"Let's climb that biblical mountain!"
After a week of lounging on the shores of the
Red Sea and partaking of delectable cuisine along restaurant-row in the touristy town of Dahab, I feel some calorie burning is in order. My husband Rick isn't sold on my suggestion for its workout value, but in anticipation of great photo ops he agrees to go, stipulating, "as long as I don't have to carry down any stone tablets."
Leaving our seaside haven in a tour van filled with fellow adventurers, we head into the south-eastern interior of Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. Stunning deserts panoramas of shifting golden sands are succeeded by rugged mountains of limestone and granite. Arriving at
St. Katherine's Monastery which lies in a gorge at the foot of Mt. Sinai, our guide Mohammad explains, "Mt. Moses is not visible until after our visit to St. Katherine's when we take the path up around the monastery."
We inch along through this small Orthodox centre, transfixed by breathtaking icons captured in the shadowy light of gigantic chandeliers suspended from exquisitely designed ceilings. The bones of martyr St. Katherine are entombed here, as well as a pile of skulls behind glass; the remains of monks who were first buried, the bones later disinterred. This bizarre custom arose from the burial sites being reused due to the difficulty of digging graves in the rocky ground, and as a reminder of man's mortality.
The monastery's roots can be traced back to 330AD, when
Byzantine Empress St. Helena built a small chapel on the purported site of the biblical burning bush, where the "man in the sky" first had words with
Moses. In the 6th century, Emperor Justinian built a church incorporating the chapel and the monastery with a protective wall to house the icons and ancient manuscripts. St. Katherine's is now a
UNESCO site, and one of the oldest working Christian monasteries in the world.
It is time to begin our
Mt. Sinai ascent. Rounding the bend alongside the monastery Mohammad points at a 2285-metre peak and says, "Look! Jebel Musa (Mt. Moses)!" I know our athletic abilities will be taxed. "There are two ways up," Mohammad continues, "one being 3750 'Steps of Repentance,' laid by monks as a form of penance. The route we will take is the winding path ahead that at a steady pace takes approximately two hours - after which there are 750 steps to the summit."
From this point, some in our group mount camels for a ride up to the steps. We start off with the walkers, noting far ahead others on foot appear as ants weaving their way upward. Bedouins leading camels along the route call out, "Want ride? Air-conditioned taxi?" "No," we reply, "We go like Moses." It becomes a matter of proving we can do it.
I am overjoyed when we come to a small stone-benched rest house. Mohammad tells us this is the first of six of these welcome reprieves, and that they will be more frequent as the trail becomes steeper.
By the time we reach the steps I feel the burn of lactic acid in muscles I didn't know I had. We wolf down energy bars and gaze up to where the mountain top fades into the ether...then begin. The rock cut steps are uneven and of varying depths, requiring our concentration for each foot placement. After the first 300, we need to stop every 20 steps to slow our drumming hearts. At about 400 steps, Rick pants, "I have new respect for that Moses fellow. Wasn't he in his 80's when he brought down the 'Big Ten'?"
The top! Eureka!
A stone chapel stands at the highest point of the summit, and a mosque on the flat rock slightly below. The splendour of the surrounding mountains and valleys is riveting; earthy hues of caramel, sienna and charcoal change with chameleon swiftness as deep rose streaks of a setting sun embrace the sky. While Rick's camera captures this rare beauty, I sit on the precipice waiting for spiritual reflections befitting the Mount... but my lone thought is 'Oh Lord, we still have to get down!'
Darkness falls like a stage curtain as we begin our descent. My legs are likened to deflated tire tubes by the time we reach the sinuous trail. With gravity on our side from then on I only have to shuffle one foot in front of the other. In the café at the bottom, we clink our cups of sweet milk tea and relish the elation of conquering Mt. Sinai...and that Rick and I were neither stiff nor sore the next morning is a miracle.
recent controversy as to whether the biblical mountain where Moses received the
Ten Commandments is the traditional and most accepted Mt. Sinai in the Sinai region of Egypt OR a mountain called Jebel al-Lawz across the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia.
Dahab - is a Bedouin-based town on the Red Sea, with some of the world's best dive sites (including the Blue Hole) and hundreds of dive schools. Windsurfing, camel and vehicle desert safaris are other popular adventures.
St. Catherines' Monastery - Sinai Peninsula, Egypt
Irene Butler is an award winning travel writer and author of "Trekking the Globe with Mostly Gentle Footsteps" now on Kindle. Her articles have appeared in national and international publications. From their home base in Kelowna BC, she and her photographer husband Rick explore the world for six months of every year.