People visiting the Middle East often deepen and strengthen their faith at locations where, according to the Scriptures, miracles occurred. Like my 70-year-old mom, for millions of the faithful from different religions, seeing the holy temples in Jerusalem, the birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem, the Virgin Mary’s grave in Nazareth, the Jordan River in Jordan, or Mount of Sinai in Egypt, is a life-long passion.
I, however, being (much) less religious, was accompanying my mother on her holy land tour, needed to make our pricy package spiritual trip a holiday. And why not? That’s where the word holiday comes from. Holy day.
Egypt’s Mount Sinai, or the so called Moses Mountain (Jabal Musa in the local language), is on the Arabian-Nubian Shield (ANS) section of the Sinai Peninsula and the northern border with Israel through the Red Sea. According to the Holy Bible, this mountain is a silent witness to God’s 10 Commandments, given on two tablets to the Prophet Moses. Because this place is where God appeared to man, Mount Sinai is sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims.
One of my mother’s coveted goals was to climb the summit of Mount Sinai, as did the prophet Moses. “Rising to the top of Mount of Sinai is a spiritual experience, being at the top of the mountain would put one very close to the Creator and would be a spectral or unworldly experience not to be forgotten,” she said. Given that Mount Sinai region is derived from melting magma that produced red granite volcanic rock, it is a favourite place for tourists to visit and too nice to miss during my holiday in Egypt, I agreed to go.
From a small town named Saint Catherine, we, along with 16 other people, started the journey to Mount Sinai. In the town at the foot of the mountains of Sinai lies St. Catherine Monastery – the world’s oldest Christian church – which was built by a Roman emperor named Justinian in the year 527 BC.
There are four sections of the building including the famous Basilica mosaic of the Transfiguration, Moses’ Well, where Moses met his wife for the first time and a Library, with one of the greatest repositories of ancient manuscripts in the world (second only to the Vatican), housing over 4,500 rare volumes. The last section is the Ossuary, a morbid charnel house containing the skulls of 1,400 years’ worth of monks who have lived and died there.
The mountains reach 2,285 meters (almost as high as Mount Bromo at 2,329 meters), and require a three-hour climb. It is best to climb at night to avoid the very hot air in the middle of the desert.
The trip starts with a two-hour ride on camel with a Bedouin for US$ 20 one way. Then, after walking for an hour, you wait at the peak of the mountain as the sun rises slowly from the rock valley.
We began our ascent at one in the morning. The temperature was 15ºC when we arrived, which was considered lucky because in July the temperatures often reach 2ºC. In the dark we were given a briefing about the ascent process as the first part of the climb. Armed with a flashlight, our group was paired by each camel’s Bedouin, who was to take us all the way to the top. Frankly, I was a little scared because it was so dark I could hardly see a thing.
During the first 15 minutes of travel no one spoke and the atmosphere was very quiet; just the slow beat of camel feet from stone to stone and my mother’s muffled voice ahead. Perhaps because I was sitting on a camel, which was a little less than comfortable, it seemed the camels were not sure of which way to go and left their direction in the Bedouin’s hand and a language we could not understand. The Bedouin climbs the mountain once a day and would be climbing it twice a day if more tourists booked him.
I heard my mother talking with someone in front of her about the history of the mountains. The existence of Mount Sinai, also known as the site of the Burning Bush, which was recorded in the Old Testament, is inseparable from the story of Moses, who was sent by God to lead the Nation of Israel. For forty days and nights Moses was on the mountain, where he spoke with God and received the Tablets of the Law. He told Moses how He wanted His people to live. My mother also quoted Exodus 19:18 which says: “Mount Sinai was completely in smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire, smoke rising like smoke from the kitchen, and the whole mount quaked greatly.”
Smoke? Ah, I remembered a box of Sampoerna kretek cigarettes in my pocket! I then lit up my own smoke and put on my iPod. The song was Surrounded, by Dream Theater. It suited the night quite well. I wished I had brought some beers along to kill the time and to try to enjoy the religious conversation. However, it felt great when I looked up into the big night sky and saw it sprinkled with so many stars. That was when I first admired Sinai!
My mother then continued the story of Moses… While Moses was with God on the mountain, the Israelites asked Aaron, the brother of Moses, to make a gold statue of a calf, which they also worshiped as a substitute for the Lord. Upon seeing the statue and the people dancing, Moses got very upset. He smashed the golden statue and killed the people who worshiped it. So the story goes…
The path was starting to widen, with little incline, so my camel could catch up with my mother’s and we walked side by side. Finally, we reached the spot where the camels could go no further. We were finally at the foot of Mount Sinai. After resting a few minutes at the coffee shop, sipping qahwa (Egyptian coffee), we continued on our journey and began the real climb on foot, known as the 3,750 ‘Steps of Repentance.’ The path became steeper with jagged, zigzagging and uneven rocks, with the distance between some steps being over a meter.
I was a bit concerned that we would not reach the top in time for the sunrise. Of course, I was also worried about my mother. Would she be able to climb this high mountain using only her cane? However, she was determined to go forward and would not give up. She said firmly, “Moses climbed the mountain when he was 80 years old, yet I am 10 years younger than he was, so I certainly can.” Great Mom!
The higher we climbed, the more difficult the path became. The steps were getting bigger and taller. The severe slope of nearly 60 degrees almost made me give up. Moreover, our guide explained that the road we were on with the camels below was very dangerous because there was an abyss with wide open cliffs. The camels hugged the edge of the path, and I couldn’t imagine being up on one of those unwieldy humps, swaying toward the side of the mountain. Fortunately, the darkness prevented us from seeing how dangerous it was. People with a fear of heights should not try this trip!
The spirit that my mother showed kept me moving forward. She said again, this climb should be religiously based, because life’s journey should be lived with faith and trust, not by seeing. If we see a lot of problems, we might live in fear. However, if we hold on to God’s promise, we can deal with the steep steps until the end to see the miracle of God.
Yes, a miracle of God was what I expected to see from the top of Mount Sinai. At least a spectacular sunrise, with breath-taking scenery, to be captured on my Nikon for my Facebook wall. And the promise of an easier trip going down.
We stopped at several ‘pitstops’ along the way, where you can go into a hut, sit for a few minutes and buy drinks or snacks. The higher you go, the more expensive the food and drink. We were deliriously fatigued at this point. After resting for the umpteenth time, we climbed a few steps more to reach our final destination, the summit.
At the top of the mountain there is a mosque and a Greek Orthodox chapel which was constructed in 1934 on the ruins of a 16th century church, neither of which are open to the public. The chapel supposedly encloses the rock from which God made the Tablets of the Law. At the summit also is “Moses’ Cave” where Moses waited to receive the Ten Commandments. At the left of the church there was a large balcony full of other tourists who arrived earlier, wrapped in blankets rented by local residents, waiting for what we all came to see, the sunrise.
I set up my tripod and positioned my camera at a pre-planned angle and position to ensure a good photo. Lead by a priest, my mother and some others started to sing and pray, preparing their hearts and faith to welcome the dawn, as if hoping for the appearance of God, like in the story of Moses.
Just after five, the sun slowly raised its red and burning yellow light from the horizon. As the day brightened, we finally got to see what we had been battling all night. Ochre stone mountains, golden layers, mixed with the morning fog, could be seen at every corner. The mountains were so vast they made us feel almost insignificant. We witnessed an unbeatable breath-taking painting of the Divine with great gratitude and awe! Snap, snap, snap!
My mother took my hand with a smile on her face, she whispered to me, thanking me for bringing her to the land of her dreams. Tears trickled from my eyes as I felt the dual purpose of this Holyland Holiday with so much value for my mom, the believer, and myself, the wanderer. A great experience for both us, after all.
[Published in Venture Magazine, Nov/Dec, 2010: A Walk of Faith to Mount Sinai]