Heights and Depths of Sinai
At about 7 AM on November 11, I collected my bag from the baggage carousel and walked out into the fresh desert air of Sinai’s Sharm El-Sheikh airport. I was immediately greeted with a big welcome hug from Linda, the English woman I’d met through a travel website before I’d left the U.S. I think that Linda was as relieved to see me as I was to see her. Afterall, you never know how these meet-up type arrangements will go when you travel. Will the other person show? It’s always nice when they do. I’ve been lucky so far. Together, we met our driver, tossed our bags in the car, and off we went to St. Katherine, the first stop on our Sinai adventure.
St. Katherine’s Monastery
We arrived at the monastery in the town of St. Katherine a little after 9 AM and left our bags in the reception area of the Monastery Guesthouse where we would stay for the night; check-in time was not until 12 noon. Then, we trotted off to explore the monastery.
Gardens and olive trees at St. Katherine’s Monastery
Our first task was finding an English language tour of the compound. After listening in on a number of groups, we settled on one, introduced ourselves to the guide, and were granted permission to join. We were first shown the ornate Church of the Transfiguration in which St. Katherine’s body rests (although I have to wonder at what relative “rest” she lies… given that her skull and her left hand have been separated from the rest of her body). We got pushed along with the wave of tourists until we came upon a small glass case housing the relic thumb of the saint herself. Visitors must walk through the church with the steady flow of foot traffic, moving in a clockwise direction. A man at the end of the walkway guards the exit and will quickly shoo you out the door if you try to turn back for a second look at anything. Consequently, we had to walk through the church three or four times just to see everything properly. I smiled triumphantly at the guard each time I exited, but he didn’t seem to care. I wonder how many times I could have gone through before he would have noticed and said something. Hmm.
Unfortunately, we quickly discovered that our guide was giving very little information in English since it was being translated into Italian by another guy first; the line of communication fell off… as it does in the game “Telephone” I played as a kid. So, we decided to try again and returned to the main entrance to find another guided English group. This time, the tour was difficult to follow because the group was large and we kept getting pushed to the back so that we couldn’t really hear the guide. But our third try did the trick. We stumbled upon a group with an excellent guide who spoke great English and provided lots of information. We stuck close to his side like groupies, asking lots of questions. Guess we were making up for our previous failed touring attempts. He was very patient and told us all about the monastery, St. Katherine, and the trail leading to Mt. Sinai’s summit.
The monastery is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is named after St. Katherine, the martyr of Alexandria. It was founded in 337 AD when the Roman empress Helena, mother of Constantine, ordered a sanctuary be built around what was thought to be the site of the burning bush from which God is said to have spoken to Moses. It became a refuge for hermits and pilgrims in the Sinai wilderness. In the 6th century (537-562 AD), Emperor Justinian had a fortress constructed around the original chapel, along with a basilica and monastery, as a secure home for the monastic community here. “Today, St. Katherine’s is one of the oldest continually functioning monastic communities in the world, and its chapel is one of early Christianity’s only surviving churches” (Lonely Planet, 2010, p. 495). The site still holds great religious significance for Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike.
So, who was St. Katherine? Her story is rather enthralling, I think. Katherine was born to a noble family in Alexandria in 282 AD, and converted from paganism to Christianity as a teenager. At the orders of Roman Emperor Maxentius, Katherine was to be tortured on a spiked wheel for refusing to denounce her faith, but the wheel broke when she touched it and so she was beheaded instead in 305 AD. Reportedly, her body was transported by angels to Egypt’s highest peak, Gebel Katarina (Mt. Katherine), about 6 km south of Mt. Sinai. The story goes that in the 10th century Katherine’s miraculously preserved body was found by monks from the monastery who then interred it (in pieces) in the monastery’s chapel where it still lies today.
On our tour of the monastery, we also visited the Chapel of the Burning Bush where we saw what is thought to be a descendant of the original burning bush, the Well of Moses where Moses met one of Jethro’s seven daughters whom he married (it is a natural spring that is supposed to give marital happiness to those who drink from it), and the Monastery Museum displaying artistic treasures from the Byzantine era.
Gebel Musa, or Mt. Sinai, rises to 2,285 m / 7,495 ft. above sea level. Linda and I woke up at 2 AM to climb the mountain in time for sunrise. It took us almost 3 hours (with rest breaks) hiking in the dark to reach the summit, and 2 hours to get down. All along the way, we found “coffee shops”, Bedouin shacks really, where we could take a load off. Despite the 750+ rather grueling Stairs of Repentance leading to the summit, it was well worth the climb just to see the beautiful sunrise from the top. And yes, one might feel rather repentant after all those steps…, but I honestly felt more triumphant and thrilled just to be there doing the hike. The mood of the crowd (about 150-200 people) at the summit was set by a small group of Russian orthodox pilgrims singing various hymns and chanting prayers. I noted that many of the Russian women had climbed in skirts and ordinary shoes despite the terrain and cold morning air, and I understand that some extremely devout pilgrims do the entire hike barefoot! — Hard core. I parked myself on a rock overlooking a cliff, and watched as the sun came up, taking photos/video periodically. Linda and I stayed on the summit until most of the onlookers had left. It was tranquil and the views of the surrounding mountains were superb. I could not help but try to imagine Moses receiving the ten commandments up there all alone. He must have been in pretty good shape to get up the mountain at his age.
Returning down the Stairs of Repentance, I saw a rather unfortunate accident. A German woman wiped out on the rocky steps and cut her leg wide open. When I came upon her, her friends were trying to help her, but they had no first aid kit. Fortunately, I had tossed my kit in my backpack last minute the night before and was able to provide the needed medical supplies. It was one of those times when you realize you are in the right place at the right time with the right gear, and I was everso glad I had my kit. (Note to self: ALWAYS ALWAYS take first aid kit on hikes!) The woman’s injury was rather bad and she would definitely need stitches once she got off the mountain. After we treated her wound and wrapped it tightly with pads and gauze, her friends and a guide were able to help walk her down most of the steps because she was still in shock and couldn’t really feel anything, until they reached the camel trail where they put her on a camel and took her the rest of the way down the mountain. I had gone ahead by then, but as I neared the trailhead and St. Katherine’s Monastery later, the woman passed me on her camel. She waved, said “thank you”, and even managed a smile. I was relieved to see that she was going to be OK.
Linda and I finished our hike, took some photos at the Mt. Sinai trailhead and returned to our Guesthouse to get breakfast, shower, and pack our gear in order to head on to Dahab on Sinai’s southeast coast. Our driver picked us up a little after 10 AM and off we went to the beach… for a little relaxation after our hike.
Do you believe in signs? No, I don’t mean the kind by the side of the road or the signs of the zodiac. I mean the little unexpected things that happen to you in life and seem to show you what you “should” be doing next. Well, I have an eye for signs. For instance, cats are a sign for me. And when I’m traveling, they show up at just the right time and indicate where I am supposed to go… like a big X-marks-the-spot. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not superstitious – really, I’m not. …Ok, well maybe a little. I just view these things as “indicators” that pop up at the right time not because of any bizarre, other-worldly influences, but simply because I am tuned in to perceive them at that moment. And for some reason I am most capable of seeing these signs when I travel.
Anyway, a number of signs presented themselves, one after the other… from the moment I arrived in Dahab, and they were so undeniable and shocking that I was left just a bit emotionally spent at the day’s end. Perhaps my body was still recovering from our Mt. Sinai hike that morning; I don’t know. I won’t go into the details. However, suffice it to say that I got the clear impression I was supposed to be there in Egypt… on this trip… at this time. And while I tried to ignore this at first, after the fourth or fifth sign within the span of just a few hours, it was obvious that resistance was futile. It was actually kind of funny – it seemed like the universe was hitting me over the head… just to make its point… repeatedly. And all I could think was, “Ok, I get it. You can stop now.” But it didn’t stop. It continued all day. And what could I do? When the universe is making a point, you can’t interrupt it, can you.
The next morning, I awoke at our lovely beachside hotel feeling rested, relieved, and reassured that the psychological exhaustion of my first day in Dahab was over. So, what better way to rest your mind and body than by snorkeling in the fabulous Red Sea! Note for future reference: Swimming through schools of colorful fish amidst lush coral reefs has a calming effect on a Piscean (i.e., me).
Now, many of us have heard that the Red Sea affords some of the best (if not THE best) opportunities to see fish and coral in the world. Well, after my experience snorkeling the Three Holes in Dahab for just part of one day, I would have to agree… ABSOLUTELY!!! In fact, this experience left the Great Barrier Reef in the dust. We saw many different colorful fish and corals within just a short distance from the beach. It was amazing. The day before, I had purchased a fish and coral identification chart to help with our marine life spotting. Linda, Ahmed, and I spent a few hours exploring the coral reefs and relaxing on the beach before heading back to our hotel.
The rest of the day was at our leisure. While Linda went into town to check her e-mail, Ahmed and I hired bikes to pedal around Dahab’s waterfront. The process of just getting our bikes was rather involved and entertaining. After locating a recommended bike dealer, it took us no less than 40 minutes just to get the bikes. Why, you may ask? Well, the shop owner was particularly conscientious. He made repeated trips to his tool shed in search of what he needed to adjust our bicycle seats to just the right heights, attach a front basket for my bag, and inflate our tires to their optimal levels. And if that weren’t enough, he then tossed in extra time for our money – a good deal. The guy was like the bicycle fairy.
We biked around Dahab until sunset, and then stopped at a seaside restaurant for tea. Dahab is a real tourist town, and it seems like just about every other tourist is Russian. Dozens and dozens of restaurants line the waterfront. And as you stroll down the boardwalk, you are frequently accosted by touts from said restaurants trying to lure you into their establishments. Many offer Bedouin-style seating on comfortable floor cushions with lots of pillows and ambience. I love it. In fact, I’d like to convert my patio at home to an outdoor Bedouin lounge! My only reservation is that animals (e.g., coyotes, raccoons, squirrels, skunks, or cats) that live in my neighborhood might destroy it. I’m still working on a plan to outsmart them and have my Bedouin lounge anyway.
On this our final night in Dahab, we went out to dinner to celebrate Ahmed’s birthday, stopped for ice cream on the way back to our hotel, and then retired for the night as we had an early start the next morning. Ahmed would return to Cairo while Linda and I would travel to the Taba border, crossing everso briefly through Israel, to reach Jordan. Sure, we could have just taken the ferry from Nuweiba to Aqaba, avoiding an Israeli crossing (and the branding of Israeli stamps in our passports which unfortunately prevent travel to a host of other countries in the future). However, due to the unpredictability of the ferries and sea conditions, we elected to travel via Israel in order to ensure a more timely arrival in Wadi Rum (Jordan) that afternoon.
And so Linda and I left Egypt behind, traveling on through Sinai and Eilat (Israel)… to Jordan. Our transition through the Israeli border was not completely uneventful, however. It took us almost two hours because they decided to hold my passport and scan my cell phone for… who knows what… before allowing us to proceed. We then waited in line for a half hour before getting through Israeli border control. There was just another 100 m or so to walk through no-man’s land until we reached Jordanian soil – hamdulallah (thank god)! …Welcome to Jordan.
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