Climbing Mt. Sinai has been one of the most amazing things I have done in my life, let alone here in Egypt. The peninsula itself bears no resemblance to any other landscape I have ever seen. Craggy brown rock mountains go on and on, as far as the eye can see, with nearly zero vegetation. I have been made fun of for this, but I find the best way to think of it is like the land of Mordor in Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.” Minus the scary eye of Sauron and Mt. Doom of course. It takes an eight hour bus ride to get from Cairo to the town of St. Catherine’s which is home to a famous Coptic Monastery and Mt. Sinai itself.
The Monastery of St. Catherine’s has quite an amazing history. Built in 527 c.e. (common era) to enclose what was believed to be the burning bush and the well where Moses me his wife, Zipporah, it has remained largely unchanged for 1500 years. The monastery began as one of the first Christian Orthodox churches. (The proper term would be Coptic Orthodox. Coptic meaning Egyptian, coming from the Greek of Egyptos to Copt.) It’s ability to survive this long is due directly to the Prophet Mohammad himself. During the Arab Conquest of Egypt in the 800’s the Prophet recognized the church’s significance to not only the Christian and Jewish faiths, but to Islam as well. The monastery is seen as holy to Muslims, Christians, and Jews to this day.
Though the monastery itself is fascinating, it is no secret that it is on the tourist map mainly because Mt. Sinai is out its back door, so to speak. There is some debate currently as to whether or not the Mt. Sinai of today was really the Mt. Sinai of Moses’ time. Other contenders are Mt. Saint Catherine’s, which can be seen from the top of Mt. Sinai, and is the tallest peak in Egypt, or a lesser known mountain on the outskirts of the Sinai peninsula. The debate mostly focuses on where the Israelite army could have camped while Moses was atop the mountain, large valley areas etc. Which ever mountain was the real one seems trivial when you stand at the summit and watch the sun rise.
The best way to climb Mt. Sinai is starting around 2 a.m. (needing around 3 hrs. to reach the peak) in order to snag a cozy spot on a rock to watch the sun crest over the mountain range. Our group followed this typical plan. I must admit that I did not climb all of way myself, much as I wanted to do so. Like most of my travel companions here I have suffered from Pharaoh’s revenge (you know stomach distress of extreme proportions) and was not quite feeling up to par. I like to think that I got the better end of the deal, though, because I got to ride a camel most of the way up.
I know I’m not an expert camel rider, but I sure do think it’s a great time. My first ride was on Christmas Eve 2005 on the coast of the Indian Ocean with my friend Emily wearing a Santa hat on a camel named Suzuki. Hard to beat, I know. This ride was completely different. Away from all of Cairo’s pollution (which has taken up permanent residence in my lungs it seems) the view of the night sky surrounded by the jagged peaks of the mountains was amazing. The first part of my camel journey was a bit rougher than the last. I got my camel from a guy who had two camels. Only one of me. The Bedouin camel guides are nothing if not savvy business men, so having only one rider when he had two camels was simply no good. This meant that he rode in front of me, on his other camel, following closely behind my two buddies, Micky and Nuri. Every time Micky fell a step behind Nuri the guide would say, “Ok, Camel. Camel now. Good camel. Ok, Camel.” This was annoying. There was one point when I actually asked Micky and Nuri if the guy was on a cell phone (it was night and I couldn’t see) because he literally did not stop talking. “Ok, camel. Good camel.” Thankfully the crazy Bedouin yelling ended when we passed another woman on our trip who thought she wanted a lift. Turns out she was wrong. Riding a camel for her was about a 25 second trip of terror. The guide then wanted my friend to pay him the full amount they agreed upon, around $20, for a ride of less than a minute. Lucky for me, another Bedouin came along (a quiet one) leading me away from the argument and the rest of the way up the mountain. “Ok, camel.”
The ascent up the mountain was peaceful (once the yelling stopped). Sitting astride my camel I had to trust the animals surefooted-ness in the dark as much of the time we were walking along steep ravines. Silence seemed to fill up the night, the only sights were millions of stars contained in craggy outlines of the Sinai mountains and the silhouettes of lumbering camels ahead of me in sharp contrast against the sky.
The director of our program mentioned to us that climbing Mt. Sinai could be a very spiritual time full of reflection and clarity. I found myself not thinking much of anything, but rather enjoying the stillness. One thing that I did come to understand on the assent: climbing Mt. Sinai must be as close as you can come on Earth to feeling like you are walking up to God. People
thousands of years ago thought this, and people today feel it too. There is something surreal about being surrounded by mountains and mountains of nothing but rock, cliff faces of solid granite, where the only water is in the bottle you brought with you. The emptiness and majesty are amazing. Religions the world over have believed that following God is not easy, the path is narrow and dangerous. Mt. Sinai is a beautiful metaphor for this belief. Climbing the mountain is not easy, there are many obstacles in the way, survival is dependent on faith (in others or yourself), and whether or not this is the place where Moses really spoke to God doesn’t matter much. The people believe it to be and so to them it is.
I said goodbye to my camel for the last leg of the trip, and began to climb the 6000 steps to the summit. The steps were built by Coptic monks in the 7th century and have survived remarkably well for 1400 years. My journey ended somewhere around 5:00 a.m. on the top of Mt. Sinai. There is not much up there besides the remains of a small mosque and a tiny church. Plenty of room, however, for the 300 or so who choose to make the pilgrimage each night. I found a seat on the edge of the rock face and waited on the sun.
Promptly at 6 a.m. the sun crested the mountain range and began to shed light on the night’s journey. I knew I had chosen a seat on the edge of the rock face, but in the light the thousand or so foot drop became amazingly clear. Fear is not something I really feel, but I was reminded of how very close to the edge we come sometimes and how very lucky we should feel to know we have not lost our footing. The sunrise brought more than light to the area, it also brought singing, praying, wailing, crying, and even people speaking in tongs. Regardless of what faith you cleave to, if any, the sight, sounds, and people where profoundly moving. It made the nights journey of stumbling in the dark, falling and slipping on the steps, pulling muscles, and near misses all worth it.
The descent was not nearly as remarkable as the climb yet did provide some time for really appreciating what had be accomplished in the dark. Most people said that if they would have seen the path during the day they never would have done it, they were all glad they went though. Just as I was.
I have to end this post with an experience I can’t claim as my own but that I bore witness to and found deeply touching. One of my fiends in the program worked extremely hard throughout the night in an attempt to reach the summit by sunrise. Despite her best efforts, she did not make it. She reached the top of the mountain about 20 minutes after the sun had risen and this normally happy woman was reduced to tears because she felt like she failed. We all tried to cheer her up, but had little success. When we began climbing down the stairs we passed a tiny Italian woman in her 80’s who was finishing her climb. My friend saw the woman almost fall and caught her. The woman was extremely grateful and began climbing again a little unsure of herself. At this point we were about 200 feet down from the summit. My friend noticed the woman’s hesitation, so she linked arms with her and they climbed the summit together. The Italian woman turned to my friend at the top kissed her hand, smiled, and walked away. When my friend returned all of her frustrations of not reaching the summit in time for sunrise were gone and she was thrilled to have been able to help someone else with the same difficulty she faced. Our outlooks are all about the perspectives we take. Maybe you did not reach the summit in time to see the sunrise, but you did cross paths with a stranger in time to stop them from falling and made their path a little easier. Reminders of what is important are nice. We should all be so lucky.