Hurghada And Mt. Sinai, Egypt

Trip Start Oct 21, 2009
Trip End Jan 12, 2010

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Flag of Egypt  , Red Sea and Sinai,
Friday, November 13, 2009

11.12.09/11.13.09            Hurghada, Egypt – And Mt. Sinai

Our hotel in Hurghada – Sunrise Hotel & Nile Cruises – has a mediocre room but an absolutely killer balcony with a stunning view of the bright blue "Red" Sea.  Located on the Mediterranean Coast, Hurghada – once a modest and isolated fishing village – has metamorphosed into Egypt's most popular resort destination.  The area contains over 100 hotels, and has a glitzy, resort-life feel to it… a dramatic change from where we've come from!  Hurghada attracts many European tourists and tons of Russians.  The sun is hot, the sea is warm, but the "packaged resort" feel follows you everywhere.  There is even a Hard Rock Café, Hurghada.  Enough said.

We were up early this morning (Thursday, 11.12.09), and enjoyed another lavish hotel breakfast.  We boarded the tour bus at 7:45am to drive to the ferry terminal, where we were *supposed* to take the 8am ferry across the Red Sea about two hours to Sharm El Sheikh (with free time – woo-hoo! – and lunch in the afternoon).  However, when we arrived at the ferry terminal, Romani was informed that the ferry was not running that day – and the next departure would be Saturday!  This being Egypt, of course, one company has a monopoly on this entire ferry route, so we encountered our first ever scheduling problem on this tour. 

What to do?  We were scheduled to climb Mt. Sinai at 2:30am Friday, that next morning.  Romani took us back to our resort hotel so that we could sit out by the beach for a few hours while he made alternative travel arrangements for us.  I will fast forward through our long day and tell you that in the end, we boarded a new bus for a 9-hour bus ride around the top of the Suez Canal in order to reach Mt. Sinai in time to climb it tomorrow! 

[Side note: nearly every day of this tour, we have had a member of the Egyptian special police (plainclothes, but carrying weapons) accompanying us on our tour bus, and to each stop we make.  This requirement is handed out by the Egyptian Government – and, in some instances, occurs at the request of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.  These requirements are an effort by both Egypt and the U.S. to make Egyptian tourism safe and comfortable – and to discourage bad things from happening to tourists, which, hopefully, encourages more tourism to Egypt in the future.  We all made friends with several of these guards – they were a pleasure to have on board our bus!  As a tour group, we ALSO have to have approval from the Egyptian Government for our group itinerary, as well as permission to make any changes to that itinerary.  So – both the change in plans from taking the ferry to driving around the Suez, plus trying to secure a new police officer to accompany us on that long drive, also took Romani some time to arrange.] 

Anyway.  We arrived at and checked into the St. Catherine Guesthouse at around 1:00am Friday (11.13.09) morning.  At 2:00am – yup – we were up and dressed for our trek to Mt. Sinai’s summit.  (I could tell you how cranky we all were by that point, and just plain worn down physically and emotionally – but you could probably figure that out for yourselves). 

So, today (Friday the 13th!) at 2:30am, we were on our way to Mt. Sinai’s summit in time to watch the sunrise, and to stand at the site traditionally considered to be the place where God revealed the Ten Commandments to Moses!!!

First, let me tell you a little bit about Sinai.  Sinai’s rugged interior contains barren mountains and wind-sculpted canyons.  Rocks and desert landscapes turn shades of pink, ochre, and midnight black as the sun rises and falls, and what little vegetation there is appears to grow magically out of the rock.  Bedouin still wander through the wilderness, and camels are the best way to travel (or so they say… but more on that later!).  The terrain is too rocky even for a 4WD!  Against this desolate backdrop, some of the most sacred events in recorded human history took place, immortalizing Sinai in the annals of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Mt. Sinai is revered by Christians, Muslims, and Jews for its historical and religious significance.  There are two well-defined routes up the summit – a camel trail, and also the Steps of Repentance (over 3,500 steep steps to the top!).  Both routes meet up at Elijah’s Basin, where everyone must climb the 750 or so rocky steps to the top of the summit. 

So, in the black of the night, our group left the St. Catherine’s Monastery area (where our Guesthouse is located) and headed out on the trail to Mt. Sinai’s summit.  Several other groups and individuals already were marching in that direction.  After a very short time, the camel riders were separated from the walkers.  Murray and I, as well as my Mom and a few others in the tour group, elected to take camels two-thirds of the way up the summit.  My summation of this experience: oh, gee, hmmmm – WOW!

At the beginning of the “camel path,” I was assigned a “camel boy”, who led me through a rocky field populated by what seemed like hundreds of camels sitting low on their haunches.  (By the way, have you ever seen a camel sitting all the way down?  It’s really different.  Their back legs bend backward at the knees, and in one giant collapse their legs are tucked underneath them.  They are so huge, yet have such spindly, tall legs – it is bizarre to see them sitting on their haunches like a cat, knees jutting out past their tails, chewing their cud with amazingly large teeth, and looking at you through their huge camel eyes surrounded by thick camel eyelashes.)  Again, it was pitch black outside, and eerily quiet – save the occasional camel braying somewhere in the distance.  I couldn’t distinguish a sitting camel from a large boulder in this immense, dark field we were winding through – and already, I was separated from everyone I knew.  It was bizarre, and a little alarming.

Finally, we arrived at “my” camel.  As this young boy helped me up onto my camel, which had VERY tight pummels on its saddle (one jutted into my back – the other dug into my belly), I have to admit – I was a bit terrified.  My balance was all wrong, and the camel was so far off the ground (and this, even before the camel stood up)!  You can imagine my terror, therefore, when the camel actually did get off the ground (seemingly, an 8-stage-or-so process toward lift-off)!  For the first several seconds of the ride, I was tempted to throw in the towel and get down to find the walkers; I was separated from Murray and the rest of the camel group, skirting around other camels and walkers in the dead of night, and barely able to stay on top of my ridiculously tall, uncomfortable camel.  But, for some reason, I stayed with it. 

I wish I could say it got better, but I’m not sure it did!  Hahahaha.  I managed to survive the 2+-hour camel ride to Elijah’s Basin – clinging to that camel’s back for dear life the entire time, as it (of course) insisted on walking along the very outside edge of the path, and even in the black of night, I could see down the sheer cliff drop-off below me.  Still, as my camel scaled that path higher and higher toward the summit, I tried to breathe deep breaths and will myself to remember this experience: the eerie quiet of the night; the jagged peaks of surrounding mountaintops like cut glass against the deep, rich sky; the millions of brilliant, piercing stars flung into every corner of the atmosphere above me; the path to the summit laid out behind and in front of me, filled with the twinkling lights of the hundreds of walkers determined to make it to the top in time to see the sunrise; and the sounds of my camel, Aswoo, heavily flatulating his entire way up the mountainside. It was incredible – I don’t think I could forget those few hours even if I wanted to.

Even so, when we arrived at Elijah’s Basin, I was never so happy to feel ground below my feet again!  (Goodbye, farty Aswoo – hello again, my feet!)  At Elijah’s Basin, I finally reunited with Murray, my Mom, and some others from my group, and we began our slow ascent of the last 750-1,000 roughly hewn rock steps (both steep and uneven) to the top of Mt. Sinai.  It was slow-going at times, and our breathing was shallow with the thinner oxygen levels at that height, but we finally did make it to the top – and in time to see the gorgeous sunrise. 

Both the climb – and the summit itself – offered spectacular views of the nearby plunging valleys and mountain chains rolling off into the distance.  The rays of the sun lit up the mountaintops like you would not believe – turning them amazing shades of reds and yellows and oranges.  And, the air was so crisp it seemed to illuminate everything we saw for miles.

Even more so than the scenery, though, Mt. Sinai’s summit was a place of true spirituality.  Groups and individuals alike dotted the entire length of the mountaintop, some in prayer – others in song – others softly humming or swaying.  Two Germans near me robustly sang out a German hymn, while right next to me, a very old woman began weeping as the sun started to peak in the distance.  After Murray and my parents and I together enjoyed the peace and tranquility of the sunrise for several minutes, those of us in our tour group who made it to the summit congregated in order to share communion together.  I will always remember breaking bread with dear friends and family at the top of such a sacred site.  It truly was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

After posing for a few group photos, and with the sun rising ever high in the sky, Murray and I began our descent back down the mountaintop.  The first one-third back down to Elijah’s Basin went relatively quickly, despite our shaking knees – but the last two-thirds down the camel path did take some time.  (PS – unwittingly, Murray and I had been just about to take the “Steps of Repentance” route down the mountainside before my Dad stopped us and directed us toward the camel path – a much easier, graduated way down.  We are so grateful for my Dad’s directional sense, as the paths down were not well marked!  Others in our group were not so lucky, however, and because of their wrong turn, had to climb the 3,000+ tough steps down to the bottom…)

At any rate, we made it to the bottom of Mt. Sinai, and we were back at St. Catherine’s Monastery by about 9am.  After a quick breakfast there, Murray and I headed back to our rooms for about one hour of sleep – and then back up again at 10:30am for a shower and the 11am tour of the monastery.  Phew.

[Side note: this was the point in the last 24 hours that I was very near a breakdown.  I was just so incredibly tired, and stiff and sore (knees, hips, ankles) from the climb.  I wanted to throw myself down on the ground like a two-year-old and kick and scream, as I didn’t think I’d be able to take it anymore – but in the end, onward I went, like everyone else in the group!]

The visit to St. Catherine’s Monastery was well worth getting up for.  The monastery is a place of busy everyday life as well as profound spirituality.  It traces its origins to around 330 AD, when the Roman empress Helena had a small chapel and a fortified refuge for local hermits built beside what was believed to be the burning bush from which God spoke to Moses.  The monastery is named after St. Catherine, the legendary martyr from Alexandria who was tortured on a spiked wheel and then beheaded for her faith. 

Since around the 6th century, when Emperor Justinian ordered a fortress to be constructed around the original chapel as a refuge for the Christians of southern Sinai, the monastery has been visited by pilgrims from throughout the world, many of whom braved extraordinarily difficult and dangerous journeys to reach the remote and isolated site (unlike now, when we can reach it by paved road!).  Today, St. Catherine’s is considered one of the oldest continually functioning monastic communities in the world, and its chapel is one of earliest Christianity’s only surviving churches.  The monastery and its surrounding areas are a UNESCO World Heritage site. 

Once inside the fortress, we were able to go inside the 6th century Church of Transfiguration.  This church is an ornately decorated chapel with a nave flanked by massive marble columns and walls covered in richly gilded icons and paintings.  St. Catherine’s remains also are interred here.  High above the altar, there is a beautiful mosaic depicting the Biblical account of the transfiguration of Christ – an absolutely stunning artistic work.  I thought the church was very beautiful, but I didn’t like the hundreds of chrome and glass lanterns that hung low from the ceilings.  To me, they detracted from the church’s splendor and covered up the simplicity of the church and its paintings.

After the Church of Transfiguration, we saw the original burning bush (hello?!  The burning bush?!  How cool – and surreal – is that?!) and the Well of Moses, a natural spring that is supposed to provide marital bliss to those who drink from it!  [The well had a lid on it, though, so I couldn’t test the waters for Murray and myself!  That’s ok.  We’re already blissful.  Haha.]

Unfortunately, we could not visit the Old Library within the monastery, as currently it’s closed for restoration. Romani did tell us, however, that this library contains many monastic treasures and Byzantine-era icons from world famous collections; numerous precious gold and silver chalices and crosses; and a priceless collection of ancient manuscripts and illuminated Bibles.  Apparently, many scholars believe it is the most important library in the world outside of the Vatican.

After the tour of the monastery, it was about 12 noon.  We grabbed to-go box lunches from the St. Catherine Guesthouse and boarded the tour bus for our trip onward to Jordan that evening.  I slept hard and fast for the one and a half hour drive to the Hilton, where our group hung out for a few hours by the pool (and Murray opened his Christmas present from Mom and Dad, a beautiful papyrus print of a ship, with his name in hieroglyphics painted on top!) while Romani waited for a phone call confirmation from his contact at the port terminal that the ferry to Jordan was nearing departure (apparently, this ferry line is notoriously unreliable – surprise, surprise).  After a few hours of relaxing and having a few drinks (Murray: beer) by the tropical pool area, we departed the Hilton for the ferry terminal, arriving there about 4:30pm.  At this point, we all had to say goodbye to our beloved Romani, as we had a new tour guide waiting for us in Jordan.  Even worse, however – we had to say goodbye to MURRAY! 

[When Murray and I were planning our 11-week trip around the world, and trying to fit this Egypt/Jordan tour (to which my parents invited us) into our long itinerary, we did not know that Murray is not allowed to travel into Jordan due to work restrictions.  After we paid our deposit for the tour and our agent began to book the rest of our international flights, we found out that Murray would have to stay in Egypt while I traveled onto Jordan with my parents and the rest of the group.  So – while all of us went onto Jordan, Murray stayed in Egypt, traveling for a few days up to the great library of Alexandria.  I have encouraged Murray to write his own journal about his few days in Alexandria without me – including the night he spent as a guest at Romani’s house – but I’m not holding my breath about receiving a journal entry from him.  Hah.]

We still ended up waiting around for a while – the ferry did not depart until sometime after 6pm, and we didn’t arrive to Jordan until after 8pm.  The two+ hours in between are a bit of a blur, although I seem to recall ferry hilarities (including someone in our group waking up very loudly to a dream of some kind!) and really odd rituals with Jordanian customs officers!  Suffice to say, once in Jordan and aboard our new tour bus, we officially met Nassir, our new tour guide, and began the few hours’ drive to Petra.  It was right before 11pm that we arrived at our hotel.  After quickly checking in and consuming a very late, quick dinner at the hotel – sleeeeeeep.
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