August 08, 2006

A JOURNEY TO EGYPT: Part Six - An Ascent Of Mount Sinai

The 18 hour journey from Luxor to Dahab was excruciating. Not only was there very little leg room or chance to sleep properly overnight, I was also positioned next to the toilet, which would frequently release a waft of stale urine.

During the journey, armed police repeatedly stopped the bus at checkpoints. This vigilance, especially on the Sinai Peninsula, has increased after the heinous terrorist attacks that hit the towns of Sharm El Sheik and Dahab in 2005 and 2006. The area is still trying to recover its lost tourist industry as a result, so the police are doing everything possible to reduce the chances of further attacks.

At long last, the bus arrived at Dahab. It could not have come sooner, as my legs now felt as if they had all the mobility of two lumps of wood. I hobbled my way off the bus, gasping at urine-free fresh air.

On the bus, I had quickly befriended a charming Dutch couple. Together, we decided to avoid the touts and take a taxi downtown. We managed to get rooms at the Seventh Heaven, which is run by extremely friendly and welcoming management.

Dahab is a charming retreat that has a long history of being a Bedouin fishing town. In recent decades, the coastline has been developed for tourism. The bay area is now lined with many restaurants and guesthouses.

With the rugged red mountains that surround the town, and the clear blue Red Sea that laps at its shores, it is indeed a pleasant place to kick back. Rather tantalisingly, the coastline of Saudi Arabia is but a short boat ride away. However, gaining access to Saudi Arabia is difficult and unlikely from this side.

The past few days, I have felt myself enter into a euphoric slumber, as days have been spent watching the waves splash gently against the coastline. Efforts to consider my future have fallen short as I have found my mind neither willing or concerned to think about the changes needed to improve my circumstances. I have become a beach bum, and I have decided to accept this short-term fate for as long as it lasts, until I must return to Cairo.

However, I did not come to Sinai to sit on the beach. In fact, my reason was to scale Mount Sinai, which is 2,285 metres and famous because it is where Moses received the Ten Commandments from God.

I organised a driver to take me to the mountain from Dahab. We left at 11 o'clock in the evening, and after a two hour journey, arrived at the base of the mountain. In the darkness, I began my trek with a Bedouin guide.

Throughout the night, a bright moon shone high above, so there was some light to illuminate the path. We zigzagged gently upwards, and I could just about make out the jagged, violent landscape that surrounded me. The trek was not as strenuous as I had expected. Many foreigners on pilgrimages passed me by or fell behind. While some pilgrims mounted upon camels sang Christian hymns, the valley below was often reverberating with Bedouin calls to Allah.

As I climbed higher, the stars seemed to multiply continually, until every patch of black became a festoon of light.

Finally, we reached a point where my guide would no longer accompany me. The rest of the trek consisted of a challenging climb up what seemed like an endless staircase of ragged rocky steps. After an exhausting last push, I finally reached the summit at 3:30 a.m.

I made myself comfortable, and wrapped up in a blanket I rented from a Bedouin boy. For a chilly hour, I found myself drifting into a dream state on Moses' Mountain, with the stars dancing infinitely above me. As soon as I seemed to enter a deep slumber, I was alerted that the sun was about to rise.

Gradually, the dark blackness shifted into blue tones that very soon were contrasted with yellow and then orange. The surrounding mountains, which had been faint ghosts, slowly materialised as the light brightened. After half an hour watching this scene unravel, cirrus clouds that had once been hidden, were now bathed in a pink iridescence. It was only a matter of moments more, before the burning sun appeared protected from behind a distant broken peak. With graceful poise it silently glided to its rightful place.

With the return of daylight, I could now see the scenery that surrounded this holy place. For as far as I could see, a landscape of bleak desert peaks lay before me. The scene showed Nature at her most inhospitable. Yet, like a thorn bush that flowers, it was also Nature at her most beautiful.

After some time appreciating the views, it was time to descend. Rather than taking the same route down, I chose to follow the 3,750 Steps of Penitence, which were hewn out of rock by monks. The descent was far harder on the body than the ascent had been, with every judder of each step taking its toll. The sun was also now fiercely cooking the desert air.

Coming out of a small canyon, I could now make out the compound of St. Katherine's Monastery below. As an hour passed, I finally reached the white walls of the monastery.

St Katherine's was commissioned by the Roman Emperor Justinian, between 527 and 565 A.D. It is the oldest functioning monastery in the world, and is now home to 26 Greek Orthodox monks. Within its guarded walls, are some of the Christendom’s most important and precious items. It also houses a library only superseded by that of the Vatican.

Of interest to the faithful, the monastery claims to be built on the site where Moses saw the Burning Bush. Contentiously, a tangled bush that hangs in one of the courtyards is said to be the same bush of biblical fame. Like the location of Moses' mountain itself, it is easy to be sceptical to such claims. However, even the staunchest sceptic visitor must have a "what if it is?" playing at the back of their mind. There is much to be had from letting the mind accept a little magic from time to time.

Part Seven Coming Soon!

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