Burning Bushes and Mountain Top Churches

Our ferry docked in Egypt at around 5:30 in the morning, leaving us to scramble, sleepy-eyed off the ship and in search of a bus that would take us to Dahab and later Saint Catharine.  Our bus pulled away as the sun was rising and we watched as the swiftly passing jagged mountains seemingly rose straight out of the ground, making for a harsh landscape that has understandingly pushed much of the population centers to the coast.

We caught a minibus packed with British tourists from the lazy beach city of Dahab and headed out to Saint Catherine, disembarking at the monastery. Built at the base of Mount Sinai, the complex still houses a number of orthodox monks and therefore is only open until 12pm. During these constricted hours, it becomes apparent that the massive stonewalls, narrow halls and tiny single entrance that protected the monks from early invaders, were not made to accommodate the throngs of tourists that come each morning. The seething mass of people pressing to see the church inside are packed so tightly that your decision of how you would like to explore the area is subsumed by the greater tide (bringing back unfortunate memories of the Cairo subway!).

Note the fire extinguisher. Burning once is enough apparently.

Unfortunately any spiritual experience that I might have enjoyed from walking through the ancient church and seeing a descendent of the Burning Bush was lost in the pushing, pressing and continual camera flashes.

We left the monastery and got a lift back to our hotel for a quick lunch before heading up to hike Mount Sinai. It turns out that the owner of the hotel was the Sheikh of the main tribe in the area who seemed to have a near monopoly on the tourism business in Saint Catherine, providing the majority of the hotels, transportation and obligatory guides for all the hikes.

The guide who was provided for our trip up Mount Sinai was a thin, wiry man named Eid (whose name means holiday interestingly enough, as we came on our Eid break :)) who looked as though he could have been anywhere between thirty and fifty-five or so. We were joined on the hike by a couple from the Netherlands, one of whom was a Green Peace activist who worked on the oceans and the other was a fresh water ecologist. I guess they came to the desert for a change of scenery and humidity!

Eid set a brisk pace, making sure we would be at the top of the mountain for the sunset. Despite his chain smoking, he continually out paced us and kept making odd comments about how men were stronger than women, apparently missing the fact that the four of us alike were panting at our short breaks!

We took the long route up the mountain, circling through a rock-strewn valley with large cliffs on either side and dotted with small springs that our guide told us could be traced back to biblical times. As the shadows grew longer, our trail grew dramatically steeper and we rounded the bend to find the first rest house. After a two-hour hike, I was surprised the see that its small store had bottles of water, multiple types of soda and an impressive variety of candy bars. We did not ask the prices but I imagine that the shipping and handling fee alone was enough to clean out my wallet!

We continued up, passing a number of the small shacks all selling the same items and apparently relying on hikers getting alternatingly thirsty or hungry every 600 meters. After one or two more shacks, we made it to the stairs. Over 700 were apparently carved or assembled by a single monk as an astonishing act of devotion and determination. The stairs wound their way up the mountain face, which was getting increasingly steep and occasionally marked with bright yellow “Attention – Danger” signs. Somewhat amused by the fact that they were only written in English, I asked our guide if the signs were only for foreigners. He nodded his head in a matter-of-fact way as if to say, “Egyptians are not so stupid as to need them!”

Many, many stairs later, we finally reached the top of the mountain and were surprised to find a full-fledged mortar-and-stone church at the top! As the place where Moses received the Ten Commandments (or 15 if you are a Mel Brooks fan) this spot obviously merited a lot of time and effort on behalf of the monks to construct such a building. At least they had a stunning view while they were up there. One of the tallest points in the Sinai, mountains stretched out below in all directions, their jagged peaks rising and falling as far out as we could see.

We joined the small community of hikers at the top and watched the sun slowly set in front of us, gently dropping behind the hills that had been giving us shade only a few hours before. Apparently this is also a popular hike in the early morning, with tourists attempting to make it to the top of the peak in time for the sunrise. Having heard stories of how cold the wait at the top was, I think that we chose the right time.

After watching the sunset, we headed down the steps as the light was slowly fading, starting to wonder if it was a very bad idea to have forgotten our flashlights (perhaps that is the reason for the signs after all).  We were delighted, however, to discover that the moonlight was not only strong enough to see by, but our weary bodies also cast long shadows that raced us back down the path!

With the moon and the still-smoking Eid as our guides, we made our way back down the mountain and crashed into our beds back at the hotel, our shaky legs about ready to go on strike if we asked any more of them. The next morning found us on the 6 am bus to Cairo, leaving behind the quiet sleepy town, heading back to the big city.

Coming back to Cairo after the break was like coming back to another world. I jumped a little higher at the loud honks of the minibuses whizzing past me and quickly began to forget what it was like to have your breathing and footsteps be the only sounds around you. It was a great break, but it is always nice coming home. Despite being nearly hit by a car and then crushed from all sides by the mass of people riding the subway, I breathed a sigh of relief.

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