Into the Wilderness of the Sinai
By Kate Nivison
Story Provided by EgyptAir Horus Magazine
Nothing could capture Egypts desert wilderness of Sinai better than that wonderful scene from David Leans great desert epic, Lawrence of Arabia. A rashly brave Lawrence, played by Peter OToole, has announced that he will cross the Sinai Desert to take news of their surprise capture of the port of Aqaba to the British in Cairo. He accomplishes this feat, but not before the Wilderness has shown him a pillar of fire by night and smoke by day the swirling local dust storms that plague the Sinai at certain times of the year. And not before he has been humbled for his presumption, when the notorious, shifting desert dunes claim one of his companions in a quicksand.
In fact, Egypts Sinai Desert has never been a place to take lightly, the Sinai Peninsula is that inverted triangle of land which separates the Gulf of Suez from the Gulf of Aqaba. With its stunning rock formations, stony plateaus and echoing canyons or wadis. Here you can see not just "pillars of fire", but salt flats, and snow-powdered mountain ranges, their flanks etched sharply by wind and the occasional downpour of welcome rain.
At Sinais southern tip, the two gulfs converge at the Red Sea, where the coral reefs provide scuba diving and snorkeling to rival Australias Great Barrier Reef. It is from gleaming white, purpose-built resorts like Sharm El Sheikh and Nuweiba, or more informal settlements such as Ras Mohammed and Dahab that most of todays visitors attempt to tackle Sinai.
But these days, most of them dont try to cross it. More often, their goal is to reach the Holy Mountain in the southern part of the Peninsula, and as holy mountains go, they dont come much holier than Mount Sinai. For this is the place where God first spoke to Moses (considered a prophet by all three religions) from the Burning Bush. It was here that Moses received the Ten Commandments, handed down on tablets of stone, only to have them spurned by his people. In his anger, Moses smashed the precious tablets, and some would say that the world has been picking up the pieces ever since.
At nearly 7,500 ft (2,285 m) Gebel Musa (the mountain of Moses) to give its local name, stands stern and uncompromising among its rocky neighbors, right at the heart of it all. While not actually the highest peak in the area, there is a certain something about this particular mountain. It positively imposes its presence, almost overwhelming the world-famous Monastery of St. Catherine and the constant stream of visitors toiling up the stony path to its foot. Or perhaps protecting them for the Sinai Desert is still the kind of place where even the hardy, half-wild camels need a bit of protection. Flash floods, sandstorms, freezing night temperatures, losing ones bearings and thirst can catch the foolhardy traveler unaware. There are only a few motorable roads across it, mainly in the flatter northern part, and a bus journey from Sharm El Sheikh to Suez or Cairo along the western coast road will take the best part of a bumpy, dusty day.
But if St. Catherines is the goal, it is a mere three-hour drive rather than forty years in the wilderness, and the air-conditioning certainly helps. In fact, the only discomfort is having to get up early enough to collect your hotel packed breakfast and thats only because the monastery gates always close at midday.
As long as you are not expecting monastic desert solitude theres hardly ever a really quiet time to visit the trip is a must for those in the area. As the bus climbs into the mountains, there are great ridges of barren limestone, starkly fragmented basalt peaks and sand-floored wadis as far as the eye can see. For the last half mile up to the monastery, take a camel from the coach park, or foot-slog it with the rest. In spring, the almond blossom in the monastery orchard is frothy and cool against the broken butterscotch of the rocks. But in summer, be prepared to feel like a nut in hot toffee, even if you have come sensibly prepared with a hat and water bottle.
It was water from Moses Well, the site of which is still preserved within the monastery complex, that made the original 3rd century Christian hermits settlement possible in this barren, awe-inspiring landscape. By 530 AD, the often valuable gifts left by pilgrims were attracting the attention of marauding Bedouin, so the Byzantine Emperor Justinian provided the Greek Othodox monks guarding the site of the Well and the Burning Bush with the massive grey granite fortification walls we see today.
Then one of the monks dreamed that the body of St. Catherine of Alexandria, an Egyptian Christian girl martyred by the Romans, had been transported by angles to the even higher peak right opposite Mount Sinai. Next day, after a stiff climb, the monks found some human remains near the top a skull with long, still blond hair and a couple of arm bones. The added attraction of a virgin martyrs relics, however incomplete, ensured a constant stream of pilgrims throughout the centuries. Mount Sinais twin peak was named St. Catherines Mountain, and the monastery itself was also dedicated to her.
Inside the walls is a warren of ancient chapels and tiny courtyards. In one of these, neatly enclosed by a low wall and still looking green and sprightly, is the Burning Bush. Or possibly, its a cutting from the original root, now covered by the altar in an adjacent chapel. Apparently, attempts to root it elsewhere always fail. A fire extinguisher is always kept beside it, perhaps in case some visitor overcome with religious fervor tries to recreate the original miraculous scene. But that would surely be unworthy. You can almost feel the great weight of holiness this ground has carried for so long.
Today, standing in the main Basilica, it is hard to believe that this entire structure, together with many of the icons, striking mosaics and the inner doors all date from the 6th century. Everyone whispers respectfully in here even the multi-lingual tour guides.
Of more recent construction, yet blending well into the ancient honeycomb, is the Library. It was from here that St. Catherines most famous treasure, the Codex Sinaiticus, was, let us say, removed rather than actually stolen. This amazing book, written in the 4th century on fine parchment, is the earliest known copy of the New Testament in its original Greek. It was lent to a German scholar in 1859 on the promise that it would be copied and returned. It never was. This Elgin Marbles of the book world, this Rosetta Stone of biblical scholarship, then somehow got presented to the last Tsar of Russia. In 1933, the Soviet Government sold it to the British Museum for __100,000, a huge sum at that time, and there it remains, much studied and admired, on public view until this day.
The monks are very courteous about all this, realizing perhaps that it would need another miracle to get the Codex back. Even without it, the monastery is still one of the worlds greatest repositories of ancient manuscripts. Two-thirds are in Greek, while the rest are in Coptic, Arabic, Syriac, Ethiopian, Armenian and Slavonic. Accredited scholars from all over the world are welcome here, to study the sacred texts and historic documents many of which throw new light on the development of early languages, international relations and religious thought.
But perhaps the most amazing thing about St. Catherines is that its 1500-year-old walls have never been breached or its holy places defiled. Considering it position at the crossroads of the often turbulent Middle East, that really is a miracle.
Indeed it is this very crossroads position of Sinai, combined with its fascinating historical and geographical features, that have allowed the current boom in tourist development to take place something that would not have been possible only thirty years ago. Visitors to Jordan, whether on a package holiday or backpacking, can now safely extend their itinerary to take in Sharm El Sheikh, St. Catherines, Suez and Cairo with the minimum of border formalities. Anyone staying in Sharm can take a dawn flight to Cairo or even Luxor to see the sights, and be back in time for a late evening meal at one of the resorts many attractive restaurants. Egyptian, Italian, Chinese, Lebanese, Bedu or international cuisine, the choice is wide.
Young people of a dozen nationalities meet for fun, water sports and scuba diving at Dahab, which still has something of a laid-back air about it. The sea is warm enough for swimming all year, and in the cooler months, a stiff north-easterly breeze whisking down the Gulf of Aqaba makes for spectacularly speedy wind surfing. Treks into the desert on foot, by camel, or by quad bikes with their four huge bouncy wheels are becoming increasingly popular, even with the not-so-young.
Most hotels will organize a Bedouin evening, with a drive out into the desert to pick up the camels. Then its mounting up time, guaranteed to produce squeals in several languages and earnest exhortations to lean back as the animals rise from their haunches to their huge padded feet. Wadi Mandar is just one of the majestic backdrops for a dignified procession, nose to tail, in time to catch the sunset, and all those Lawrence fantasies suddenly seem real. Taking snapshots from a moving camel is not quite as impossible as it sounds, once you have mastered the knee-lock and got to grips with that ship of the desert swaying motion.
Whether camel trekking, camping free-style, or recovering from quad bike spills, a traditional meal round a Bedouin campfire with drums, stories and singing is something everyone seems to enjoy, wherever they are from. We listened to a New Yorker describing dawn from the top of Mt. Sinai, our Coptic guides mixed review of the London Underground, and a Swedish couple excitedly looking forward to their first wreck dive. But we also spoke of how the Pope had been welcomed in Cairo and made a special pilgrimage to St. Catherines.
As for the desert night skies, you may not see a pillar of fire, said our guide, but if you dont spot the Milky Way, several planets, some well-known constellations and a sprinkling of meteorites, then you must drink more mint tea until you do. There were six nationalities round our campfire that night, and surely the stars of Sinai were brighter for it.