Into the Heart of Sinai

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Africa » Egypt » Sinai » St Catherine
November 10th 2014
Published: February 17th 2015
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Sinai Sunset Sinai Sunset Sinai Sunset

A desert sun drops behind jagged mountains at the end of another hot day on the Sinai Peninsula. © L. Birch 2014
Into the Heart of Sinai.

As we rolled up to the checkpoint, the soldier who had flagged us down walked around the car and stood in front of my window. He wore an automatic rifle of some kind, strapped across his chest – the barrel pointing down at the road. His left hand covered the trigger guard almost negligently and because the gun was at eye level next to my window, I had a brief opportunity to wonder how the regulation army green barrel and metal stock had become so scratched and dented.

His right hand moved up to the window, palm facing upwards. “Passport” he said in heavily accented English. I handed over our passports and he began thumbing through the pages with calloused fingers. ‘Those hands look as if they could use a little moisturiser’ I thought, but decided it might be better not to mention it. They didn’t seem big on humour in Egyptian military academies. Surliness and menacing expressions yes, humour no.

Another man, also in uniform wandered over and joined the first in studying our passports – turning them this way and that, stooping to glance into the back of the taxi
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Over centuries, wind blown sand has eroded this outcrop and created a bizarre natural sculpture. © L. Birch 2014
in order to check that the faces of my 2 companions were the same as those in the passports. I wasn’t sure what needed to be so thoroughly checked in the passports of 3 British backpackers but they probably didn’t get much excitement sat beside an empty desert road in the middle of Sinai.

Finally, our passports were handed back and the soldiers waved us on. We had a last glimpse of them and their lonely little outpost as the taxi wove between the double barriers set up across the road – a bright vista of sweeping yellow sand backed by distant red hills beyond. Ever since leaving the coastal strip earlier that morning, we had passed through a number of such checkpoints on our journey into Sinai’s stark interior. It was a sign of the times and a sobering reminder of some pretty grim realities.

Egypt has been in the news a lot lately… unfortunately, for all the wrong reasons. Political and secular divisions have thrown the country into turmoil and almost torn it apart. A rising Islamist movement threatens to destabilise the country still further and since the late 90’s has targeted Christian groups, intellectuals and
All of Sinai Spread Out BelowAll of Sinai Spread Out BelowAll of Sinai Spread Out Below

One of the rewards for making the 7,497ft climb up Mt Sinai was the stunning 360 degree view of desert mountains. © L. Birch 2014
increasingly – foreigners and tourists during an extended campaign of violence that shows no sign of abating. Tourism, once the mainstay of the Egyptian economy, has been decimated and now barely hangs on among a scattering of coastal towns in southern Sinai.

And so, against this backdrop of sometimes violent political unrest, our plans to travel independently into the heart of Sinai… was bound to raise a few eyebrows, if not a few objections. Few people came this way these days and even the tour companies had stopped running any regular trips – the threat of possible terrorist activity and a lack of sufficient customers had put paid to that, at least for the time being. However, there was nothing to stop intrepid individuals like ourselves from hiring a taxi and doing it on their own…which is pretty much what we did. Setting out at 6am on a late October morning, we had made our way to the coastal town of Dahab, falling foul of an unscrupulous taxi driver who agreed a price at the start of our journey only to angrily demand more when we reached our destination. After a light breakfast on a deserted seafront, we found
The Bedouin CampThe Bedouin CampThe Bedouin Camp

Our home for 3 nights was a Bedouin camp on the outskirts of town. We it seemed, were the most customers it had seen in weeks. © L. Birch 2014
another taxi and negotiated a price for the 3 hour journey inland to the small town of Catherine (spelt variously with either a ‘C’ or a ‘K’…but however it’s rendered, the locals simply pronounce it as “Katreen”).

There wasn’t much to the town of Catherine, a small Bedouin settlement nestled among towering red mountains - deep in the peninsula’s interior. How ever much we grew to like it, the town itself was not the main attraction so much as the location. Biblical history tells us that it was here, on the rocky summit of nearby Mt Sinai, that Moses received the 10 Commandments. Such is its fame that the site draws a steady stream of pilgrims (and the simply curious), all keen to climb the 7,497 ft (2,285 m) mountain in an effort to experience some kind of spiritual connection. There was another draw here too. Crouched in its shadow at the very foot of the mountain, is the fortified monastery of St Catherine - founded by Greek Orthodox monks more than 1400 years ago and still home to a practicing order to this day. The monastery has several ‘claims to fame’ – among them, the widely held belief
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Dwarfed by towering desert mountains, Viv and Kya set off on the road to St Catherine's Monastery. © L. Birch 2014
that it was built on the site of the Burning Bush (mentioned in Exodus 3: Ch 1-15). Monks lead visitors around the monastery on daily tours that briefly stop overlooking a small courtyard. The monks will then point out a green shrub growing over a wall (that looks anything but barbecued) as being a descendant of the original burning bush. The monastery also holds a wealth of religious artifacts, reliquaries and manuscripts - among them, what is believed to be one of the oldest and most complete Bible manuscripts still in existence; reputedly written some time during the 4th century (just after teatime I expect).

After marvelling at the incredible desert scenery beyond the taxi windows, we eventually arrived in Catherine, the driver very conveniently dropping us off outside a Bedouin camp on the outskirts of town. Hamdi, the Egyptian manager seemed surprised to have guests but led us to a little stone-built room at the back of the compound. There were 3 beds inside, each piled with a collection of multi-coloured blankets. “Believe me,” said Hamdi with a grin “You’ll need them later”. This little room with its bare walls and a single shuttered window was to be
St Catherine's MonasterySt Catherine's MonasterySt Catherine's Monastery

Crouched at the foot of Mt Sinai, the fortified Monastery of St Catherine is reputed to have been built on the site of the [Biblical] Burning Bush. © L. Birch 2014
our home for the next 3 nights. Surprisingly, there was an upscale hotel in town as well - not that we would have stayed there… but even if we had wanted to, it might have been a bit difficult. Not as surprising was the fact that building had stopped some years ago and was on hold indefinitely as a result of the political crisis. Currently, it is little more than a shell of a building with no roof or windows and no likelihood of patrons to fill its dusty breeze block rooms.

Eager to get out and explore, we dumped our packs and went off to find the monastery. It was a 4km walk out of town but we made it just in time to do a whirl-wind tour before it closed for the day at 1.00 o’clock. It’s a marvelously atmospheric place, steeped in centuries of tradition and worship. Should you want to stay longer and immerse yourself totally in the experience, it’s also possible to stay at the monastery in rather austere little cells provided for visitors… at least, you can if you’re male. Ladies are not allowed to stay. The monks have taken a vow of
For Whom the Bell TollsFor Whom the Bell TollsFor Whom the Bell Tolls

From inside the monastery walls, the bell tower and mosque stand out against a blue sky and the stark ramparts of Mt Sinai. © L. Birch 2014
celibacy and would probably find that far too distracting. As usual, this prompted a lively discussion among my female companions about the ridiculousness of men unable to control themselves in the presence of women. I didn't think there was anything I could contribute to this particular conversation, so instead I opted to keep my trap shut and say nothing at this point. I know when I’m out gunned.

Climbing Mount Sinai

The rest of the afternoon was spent exploring the dramatic environs of the monastery and being delighted by the boyish whistles of Tristram’s Grackle, a rare member of the crow family only found in Sinai and parts of southern Israel. Later, back at the camp with an early darkness falling, we talked with Hamdi about the best way to make a climb of Mt Sinai next day. Viv was getting cold feet about the idea, saying that perhaps she would wait until the cable car had been put in… at least until Hamdi suggested using camels to trek into the base of the climb, thus saving ourselves a good 4-5 km walk before we had even started. Both Viv and Kya perked up at this idea, particularly
Camel TrainCamel TrainCamel Train

The girls set out from Catherine by camel on the first leg of the climb to the summit of Mt Sinai. © L. Birch 2014
Kya who had recently announced a new found ambition to buy herself a camel. I wasn’t sure how useful that would be in rain-soaked England but it would certainly turn more heads than her battered Peugeot did.

Among the mountains, darkness falls early and with it comes plunging temperatures. During the day, you can walk around in shirt sleeves but at night, the mercury drops rapidly. Hamdi had lit a fire in a Bedouin tent and we all huddled around it for warmth - joined by Veronique, the camp’s only other guest. Veronique was French and now in her 60’s, told us that she had been knocking about the world’s remotest places for most of her life. She travelled with hardly any baggage and didn’t seem to have any money or cares. When it came time to leave a place, she hitched a lift and went wherever it took her. If you had the right mindset, it was probably an enviable way to live. As the evening wore on, Arab workers in headscarves and long white Gelabeyahs joined us in the tent – greeting everyone with a brief “Salaam A’ lekum” before squatting down and extending calloused hands toward
Just Don't Look Down!Just Don't Look Down!Just Don't Look Down!

The trek to the base of Mt Sinai took some interesting twists and turns as the sure-footed camels made their way up into the foothills. © L. Birch 2014
the fire. We were also joined by Salaama, a friend of Hamdi’s who had a very well observed, dead pan sense of humour. After that, the evening degenerated into a round of outrageous stories and laughter. Hamdi and Salaama were the perfect comedy duo, ad-libbing and bouncing off each other until we were almost crying with laughter.

Next morning after a very cold night, we were up early wrapped in fleeces and scarves – ready for the climb up Mt Sinai. Salaama, who had spent the night in the tent crept out blearily to join us. Apparently, after we had gone to bed, their night had carried on until the early hours. Even so, Salaama led us into the backstreets of the village where we met up with Musa, our camel driver for the day. In Arabic, the name Musa means “Moses”. The Arabs also call Mt Sinai, Djebel Musa – “Moses’ Mountain”. I thought it quite appropriate that we would be climbing Moses’ Mountain in the company of a guide named Moses. We had hired 2 camels, the girls taking one each while I bounded on ahead to take pictures and document the trek. This first part of
Mt Sinai from the Pilgrim's TrailMt Sinai from the Pilgrim's TrailMt Sinai from the Pilgrim's Trail

Viewed from below, Mt Sinai's summit appears quite imposing. "We're not actually going up there, are we?" Asked Viv. "You betcha." I replied. © L. Birch 2014
the climb, skirting around the back of Mt Sinai was an easy walk on a gentle incline that afforded dramatic views of our surroundings and the imposing summit of Sinai. I had been here just over 30 years before as an impecunious student, not long out of college. I had been living and working in Israel for a while, taking some time out to travel through Egypt with a Canadian friend. Sinai had been one of the highlights of our trip and I was interested now to see how much it had changed in that time… not much, I am pleased to report. Catherine was a little bigger than it had been back then but the setting was still as wild and dramatic as I remembered. After a steady 2½ hours of climbing, we reached the start of a rock staircase. From here on in, we were on our own: our guide and camels could go no further. Musa didn’t speak a word of English but pointed out the path we should take and then, with a wave was gone, back down the mountain the way we had come.

We stopped for a rest and a drink, preparing ourselves
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Viv makes the final push for the summit on the last and hardest part of the climb. © L. Birch 2014
for the last and hardest part of the climb. The views were already spectacular but would be better from the top, I told the girls. Viv, I knew, was going to find it hard but would feel such a sense of satisfaction at having done it… a climb to the top of Moses Mountain, one of the holiest places in Christendom.

We took it steady, stopping frequently for rests and to admire the views. There was a natural basin a few hundred feet below the summit where we stopped for a light lunch before the final push. In all, it took almost as long as the earlier part of the ascent on camels but eventually we stamped onto the summit plateau and looked around ourselves with awe. From the top there were uninterrupted views of red and purple mountains dancing off into the distance on all sides – all of Sinai was laid out below us as far as the eye could see. What’s more, we had it to ourselves… well, almost. There is a little chapel on the summit (its doors locked unfortunately) and it was while looking around the outside and admiring the views that I bumped
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Finally, after what seemed ages, we reached the summit where spectacular views across Sinai awaited us. © L. Birch 2014
into John – the resident hermit.

It wasn’t too big a surprise, we had already heard about John back in Catherine and hoped that we would get to meet him. He had set himself a spiritual challenge - to fast for “40 days and 40 nights” while camped on the summit of Mt Sinai with little more than a couple of blankets and some bottled water… was he mad and how did he keep up with the football scores? We were intrigued and wanted to find out more. He greeted us warmly, a tall man dressed in a monk’s habit and clutching a wooden staff… he certainly looked the part anyway. We offered John a bottle of water and all 4 of us sat down on a tiny plaza outside the chapel. Apart from us, there was no one else around but I had the odd sensation that the encircling mountains were watching us. John it transpired, was South African. Disenchanted with a successful business life back home, he had ended up leaving everything behind and began travelling – with no purpose other than to find some kind of meaning to his life. “To travel merely to go from
John The Hermit John The Hermit John The Hermit

Taking time out from a gruelling business schedule, John was kind enough to spare a few minutes to talk with us about his views on life, the universe and everything. © L. Birch 2014
one ‘tourist sight’ to the next,” he told us – “where’s the point in that?”

Although not religious, his journey had taken him around the Mediterranean and eventually to Israel. It was there, while spending time in Jerusalem that he heard about Mt Sinai and was struck by the idea of taking on an epic New Testament-style retreat. If he was going to find the answers anywhere, surely it would be there – atop Mt Sinai? At the time of our visit, he was 36 days into his fast and the end was in sight. How had he managed without food, we asked? It had been hard at first, he told us but eventually he had become accustomed to not eating. Fighting the craving for a particular kind of food or a glass of wine had focused his attention on simple things – like a cup of water and how good it could taste. Had he experienced any visions or had any insights, we wanted to know? No visions he said, but he had noticed that over time his appreciation of the rugged beauty all around him had intensified and become a deeply emotional experience. Having spent time on
Last Light Last Light Last Light

The last rays of the setting sun burnish the high peaks as it sinks below Mt Sinai. © L. Birch 2014
Sinai, he had also come to realise that we all place too much importance on having gadgets, things and possessions. They have become our security to such a degree that we now think we can’t live without them.

We sat talking for some time and although it was only a little after 2pm, the sun was already low in the sky and we still had a good 2-3 hour walk ahead of us. It was time to leave and begin the descent. Wishing him luck on his spiritual journey, we gave John the last of our water and said our goodbyes. What would we be taking away from our climb of Mt Sinai, I wondered? A few blisters perhaps, a handful of photos and maybe something else. Maybe John was right about the reason why we travel… restless souls that we are. Perhaps we all travel to try and make sense of our world and of our place within it. It was certainly something to ponder as the sun sank behind the mountain and we began the long walk back down to Catherine.


17th February 2015

Your blog describes the heartbeat in the heart of the Sinai. We're eager to follow in your footsteps. Love the rich golden colors. It makes you wonder if the boarder guards practice this show of studying the passports. I'm sure they do that time and time again all day. Loved the camel train. What great adventures. We are eager to read more.
18th February 2015

Thanks guys and yes, it was an amazing adventure. I love deserts anyway; the light, the intensity of the colours but in that part of Sinai there's that added dimension... the feeling that you're in a very special place... there can't be anywhere else like it.
18th February 2015

Great read
Fascinating, as always. You were lucky to meet a hermit up there, just for that added dimension. Hmm wonder if I will ever get there...
18th February 2015

Thanks for this blog...
very insightful. And the scenery is beautiful!
19th February 2015
Last Light

Magical journey!
Staying in a Bedouin camp in the vast, red desert, visiting the fabled St. Catherine's and hiking up and meeting a seeker on Mt Sinai--it doesn't get much better than that. I used to focus on my inner journey during my travels but had lost sight of that recently. Your words, "we all travel to try and make sense of our world and of our place within it," remind me to take the time to look within--thank you!
22nd February 2015
Last Light

Magical Journey!
Hi Tara, thanks for your comment and so glad you liked the article. Trips like this one are often a reminder that sometimes... maybe we're missing the point. An easy place to feel like that though, I think it would be difficult to be somewhere like Sinai and not feel touched by the experience of being there.
8th March 2015

Into the heart of Sinai
Lovely writing, Nomads. Love your take on travel and your description of the checkpoint guards and John, Thanks, WanderinAl

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