detour: to the land of moses

My people go to Egypt to visit one city: Cairo and see one thing: the Pyramids. it’s sad in reality, because Egypt has so much more to offer. The Pyramids, yes were amazing. But they did not blow me away. Instead, it was the Sinai Peninsula that left a lasting impression.

Situated between the Mediterranean and Red Seas the beach resorts of Sharm el-Sheikh, Dahab, Nuweiba and Taba are popular with divers around the world. Beaches are great, but they were not the reason for our visit to the peninsula. The Sinai is home to the biblical Mount Sinai (the one made famous by Moses and his tablets) and St. Catherine’s Monastery, which is considered to be the oldest working Christian monastery in the world.

The hike up Mount Sinai and the visit to the monastery had been high on my bucket list. My father had told me stories of his hike years before, the majesty of the mountain and the feeling of living and breathing ancient history- I was ready to experience it in the flesh.

Our journey started at the Taba Crossing, the border between Egpyt and Israel. Crossing was done early in the morning, and not so much in an organized fashion. Once across, our guide and security team (set up by the fabulous Keppy at Travel Udi) picked us up and we were on our way.

the drive through the sinai- out the car window

A hike up Moun Sinai starts early, or rather you could say, late. After a quick coffee, at around 2 AM the mountain beckons. There are many reasons for the early call time; in the summer months, the heat is brutal making a daytime hike ill advised. The main reason, however, is that the 2 AM departure is timed perfectly to observe the sunrise from the pinnacle.

The strenuous hike lasted about three hours as our local Bedouin guide Neta helped us traverse the wobbly terrainin the dark. For those not wanting to huff it and puff it, Bedouins offering the services of their camels can be bargained with at the trail entrance. Even is the camel option is chosen, the last 750 steps up uneven stairs must be done on one’s own. Along the way,  one or two Bedouin teahouses offer a warm beverage and a well deserved break.

Most visitors make it up the the summit a little before sunrise, offering them time steal a quick nap. Don’t sleep too long- the intense silence and spiritual history of the mountain is unparalleled. The sunrise across the parched rocky expanse is not to be missed. Once the light is out, take time to explore the small chapel dedicated to the Holy Trinity, constructed in 1934 on the ruins of an older 16th-century church.

st catherine’s sunrise

our Bedouin guide Neta, hike down the Sinai, Bedouin camps offering respite before the final ascent to the summit

Maybe it was the help of daylight or the hunger that had set in (Natty and I had been up for hours at this point), but the trip down seemed to take half the time. There was no time for relaxation, however. Back to the hotel for a quick bite and shower, and we were on our way back out the door. At the mouth of a gorge at the foot of Mount Sinai in the city of Saint Catherine lies St. Catherine’s Monastery.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the monastery was founded by Emperor St. Justinian the Great in 527 AD. Today the building  preserves the second largest collection of early codices and manuscripts in the world, outnumbered only by the Vatican Library. Additionally, numerous irreplaceable works of art are protected within the structures walls: mosaics, the best collection of early icons in the world, many in encaustic, as well as liturgical objects, chalices and reliquaries. The historical grounds are also home to what is believed to be a direct descendant of THE Burning Bush. While touring the facilities, the Greek Orthodox monks who call the monastery home can be seen in their daily routines.

monastery, THE burning bush

For those wanting to visit the Sinai, the peninsula is most easily accessed through Taba border with Israel, Taba Airport and Sharm el-Sheikh’s airport. No special visa is needed ahead of time as as special 14-day Sinai permits are granted on arrival though only cover travel along the eastern Sinai coast, the mountain and the monastery. The safest way to get around the region is to coordinate transportation through your hotel. Avoid taxis at all costs, as their prices are high and they can sometimes be an unsafe way to travel in this area. Though the area is generally safe there have been security concerns as of late. It is best to take precautions and only travel with trusted guides.

Having a trusted guide with you during your stay in the Sinai will also come in handy when it comes to grub. Food choices here are sparse and the locals know where the best dining options are. Hotel options are equally as sparse. Luckily, most visits to the area include only an overnight or two. The Daniela Village St. Katherine and the Catherine Plaza Hotel are your best bets, but don’t expect anything by the way of modern luxury. Rooms at both start at around $50 per night for a single to $100 for a triple.

Though arrangements must be made ahead of time, a detour to the Sinai is highly recommended if you are in the area. The rugged desert landscape steeped in biblical history is unlike any other destination in the world.

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