel boys came to a halt, and shouted orders for our camels to kneel so that we could alight. We were on a flat landing about three quarters up the mountain and in front of us were rocky steps.
“Camels don’t go up steps. You walk from here. 750 steps to top. Get to top before sunrise. It is very hot when sun comes out, no shade,” Ali, my camel boy, said.
There was a small chapel at the top, we were told, in commemoration of Moses receiving the Ten Commandants from God. 750 steps. Surely we could make it up there before sunrise.
The steps, however, turned out to be high, steep, jagged blocks, roughly hewn out of the rocks, often hazardous, not groomed for an easy ascent. Without proper shoes and a flashlight, even though the sky was gradually lightening, the road less traveled was turning out to be a strenuous climb. Then, as luck would have it, I twisted my ankle. Still, we pushed on, stopping many times to catch our breath, and resting my injured foot. We were going up at a snail’s pace, while racing against time.
The stars had faded. Then the first streak of orange appeared in the eastern sky. We could not tell how far we were from the summit. Should we continue to the peak, or watch the sunrise from where we were, and make our way downhill before we got roasted by the scorching sun? Our destination was so near and yet so far. Meanwhile, my sprained foot was hurting more. Mike and I finally found a rocky ledge on the mountainside to sit, and we waited for the miracle of sunrise on Mt. Sinai from our vantage point. Within moments, the sky had assumed all shades of vermilion and red. Before long, the sun peeped above the distant horizon, like a glowing ping-pong ball, gradually but surely rising above the distant hills, unraveling the rugged country all around. In front and below were hills, valleys and deserts, golden at the break of dawn. A moment of revelation. The sunrise could not have been more spectacular from the summit, we told ourselves. Though regretting that we did not reach our initial goal, we were thankful for what we had seen. After a while, we got up, and slowly made our way downhill, towards the Monastery of St. Catherine. I glanced back many times at Mount Sinai, daunting and magnificent, bathed in sunlight, glowing in a desert of parched hills and sparse vegetation, a mega monument to the history and faith of mankind.
At nine, we entered the Monastery. Within its fortressed walls were imposing architecture from Byzantine and later periods, priceless icons, frescoes, mosaics, manuscripts, artifacts from different eras, the Well of Moses where he was supposed to have met his future wife, Zipporah, and the ever luxuriant burning bush, around which the Monastery was built in the sixth century. Regardless of one’s religious orientation, it was a spiritual experience, and a cultural treasure with no comparison.
Mt. Sinai, with the Monastery, is one of the most gratifying and inspiring experiences in my travels. Cradled in one of the hottest trouble spots in the world, the place breathes peace, harmony and tranquility. While undeniably a holy place for pilgrims of various faiths, it is also a paradise for lovers of nature, hiking, history, period architecture and artifacts. It is a sanctuary for travelers, no matter of what faith or none, in search of peace and quiet, away from the madding crowd, and earthly concerns. It is not for the noisy, excitement-thirsting tourist. Miraculously, it has remained the way it always was, untouched by war, revolution, and ethnic, political and religious conflicts prevalent through the centuries in the region. Perhaps, Mt. Sinai’s message to the world is there is hope for humankind yet.
By Elsie Sze
Elsie Sze is the author of two novels, Hui Gui: a Chinese story, published in 2005, and recently, The Heart of the Buddha, a finalist for Foreword Magazine’s Book of the Year Award for Multicultural Fiction, 2009.
A native of Hong Kong, she now resides in Toronto, Canada.