Mt Sinai - in the footsteps of Moses
Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
235Trip End Nov 30, 2009
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But he didn't. After escaping delta Egypt the first major prophet of Judaism, Christianity and Islam wandered down the west coast of the Sinai, turning eastwards and inland only a couple of hundred kilometres before reaching the southern tip (roughly where Sharm el Sheikh is now). He missed all of the area's best dive sites, opting to roam the mountainous wastes of Sinai's interior until getting the call from God to ascend the mountain and receive the Ten Commandments.
Judging by the terrain out there, that was a pretty tough break...
Anyway, I find that I need to break my diving up so as not to have consecutive days of popping ears and sinus headaches. Diving wears you out. So six of us (three German students, two Brits and I) headed out at 8am in a minivan to St Katherine's Monastery and to climb Mt Sinai.
As usual the Egyptian desert yielded some spectacular scenery as we drove the 130km or so inland. Also as usual in The Sinai, the police and army have a heavy presence so a number of checkpoints were passed, all sporting heavy calibre weaponry aimed at oncoming vehicles just in case something goes awry. Unfortunately you can't see the machine gun in the pic above, but it was a serious piece that would have cut the van in half if needed. They didn't seem to check the camel's documentation however...
Up we went into the hills, eventually reaching St Katherine's after a couple of hours hard driving. It lays in a desert valley overlooking a small settlement below (called Al Milga) and in the shadow of boulder-strewn hills all around. A place of refuge since it was inaugurated in the mid 4th century, it has still seen its fair share of trouble although you wouldn't think anyone would bother trudging this far out of the way to attack a score or two of pilgrim monks.
Initially devoted Christians came here to pray and debate near the Burning Bush - where God spoke to Moses - at a small Chapel dedicated to the Alexandrian Saint that gives name to the site (she was skewered on a spiked wheel and then beheaded for her Christianity). In the 6th century a fortress was ordered around the Chapel by Emperor Justinian, finally completed by about 650AD. However the heavily walled monastery found here today is probably the product of ongoing development over later centuries.
Access within the monastery is quite limited - extending to the forecourt and a couple of side wings. This included the Chapel of the Burning Bush pictured above (I think). Again no photos were allowed inside (apologies for the blur) but the interior is extremely ornate, a manifestation of God's will to be praised by the faithful on this most sacred of sites. Metal candelabra hang from the ceilings and the walls are decorated in the most detailed manner according to the Eastern Orthodox faith that the monastery practices. Groovy.
In the courtyards there was a few interesting sights to check out. A ancient-looking but colourfully decorated prayer niche cut into the inside of the front wall was a highlight. A large group of Italians were flocking around a hanging plant that obviously has some significance (maybe I should have set it alight) and the letters carved into the steps were pretty cool despite leaving me bewildered. Probably something to do with praying every time you walked up them, like a stairway to heaven...
The sacristy was well worth a look too. This houses a well preserved and world famous collection of religious paintings, icons and artefacts that the Monastery has collected over time. Old bibles and psalm books, jewel encrusted gold goblets, ornamental crosses and even an old scroll basket that a number of the treasures were found tucked away in.
I found the Vestments (religious clothing) Room particularly enlightening. Whether God commanded that the higher monks wear "radiant apparel of pure gold and blue and purple" as one of the description cards states sounds a bit dubious but who am I to argue?
Once done in the Monastery it was time to follow in Moses' path and begin the ascent of the 2,285m Mt Sinai. A seven kilometre path winds its way through desert very much resembling photos of Mars I've seen. However the sky was blue and the air was fresh so continue up the camel path I did - meeting up with the Germans (Kerstin, Emanuel and Malti - hope I've got the names right guys) at one of the tea shops half way up. Naturally we were climbing in the heat of the day and despite being winter it was still very warm. Phew. The message of peace further up spurred our weary legs on.
After passing through Sinai's shadow and a cutting in the mountain the final leg had been reached. Pretty vertical as you can see in the picture above left. Legs aching and breath short, the summit with obligatory chapels came in sight and we were saved. Hallelujah! The going all the way to the top was pretty rugged so I don't envy the dedicated parishioners of this particular place of worship at all...
It was a great feeling to finally make it up, more than two kilometres above Dahab on the coastline somewhere in the distance below. Richard and Carol from England weren't far behind. Everyone was suitably pleased as we surveyed the holy domain of barren and jagged volcanic peaks as far as the eye can see. God must be a very vengeful God to make anyone climb up here!
After resting awhile we just had to get down in the couple of hours light still remaining. Kerstin and Malti took a shortcut through 'Osama country' and nearly plunged to a bloody death, Emanuel and I took the easy route and ended up waiting for them to bounce down the rivulet that they eventually managed to scale without serious incident. Sorry George Bush - no sign of Osama here unfortunately.
But that was the easy bit, because we were about to take the Stairs of Repentance...
A very dedicated monk carved these 3,750 steps many moons ago to make a more direct route to the top of Mt Sinai. I use the term 'carved' liberally - it's hardly a staircase, more like a jumble of stepping stones down a narrow but steep watercourse carved into the volcanic rock by rivers that form after the very infrequent deluges that the area receives every few years.
Light was fading fast but we skipped down without any serious injuries, past cute piles of stones left by other pilgrims taking this path (I made my own one in the very foreground of the picture above middle). Finally the monastery hove into view and we made it by nightfall and on time to meet the mini-van. What a mission.
But it was a good mission. I wouldn't advise it for the elderly or anyone during the day in summer - you'd fry like an egg out here. I also wouldn't advise the popular night walk as neither track is particularly safe after dark without serious lighting, but in the end we all enjoyed the day trip into this holy land.
Next entry -> the Blue Hole
Where Darwin Went Wrong...
I know they're highly adapted to their environment and are at the apex of desert animal evolution, but just look at it.
Wrong in anyone's book!