Israel 2010- Day 22- Climbing Mount Sinai (Egypt) for Sunrise- part 2

This is the second half of yesterday’s article on my visit to Mount Sinai.

Mount Sinai- Part Two- The Climb Down

The Climb up Mount Sinai was an incredible experience. I’d made it with relative ease compared to what I thought the experience would be like. The sunrise itself had been breath-taking. As I stood up after watching the sun come up, it realized I was a little sore, partially from the climb up, but also from laying on the hard cement roof of the shed where I’d been camped out for two hours.
Now that the sun was up, I was able to get a proper look at my surroundings. As I mentioned in the last post, the moon had been so bright that I’d gotten an idea of what daylight would bring- just in a darker black and white perspective. The building above, the Chapel of the Holy Trinity, a small Greek Orthodox chapel, was perched dramatically on to of the peak. It was built on the Fifth Century ruins of a shrine that marked the spot where Moses talked to God.
Across the way from Mount Sinai itself is Egypt’s tallest peak, Mount St. Catherine, where legend has it angels flew the body of St. Catherine after her martyrdom.
Below the Chapel of the Holy Trinity is a small cave, where Moses is reported to have received the 10 Commandments.
The top of the mountain was also home to many of the souvenir stands like we had seen on the way up. They mostly sold knickknacks like blankets and 10 commandment replicas, but also water, pop, coffee & tea, candy bars. I did have an Egyptian Pounds, but even if I had I wasn’t going to carry anything down the mountain with me.

We’d taken the camel path up, the easier, longer, winding path up the mountain. Mohammed had explained to me that we would take the almost 4,000 stairs known as The Steps of Repentance down the mountain in the morning. I’d spent so much time worrying about the trip up the peak, I hadn’t given much thought to the walk down. I guess I just figured the stairs down would be fairly easy. I, however, underestimated three key factors. Firstly, I was exhausted from the climb up. It was 6 A.M. an I’d been up for over 24 hours besides a couple hours nap I’d taken the previous day to get ready for this experience. Secondly, the walk up had been comfortably cool, even a little chilly. By 6:30 A.M., less than an hour after sunrise, the temperatures were approaching 90, and the sun was merciless. Thirdly, the idea that the “Steps of Repentance” were actual steps was far from the truth. Legend has it the these ‘steps’ were carved by penitent monks from the monastery in the valley. The terms steps paint the picture of a nice even orderly staircase winding down the mountainside. I really shouldn’t have been so naive to have this picture in my head, especially after all of the blog posts I’d read about them. The steps are amazingly uneven. Even with comfortable tennis shoes I found myself slipping and almost falling a number of times. The most uncomfortable thing about them was their sheer height. It was impossible to step down, it instead forced you to turn sideways and lower your leg down to the next step. That constant pounding had my knees aching less than a quarter of the way down. I can’t imagine how impossibly difficult it must be to climb these steps up.
A short distance down from the peak is Elijah’s Hollow, a spot where the prophet Elijah heard the voice of God while fleeing from the evil Queen Jezebel. Today this small flat spot has a chapel and is a favorite camping spot for those who choose to spend the night on the mountain before ascending to the summit for sunrise.

Passing through Elijah’s Gate heading down the mountain, the stairs got even steeper.
Soon we came to The Gate of Repentance, considered the halfway point of the trek down the mountain.

A short distance past the gate we came to the 6th century chapel of repentance, which was closed this morning, as all the chapels had been. This part of the hike was thankfully shaded, and I took many breaks along this stretch of path preparing for the final push downward, much of which was in the fierce sun.
I’d been proud of my pace on the way up. We’d been the second ones up the mountain that morning. On the way down, I was constantly moving to the side of the path so we could be passed. Mohammed was very gracious about this, allowing me these increasingly frequent rest breaks which started growing in length as well.
Soon St. Catherine’s Monastery was visible on the valley floor in the distance. We stopped and looked at it for a long time. I was a little anxious about getting going, but Mohammed reassured me that we might as well wait at this great viewpoint because it was shaded and if we kept moving we’d arrive at the gates of the monastery well before they were opened at 9.

A cliffside, terraced garden tended to by monks from St Catherines

We finally made it down to the monastery around 8:40 A.M. and were greeted by throngs of pilgrims at the gates. Many had also recently hiked down the mountain, but these numbers were supplemented by a large number of tourist groups that had shown up here just to view the monastery.
I had got in a long line to use the bathroom, where I got my first glimpse of the ubiquitous squat toilet which are the standard in developing countries. I hadn’t seen any in Israel, but Egypt and Israel are two completely different countries.

The huge crowd pushed their way into the monastery about 5 minutes after nine when a single monk unlocked the doors. I was stopped on the way in and given a light blanket to cover my legs (I wore shorts to be comfortable climbing in), which I tucked into my waistband. I followed the crowds through the chapel, dimly lit and smelling of incense. The interior reminded me of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, just on a much smaller scale. Much of the iconography and artwork was similar, too. (The church was off-limits to photography, explaining my lack of photos). St. Catherine’s is reported to be the oldest continually occupied Christian Church in the world, dating from the 5th Century A.D.
The picture above is of the bush that is reported to be “The Burning Bush” from which God first spoke to Moses. I’ve tried not to sound skeptical in these posts, firmly believing that faith guides people to find inspiration from these sites in their hearts, but if that bush is over 2,000 years old (and was once on fire) it’s in pretty good shape. I’m just sayin’.

I walked around for about a half an hour appreciating the art and architecture of this venerated place. I knew even then I would regret not taking more time to explore the monastery, but I was hot, sweaty, hungry and exhausted, and all I could really think about was my comfortable dark air-conditioned room in Eilat three hours away by car. Mohammed was surprised when I reappeared from the inside after only the half an hour.

As I walked back down the path to the parking lot as tremendous sense of satisfaction settled over me. I had done it, climbed Mount Sinai for sunrise. I’d known this would be one of the highlights of my trip and I was so thankful that I hadn’t allowed my doubts to talk me out of such and amazing experience. I thanked Mohammed for all of his help and kindness. I tipped him twenty US Dollars, which he was embarrassed to accept, since it was over five times what his guide fee was. I guessed I was committing one of those ugly American faux pas, but I wanted him to know how much I appreciated all his help. He had definitely earned it.
I was so exhausted on the ride back, I watched the landscaped roll by with almost a sense of otherworldliness. I’d seen it by moonlight on the way in, and while similar to what I’d imagined, the starkness of the desert surprised me. The deserts I have visited in the US and Australia seemed less sun-bleached and more alive.
Reaching the coast, we passed Nieweba, the town I was supposed to have reached Egypt by via the ferry from Aqaba, Jordan. The ferry was visible in the distance.

We passed scores of unfinished resorts. I had been warned about these eyesores. Apparently there was a building boom in the late 1990s, when it appeared that the Egyptian shores of the Gulf of Aqaba were on their way to being a prosperous African Riviera. September 11th and some terrorists attacks during the 2000s had left the demands for these types of luxury resorts almost non-existent. Even the resorts that we finished and operating for business looked empty. I was told by my drive that the fear of terrorism was what necessitated so many checkpoints along the way.
We drove for a couple of hours beside the blue expanses of the Gulf of Aqaba. We were stopped at numerous checkpoints, and I saw my driver hand over small bills at a couple. I was surprised to see this because I hadn’t noticed him needing to give these bribes on our way in. I had figured there wouldn’t be any during the day driving back if there hadn’t been any at night when a shakedown is easier to accomplish. They weren’t of anything more than a passing annoyance to me, my driver never said anything about the bribes, and never asked me for any money to pay them. In fact, I was never spoken to by any of the armed men at these checkpoints. The bribes must have been ‘included’ in the price of my tour as part of doing business in Egypt. It made me even more glad that I hadn’t attempted to visit here on my own. That feeling was validated also when I saw the conditions of the the public buses and taxi cabs I would have been using to get around.

A Crusader-era fort near Taba and the Israeli border
We arrived back in Taba shortly before noon. The company’s Egyptian representative was surprised to see us back more than an hour ahead of schedule. He apologized profusely that he had been able to get a hold of his counterpart in the Israeli side, who was responsible for driving me from the border back to my hostel. I was so tired, I didn’t care. I explained to him that if he wasn’t there when I got out of customs on the other side of the border, that I could figure it out. Customs didn’t take long to clear, since I was just about the only one crossing from Egypt into Israel at that time. My driver showed up about 20 minutes after I walked into Israel, just as I was about to grab my own taxi back to the hotel. I arrived back at my hostel, and after a short conversation with the owner thanking him for finding me the excursion, I walked into my room and took one of the most needed showers I can ever remember. Five minutes after that, I was out like a light.
I woke up later in the day and packed all of my things for the trip back to Jerusalem on the bus the next morning at 7 A.M. I was excited to be going back to Jerusalem, a place I was fimiliar with, and a place that I felt I’d missed seeing some things in because I’d left a day early, excited to get out and explore the rest of the country. I knew with as tired (and homesick) as I was that these wouldn’t be the most productive days, but I was going to do my best with them.

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