Climbing Mount Sinai

We checked out of our room in Cairo on Monday morning last. We’d been in the heat and bustle of Cairo for the last four days and we were ready to take a little side trip to the Sinai Peninsula. We phoned Sharm el Sheikh and Dahab, two coastal towns with good Red Sea diving options, to book a room. However, we couldn’t get through to a single number, possibly due to an international conference concerning Sudan which is currently taking place in Sharm el Sheikh. So we decided to try ringing a hostel at the foot of Mount Sinai. Yes, they have plenty of rooms available. It was only at this stage that we wondered how we might get there. The daily bus to St. Catherine’s had already left from Cairo’s main bus station but by an enormous stroke of luck, we still had time to catch the bus at a nearby stop.

This was our first trip outside the city of Cairo. The city, overflowing with well kept green spaces and luxurious trees, abruptly ends and becomes a desert of dirty golden sand. The Nile truly is the lifeblood of this city. The land at each side of this road is steadily being developed; power lines run into the horizon in every direction, arid plots are cleared for building and some have already been completed, a newly opened business is a green square waiting to become a green street as Cairo marches into the desert. Later we will talk about desertification. This is Cairification!

Our bus passed through the desert towards the Red Sea until we came to the city of Suez. As we approached the city, we noticed large container ships and supertankers floating through the desert, slowly taking a miraculous short cut between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. The Suez Canal was officially inaugurated by Khedive Ismail. The canal emerged on the political scene in 1956, during the Suez crisis. The Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser, announced the nationalization of the Canal in Alexandria in front of a cheering crowd. His decision was in response to the British, French, and American refusal for a loan aimed at building the Aswan High Dam. The revenue from the Canal, he argued, would help finance the High Dam project. The announcement triggered a swift reaction by Great Britain, France, and Israel, who all invaded Egypt less than two months later. Their action would be condemned by the International community, and Nasser would eventually claim victorious. This major modern shipping route brings in about 2 billion Euro annually. We had our camera ready in anticipation of driving over the famous canal, but to our dismay, the bus drove under the canal through a long tunnel with no view.

It was dark when we reached St. Catherine’s, the small town at the foot of Mount St. Catherine, Egypt’s highest peak and the slightly lower Gabel Musa, more commonly known in Ireland as Mount Sinai. According to the Old Testament, it was on this mountain that Moses received the Ten Commandments from God. How unusual it was for us to be in Islamic Egypt, visiting such a revered Christian setting.

We collapsed onto the scatter cushions at the Bedouin hostel we had booked. In no time, a good meal of lentil soup, beef sausages, aubergine stew, grilled vegetables and rice had us in the mood for climbing a mountain. As we sipped sweet Bedouin tea, we heard from a South African group how dangerous our overland trip to Cape Town would be and then a charming English couple assured us that we would have a pleasant ‘walk’ up Mount Sinai.

People either climb Mount Sinai in the dark of early morning, to catch sunrise at the sunnit, wrapped in a blanket and sipping more tea, or climb in the afternoon and watch the sunset wrapped in a blanket and sipping tea. We missed the hundreds of tourists and pilgrims who made the early morning ascent by about an hour. So we slowly picked our way past St. Catherine’s Monastery by starlight and asked local guides to help us through the unsigned intersections. They wanted us to employ them as guides to the summit, or even to take a camel ride most of the way up but stubbornly, we wanted to make this journey unaided.

We were somewhere around half way to the top when sun climbed over the hills to the East and lit up the red mountain sides to our right. The masses descended all around us, escaping the blistering sun and casting sympathetic glances in our direction. Slowly, we continued to haul one foot in front of the other and somehow managed to find our way to the summit. Only an hour or two before, the place held hundreds of people, the majority Koreans, Italians and Serbians, but as we climbed onto the barren rock it was completely deserted, save us two, tardy Irish travelers. Even the Bedouin trinket sellers had climbed into their tents to catch up on sleep, leaving their large trays of miniature camels, polished stones and medals unattended.

Hardly believing that we survived the climb to 2285 meters, we sat near the Chapel dedicated to the Holy Trinity, contemplating the view of similar shaped, arid, pale brown peaks which stood like hooded monks all around us.

The descent back down to St Catherine’s Monastery was quick – even enjoyable. Like the mountain, the sun bleached monastery is majestic and is nothing if not biblical. There is nothing here to remind you of the present. Continuing a tradition of 1500 years, Greek Orthodox monks tend the monastery, greet pilgrims and tourists and stand watch in the beautiful 4th century chapel, home to an extraordinary collection of Byzantine art. The chapel has a wondrous collection of silver lamps and incense holders that hang low over people’s heads, so numerous and ornamental they make a striking false ceiling.

Outside in the heat, we shared a spin back to the hostel, packed our bags and headed to the bus stop. In less than twenty four hours we had left Cairo, traveled across the Sinai Peninsula and climbed Mount Sinai.

– Written by Malachy Harty and published in The Imokilly People

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