Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Witnessing Remarkable Acts of Faith atop Mount Sinai, Egypt


Destination: Mt. Sinai

Number of Days Spent:  1 glorious night turned into morning

Where we stayed:  On the ledge of a mountain top

Best restaurant:   Leftover aish with laughing cow cheese from our backpack & a bag of cookies

Best of:  A beautiful sunrise!

Worst of:  Camel hair blankets smell really bad.  Tracy was also nearly knocked on the head by a camel coming through the path. 

Most Memorable:   The church ladies of Cyprus - a remarkable testament of just how much faith one can have (read below).

Useful Tip:   It's cheap to book a tour from Dahab (180-200 EP - less than $20) though as always make sure you get the details (type of van, number of people, whether or not there will be AC in the van for the way back, etc).  We booked ours through the Bishy Bishy and were very happy.  Don't forget your head lamp, even if your tour operator tells you that you don't need one.  Trust us, you do.

"...And the Lord came down Upon Mount Sinai...and called Moses up to the top of the mount...And God spoke all these words, saying, I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage."  ~ Exodus 19

Mount Sinai has long been a site of pilgrimage and revered by both early Christians and Muslims alike.  As early as the 3rd century A.D., persecuted Christians were seeking refuge here living as hermits.  During the 5th century, Emperor Justinian founded Saint Catherine's Monastery at the base of this mountain, in essence, calling this particular mountain, the mountain that God, in the form of a burning bush, spoke to Moses.  Pilgrims have been coming ever since to this harsh and unrelenting environment to worship.  Our journey was less daunting than what those early pilgrims faced, but an overnight journey in the dark up a rocky hill for sunrise was challenging enough for us.

We left Dahab at 11:30 pm, only half an hour late which is excellent by Egyptian standards!  Driving like a deranged madman our driver had us at the foot of the mountain in record time and we started hiking around 1:30 am.  For most of the first part of the climb, you are forced to stumble in the dark past the hundreds of camels and their owners trying to sell you a ride up the mountain.  Thirty minutes of staring at a seemingly endless train of camel asses and incessantly hearing "Camel Ride?" almost wants to make you cave in and say ok!  After the first couple of checkpoints however, we cleared the fray and it was smooth sailing to the top...aside from the steep climb that is.  While not that technical of a climb, it's still a mountain complete with steep steps and sharp rocks.

The start of our hike:

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While we were climbing the mountain we crossed paths with 5-10 Cyprus pilgrims coming DOWN the mountain at 3 am!  They were intrigued by us as we were by them.  We were going for the sunrise, and they were on a spiritual journey caring not to stick around at the top for the scenery.  These pilgrims were 80++ years old and dressed in their finest church clothes complete with flat dress shoes for the ladies.  Physically they were each accompanied by a guide to help them up and down the mountain but their faith was the real motivator.  In the presence of such enduring faith gives one a definition to what it really means to believe in something so profoundly and without equivocation. 

Our arrival at the top was met by a couple more Bedouin who make a living out of renting out "camel" blankets - dubbed that for the smell and not the material.  We had brought our own (blanket that is, but not a camel one), and trust us, after sweating your way to the top, you are going to need one as your body temp cools back down & the sweat on your back chills you to the bone.  We found us a quiet space and laid down on the craggy rocks, a vain attempt to catch a few winks.  After a hour and half had passed and with no one joining us on our side of the hill, we discovered we were facing the wrong way for sunrise...!  So much for getting there early to get a good spot.  Fortunately, there were still a couple of spaces left on some steps so we settled in and waited for the magic!   

Arrival at dark but then dawn breaks:

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The sun rises to reveal the uneven terrain.  Quite a magical moment.

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Just before climbing down, we paused to ring the small church bell.

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The aptly named Steps of Repentance number 3750 in total leading from the top to the back door of St. Katherine's Monastery.  While much quicker than the camel trail we took going up, the uneven and all rock steps are taxing on the knees and joints.  The reward, however, are a couple of rock arches and a great bird's eye view of the Monastery.   


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The foundations of St. Katherine's Monastery date all the way back to the 3rd century serving as one of the oldest continually functioning monasteries in the world.  The bush inside is said to be a direct descendent of the burning bush that the voice of God was said to take the form of.  How one determines such things is beyond my comprehension, but millions of pilgrims believe it, and seeing as how there is little else alive out here in this barren wasteland there are not that many bushes to choose from to begin with.

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After heading back to Dahab and relaxing for a couple more days, we packed our bags and headed for the border.   Next stop:  The holiest of holy cities on Earth - Jerusalem, Israel.

To see more photos of Mt. Sinai click here!

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