Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Mt Sinai

Mt Sinai: 5/30/07

Of course this expedition would not be complete without a journey up, arguably, the most famous sacred mountain in the world. Rising up out of the dry sands of the Sinai desert, higher than the other rocky peaks surrounding it, is the towering Mt Sinai (2285m). İt is locally known as Gebel Musa. Although disputed by archaeologists and historians as the exact place, Christians, Muslims, and Jews all believe that God presented his Ten Commandments to Moses on its summit; a place profoundly sacred to all the world's major monotheistic religions.

To get there we got tickets for the "Fast Boat" ferry from Aqaba, Jordan to Nuweiba, Egypt. Boy, that was not true! The "Fast Boat" supposedly left at 11am and took 1.5 hours (we will get there by 1 at the latest, we thought). We didn't even board until noon, we sat at the dock until 3, and we got there at 5:30. It was complete unorganized chaos... and they do the same trip every day... you would think they would have it downpat?!. At the port in Egypt we hired a taxi, driven by a Bedouin who had two wives (Rod was very interested in talking about that!), to take us to Saint Katherine's, a town deep in the Sinai desert.
We ate dinner with our driver at a Bedouin restaurant, then were dropped off at the road to St Katherine's Monastery. Situated right at the base of Mt Sinai, this monastery has been in continuous operation since AD 330. İt is believed to be built beside the burning bush from which God spoke to Moses. It is one of the oldest continually functioning monastic communities in the world, and its chapel is one of early Christianity's only surviving churches. Because it has never been raided or sacked, İt is filled with an amazing collection of artwork and theological writings compiled over centuries. To get to the monastery, we had to pass through an armed police checkpoint, and walk with bags in hand 1 km up the dirt road, to its entrance.
When checking into the St Katherine's Monastery Guesthouse, we asked about the route up to the summit. The monk suggested we take the "Camel Route". Everyone takes the Camel Route. Looking at the map, I saw another, more direct route up and asked about it. "That," he said, "ıs The 3750 Steps of Repentance. It is very difficult." Turns out this trail (staircase really) was laid by one monk as a form of penance. He must have been really bad, because that was some serious work!

We got up at 2AM and walked through the shadows inside the monastery walls toward the beginning of the 3750 steps. After shaking off the enterprising Bedouin guides, we started up the ancient steps. They quickly led up a narrow rock walled gorge, twisting and climbing through small patches of sweet smelling pennyroil and sage. The gorge just got more and more beautiful. Sometimes we would get up onto a wide ledge and see the other rocky peaks, silhouetted with stars, over the gorge walls. We passed a chapel part way, and later through two narrow freestanding stone arches. Something about the narrow steep path, the sweet smelling darkness, and passing through these old doorways, really made the act of climbing Sinai feel like a sacred journey. The path almost glowed with the power of over 1500 years of people making this pilgrimage.

We stepped through the second stone arch and reached a small plateau under the summit. There were two stone chapels, a light wind rustling through an old tree, and a quiet monk selling hot tea. We were one of only two groups of people who took the 3750 steps up. Everyone else took the camel trail, and we were stunned to see how many lights zig-zaged up the last few switchbacks to the summit. It was like a torchlight parade! With the skies windy and hinting of rain, we sat with the monk and enjoyed some sweet tea and simple conversation while watching the lights. So glad we came up this way and not up the boring route with the noisy throng of tourists. And it is not true, this route is not difficult or hard to navigate. It is really the only way to experience this mountain!

After tea we joined the masses heading up the final stretch to the summit. İt was still before dawn when we arrived, so Rod and İ found a wind sheltered spot between some rocks to sit and wait. While sitting there, we suddenly realized that we both forgot our first wedding anniversary! Oh, that is bad! But we also realized that it doesn't really matter that the day isn't exactly right, as far as we are concerned we are celebrating our anniversary by watching the sun rise from the summit of Mt Sinai. And instead of a romantic dinner with a bottle of sparkling wine or something, we would get a celebratory cup of hot tea to sip together on the way down.

After the sun rose, we got to see the magnificent magical views all around us. The rich colors, interesting rock shapes and textures, and misty skies over the Sinai desert are just gorgeous. We gave our offering of water and started the walk down. We were sipping hot anniversary tea while walking down when a Bedouin camel jockey offered us camel rides. How could we pass that up?! He led us to his animals, and after scaryly standing up, we began a very painful and funny journey down the camel trail. The way they have the saddles; a big wooden post is cramming into your crotch as you ride! The gangly awkwardly moving camels clomp heavily down the rocky trail, and the jockey doesn't give any instruction on how to ride comfortably. Ouch!
Back at the monastery, with aches in all the wrong places, we ate some breakfast, then found our driver to head back to the ferry and Jordan.

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