A Survey of Egypt, Part XII: Mount Sinai and Sharm el-Sheikh
by Jimmy Dunn
On the 7th of October, and after not much more than a good nap, I awoke at 1:00 am in order to ascend Mount Sinai on our next to the last day of the Survey in the Sinai. Of course, the idea was to be at the top of the mountain when the sun rose, though this goal was not unique to myself. Typically, that is the time when most people go up Mount Sinai, though I would give myself a head start. Most people leave for the mountain at about 2:00 am. For my age, I am in relatively good shape. I am trim. I am not a couch potato, and in fact I had already been scurrying up various smaller mountain to get photographic positions in the Sinai. However, at 55 years of age, carrying about 25 pounds of camera gear, and with only about two-thirds of my lungs remaining after a cancer operation, I decided I needed the extra time. I was well aware that getting up to the top would be at least somewhat of a challenge. Indeed, I would take the camel option, riding about two thirds of the way up, to make the ascent as easy as possible. At my age, I had no desire to challenge myself more than needed. Besides, it would be a long day even after Mount Sinai.
I have mixed feelings about recommending that people climb Mount Sinai. It really should not be considered a general tourist activity. This is not Karnak or Giza, and for older people, it can be a real challenge irregardless of whether one walks or rides a camel two thirds of the way up, and there are certainly no facilities for the disabled. In fact, though I saw some college kids playing about as if the journey up was not hard at all, even middle aged people can be strained, and I saw a few older people who were clearly in physical distress. I don't really mean to discourage those who wish to climb the mountain, but I likewise wish for people to know what they face. The last thing I would wish to see is someone with a heart condition or other ailment underestimating this adventure.
There are basically two reasons to climb Mount Sinai. I think the first and foremost of these is for the religious experience. The second reason, the view, is more dubious. Some refer to this as the best sunrise view on earth, but given the amount of time and effort it takes to climb the mountain, and the availability of grand views throughout the southern Sinai, often from the vantage point of one's vehicle, I have to question this particular sightseeing adventure. As for the spiritual reasons, it does seem to be very moving. After all, according to tradition, one stands there at the top in the very footsteps of Moses, and at the location where he communicated with God.
It does not take long to get from St. Catherine's Village to the foot of Mount Sinai. The staging area is very near the Monastery. There, one must first pass through a surprisingly thorough security screening. There was a metal detector, and my equipment was checked better than at most airports. I also picked up a guide here, which is required, though most tours will not have to be concerned with this as that matter will already be arranged. Since I had decided to ride a camel up, my next stop took me to an area filled with a what looked like, at least in the dark, more camels than could possibly be needed for the tourists who would opt for this option. However, as I discovered later in the climb, there was a large group of Brazilians going up the mountain this morning, so I cannot say whether that was the norm.
Here comes the sun
Soon, I on my camel, my Bedouin guide and the camel handler set out up the mountain. I was the only one riding, and the going could have been a bit faster. One rambles up a fairly wide path, where much of the way there is not any extreme drop off were there to be a camel mishap. Personally, I have to say that I like camels. In fact, I generally love most animals and I don't really think camels are as grumpy as their reputation. On the other hand, I don't much like riding camels. Give me a horse any day. Camels have a wide back, and sway from side to side. After a while, I find my legs falling asleep.
Indeed, even the trip up on camel back was difficult. I started to get off several times to stretch my legs, but hung in there. My group was indeed slow, and about half way up, we were passed by a faster camel. Afterwards, its seemed a bit more of a race, which did not bother me at all.
There would not have been anything wrong with taking a break along the way. There are in fact a number of way stations going up, where one can obtain water, or even candy bars. It was at one of these where I finally dismounted the camel for the remainder of the climb up. Here, I rested for a while, did indulge in a candy bar, and managed to set up my tripod and photograph others, now in droves, coming up the slopes behind me. Here also, I paid the camel handler the 65 L.E. fee for the camel ride, though I did not tip him as he wished. I did not see that as a requirement.
Soon, we headed to the top of the mountain via a crude set of stairs. It was hard going for me, I must admit, but harder for some others. I saw one elderly American lady who, with the help of her son and guide, was intent on making it to the top, even though she was obviously in much physical distress. There were some others like her, but also a number of younger people who seemed to fare much better.
The trick was to rest, and not feel pushed to make it up at anything but ones own pace. I rested when I needed to rest, and had started out early enough to do so and still make it to the top prior to sunrise. Really, this last leg of the ascent was not too terribly far, but as I finally turned the last corner and reached the top, I was more than ready to collapse for a few minutes.
By now, there were actually many people who had beat me up the mountain, and many more on their way. Nevertheless, I found a nice cliff at the top and got set to photograph the sunrise. I had managed to beat the sun by at least half an hour, so I shot away at the darkness, knowing that my camera's sensitivity was better than my own eyes. Finally, the sun rose, and it turned out to be a very nice morning for this sort of work. Often, a haze obscures the surrounding mountains, but this day it was clear. The view from the top is certainly amazing, surrounded by jutting granite mountains so majestic as to be surreal.
After photographing the sunrise and the mountains around my position from every conceivable angle and zoom, I decided it was time to walk about the place a bit more. I had actually been photographing the sunrise from the back of the chapel of the Virgin Mary, located on the peak, where I could also see the latecomers as they made their final approach. I was certainly not the only one who was tired.
More tourists find their way to the top of the world
Soon, I had enough photos from this side of the mountain and I moved around in front of the chapel. There, amongst the throngs of people, I found the real reason why people climb Mount Sinai. Many of these people were clearly spiritually moved by the experience. More than a few were crying, others embracing and some seemed to be almost in trances. Many of the people this day were from Brazil, and they had traveled a long way, doubtless scrimping and saving to do so. For many this was clearly a dream come true, to stand here in the footsteps of Moses.
One might at first wonder why an easier means has not been constructed to access the peak of Mount Sinai. In the States, such a popular tourist attraction would almost certainly be equipped with a tram or a train, and the Egyptian government would certainly be capable of building such a system. Almost certainly that will never happen for several reasons. First and foremost is that this is indeed supposed to be a challenge to the pilgrims who come here. It is supposed to be a test of their will to find God at the top of this mountain, and it is winning this test that causes so much emotion at the top. Of course, this is also a wilderness. It is now, just as it was referred to in the Bible, and there must be some intentional effort to keep it that way, unspoiled by modern contraptions such as trams.
I stayed on top of Mount Sinai for perhaps an hour and a half. I would have liked to have rested a bit, but Mount Sinai was not the only item on our agenda this day. We still had to get to Sharm el-Sheikh and photograph this most famous of Egypt's beach resorts. Soon, we began our journey down. There are two routes on Mount Sinai. There is the camel route which is a more gentle slope, and the stairs, which much of the time are no stairs at all. The stairs are considered by far the most difficult route down, but it was the one I was faced with taking, as I needed to document the ancient arches that adorn this path. At least it would not be crowded on the way down, as most everyone else took the camel path.
It was an interesting trip down. Soon, we ran into an old lady driving a donkey burdened with large water containers, up the steps. This is, of course, the only way for water to reach the top of the mountain. I wondered about this old woman, who's colorful dress betrayed her tired eyes, and for that matter, even my younger guide, who must surely make this climb every day. I suppose they are used to it, but it must nevertheless be a difficult life.
We passed a Bedouin camp situated in an open space along the way down, past an ancient church and then beneath the ancient arches along this route. Perhaps two thirds of the way down, I was shocked to find a domestic cat, apparently making its living from tourists, because it was fearless of me and not a bit afraid to make my acquaintance. In Cairo and Alexandria, the cats are often not as friendly. I felt bad that I could not repay his affection with a scrap of food.
We also encountered some AUC students, some of whom were American kids. These were about the only people we would see on this route down. They had clearly handled the climb much better than I, and were merrily climbing about on the rocks, sometimes sticking to the path and sometimes not. My Bedouin guide was clearly annoyed, and at the same time, seemed concerned for their safety. I think he must have been annoyed because people are supposed to be accompanied by a guide. That is a requirement, but at the same time, they were playing it a bit dangerously. Nevertheless, I noted that they all made it to the bottom safely.
Finally, St. Catherine's Monastery came into view, and not soon enough for me. In general, my difficulty is breath. I am a fairly strong person and descending mountains is much easier for me. Nevertheless, I had been on Mount Sinai for almost eight hours now, and as I took the last step down onto the plain, I was staggering. The exhaustion was complete.
I had intended on visiting the Monastery after the descent, but this day it turned out to be closed. I could have probably asked for Father John, my friend there, and gained admittance, but in reality, I was somewhat relieved, as tired as I was, and I had been there a number of times before. Also, vehicles are not allowed this close to the Monastery without special permission, and I still had a good walk left before I would be able to rest. I did tip the Bedouin guide well, who so faithfully put up with my frequent rest stops, and lugged my camera tripod up and down the mountain. Soon though, we were back on the road again, retracing part of our route and heading towards Sharm el-Sheikh. Given a bit of food and water, a car seat in which to rest, and some nice air conditioning, I recovered quickly from the Mount Sinai trek, and the prospect of visiting one of my favorite places in Egypt brought me back to life.
The difference is like night and day, going from the Sinai wilderness into the bright lights and refinement of Sharm el-Sheikh. This transition is not only a culture shock, but an experience in time travel, from Biblical times to one of the most modern cities in Egypt.
Nama'a Bay by moonlight
As it turned out, I knew Sharm better than Osama, my companion from the Egyptian press office who had never been to the city, or Tamer, who had only been there to pick up tourists. I had been there a number of times before and like most everyone else, I enjoy this city immensely. Granted, Sharm hardly seems Egyptian at all, but rather some cross between an American and a European beach community. Here, dozens of languages intermingle in the flow of prominent McDonalds located on one of the main avenues. It was already approaching dusk by the time we settled into a private villa and headed back out to photograph Na'ama Bay. It was also fairly timely, as the moon rose over the bay just as I was setting my camera on its tripod at the beach.
Really, we did relax some, mixing work with a bit of enjoyment. After taking a few shots along the beach, we sat for a while on the main avenue, sipping tea, and admittedly, watching the pretty girls stroll along the walkways. I have several favorite places I like to visit in Sharm, and after a while, we strolled down to one of them, the Hard Rock Cafe. Here, I enjoyed a beer for the first time in many days, and I might mention that it is one of the best places, perhaps anywhere in Egypt, to find a bit of Tex-Mex.
One of the main avenues at Na'ama Bay in Sharm el-Sheikh
After that, we walked about the streets, enjoying the colorful signs and displays that mark Sharm el-Sheikh as the upscale beach resort that it is. Sharm is always festive it seems, a place where the party never really ends. Here, restaurant after restaurant mingle with upscale stores of all kinds, set against a back drop of drinkies, as clubs are often referred to in Egypt. The only thing which seems to change in Sharm is that the lights keep getting brighter and more colorful.
We killed some time in this way until another of my favorite spots got rolling, the club at the Movenpick. I must always stop in at this club, whether I am staying at the hotel itself or not, because consistently it has some of the best entertainment in town. Located along the boardwalk, they serve light fare which we partook of, mostly to validate our presence since there is no cover charge. This night, the routine was much the same as my last visit, with a duo musical act followed by a Russian animation team, which Americans would refer to as a stage show. All of these entertainers are very professional and the Russian dancers are particularly so. On top of that, I must admit that the young Russian dancers are very beautiful, as young Russian women tend to be here.
We stayed for some time at the Movenpick. The stage show itself did not start until 10:00 pm, and we enjoyed chicken and, for myself, a couple more beers. Nevertheless, we had one more stop to make this night. I wanted a good view of the bay for my last shoot of the day, so we finally made our way to the cliffs that overlook Na'ama bay from the south. There are a number of hotels that overlook the bay from here, most of which are not as well known as those along the actual beach. We had to explore around a bit, with several false starts before finally finding the perfect location. However, now at least, I can name the best view of Na'ama Bay. It is from the terraced gardens of the Halomy Hotel, a very pleasant place that seems to have been discovered mostly by young Europeans. From there, we found the view of the bay breathtaking, as we could see far into the distance on this crisp, clear night.
It had been a very long day. I shot a few panoramas from this high edge of Na'ama bay, and was more than ready when we finally headed back to our villa. By the time I downloaded my photos and backed them up, it was 12:30 am, one of our longest days of the survey. I had spent over 23 hours this day, climbing Mount Sinai and moving on to Sharm, and I had little memory of my head hitting the pillow that night. I just wish that we had more time to play just a bit in Sharm, but we had one more day left on the Survey, which would prove the most difficult of all for me, even though I accomplished less than what I intended.
Na'ama Bay from the Halomy Hotel on the cliffs