I used to get paid to walk up Mount Sinai in the middle of the night to watch the sun rise up over the mountains. It explains why I’ve notched up a fair few trips to the top. The fact I still continue to take the camel path seems to perplex some of my friends, especially those who have just done it once. It’s a harder walk than most. And it’s cold, really cold. If it’s 40-something degrees in Dahab, it will remain under ten degrees at the top, and below freezing during the winter. The first time, it’s a barely enjoyable experience, I feel. Until, that is, the moment that the sun first appears over the Sinai mountains and begins to reveal the stupendous landscape below.
In short, I love and continue to climb Mount Sinai for two reasons. Firstly, the scenery is phenomenal. The night’s starscape is mind blowing, especially when the moon is absent. Once you’ve made it to the top, you can come down the “Steps of Repentance” – a 3000-step staircase, 3,750 if you count all the steps including the ones after the camel path ends, up to the summit.
Some, including the monks of St Catherine’s Monastery whose predecessors built the route, ditch the camel path in favour of the steps. I’d like to think I haven’t got enough to repent to feel the need to put myself through that much punishment. As you descend, you’ll pass a little chapel tucked into the rocks. You’ll see some fascinating rock formations, some ancient carvings made by the Greek monks who painstakingly put those steps together and, if you’re lucky you might catch a glimpse or two of some mountain wildlife.
Secondly, the thing I enjoy most every time I go to Mount Sinai is the anthropology. Without meaning to insult anyone’s intelligence other than my own (I had no idea what Mount Sinai was, or about its significance, before I got my job in Egypt) Mount Sinai is hugely important for believers of any Abrahamic religion.
It’s supposed to be the mountain on which Moses received the Ten Commandments written on stone tablets (he had to go up twice, apparently, because he broke the first set and had to go back for more). It’s also the mountain on which Moses stumbled across the burning bush, which had the monastery of St Catherine built around it. The monastery is one of the oldest working Christian monasteries in the world having been built at some point around the year 550, and is still inhabited by Greek Orthodox monks. It holds the second-largest collection of religious manuscripts in the world, the largest being in the Vatican City. Tourists with religious leanings who have come to the Red Sea for some sun inevitably make the pilgrimage to the site.
Although I didn’t have a religious upbringing, it’s an amazing sound hearing a group of Koreans singing hymns and receiving a blessing from their leader. It’s incredibly humbling seeing very elderly nuns from all over the world being helped up the steps to the summit by a very patient and agile Bedouin guide. It’s heartwarming to have the most enthusiastic and sincere “God bless you!” from a grinning Nigerian whilst he sits and gets his breath back. It’s staggering to see the Eastern Europeans in their stilettos and hot pants, picking their way over the stones. It’s awe-inspiring seeing the Bedouin guides hop up and down the mountain without even getting slightly out of breath.
The last time I went up was during Ramadan, so the majority of the Bedouins are fasting. The mish-mash of nationalities and faiths, as well as the spiritual and personal reasons that take each and every person up that mountain, probably account for what keeps me going back, now that I’m not being paid to do it.