Why is a secular person like me trekking on the mythological Mt. Sinai (Arabic: Gebel Musa, 2,285 m) in October 1985, the Moses mountain being situated in the heart of a mountainous desert on the peninsula with the same name? Well, I really have to strain my brain and memory, as no diary has been written by me during this self-organized 4-week-journey through all Egypt long time ago. At least the analog photos do still exist and must serve as a quite triggering and facilitating guide.
In the 80s of the last century travelling was much more exciting and unpredictable than today. All I did in preparation for my journey to Egypt was booking a flight-ticket to Cairo, reading a little bit in advance and taking with me a travel-guide for orientation which led me reliably to the most important sites in the country. I never had a problem to find accomodation whereever, just looking and asking while speaking sometimes simply with hands and feet. I did not speak Arabic, and in Egypt not everybody spoke English especially in the more rural areas.
“Many stone inscriptions have been found in Southern Sinai, dating from the 15th century B.C. They are written in pictograms, signs representing the initial consonants of words whose meaning had been previously conveyed by a picture – a crucial stage between pictorial representation and phonetic writing. Pictograms are generally hieroglyphics but these read as Canaanite not Egyptian. So the Canaanite alphabet was the result of a conscious creative act.”
Jean Starcky / Pierre Bordreuil, 1975, “L’Invention de l’alphabet”
I reached the Sinai with the bus going from Cairo to Suez, there I took a shared taxi, an old Peugeot, being driven with great pride by a local Bedouin. The driver stopped from time to time in the Sinai desert where Bedouins settled in tents for a small talk or just waving his right hand. The left hand may not be used for greeting or eating subject to reasons I do not like to explain in detail. The only thing I can advise in this regard to have always paper tissues with you as toilet paper quite often was not available, instead just a bottle of water. The shared taxi brought me finally completely secure to the centre of Sinai and the Greek Orthodox St. Catherines Monastery (see photo hereunder).
The monastery is a quite busy place in the middle of the desert at the mouth of a gorge being situated at the foot of Mt. Sinai as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The building is one of the oldest working Christian monasteries in the world and was built between 548 and 565. The monastery provides also the oldest continually operating library in the world. The name originates to antique tradition telling the history of Catherine of Alexandria, a Christian martyr, sentenced to death on the breaking wheel. When this failed to kill her, she was beheaded. The Christian mythology says that angels took her remains afterwards to Mt. Sinai where monks from the Sinai Monastery found her remains around the year 800. So a lot of Christian pilgrims do visit this place, and the monastery offers accomodation to them and everybody else who decides to be here and/or climb on Mt. Sinai like Moses long time ago.
So being here in a spectacular desert scenery with all these old stories and expectations implies a quite special experience. As far as I can remember I spent two nights at the monastery and one very early morning at around 4 a.m. when all was still completely dark and mysterious, I and all the others staying there (around 40 persons) started climbing on Mt. Sinai. At that time it is cool and fine in the desert, so marching to the top required only around 2.5 hours on a not too difficult path. Shortly before sunrise we reached the top of Mt. Sinai, at that moment all surrounding other mountains were immersed in a surreal blue and green (see photo above and hereunder). There was a big group of pilgrims from Austria who after singing a Christian song chanted with great pathos the hymn of their homeland Tyrole. This made it even more irreal because in the background Egyptian merchants were loudly shouting: “Chai. Hot tea.” And you would normally not expect so much life early in the morning in a desert at Alpine heights. So no, I have really not found any kind of enlightenment on top of Mt. Sinai but the magical mountainous scenery was really worth a visit. The desert is a very puristic place but risky, it can clean your mind or kill you. A lot of Europeans have a romantic view on it as visualized in films like Lawrence of Arabia. Every Bedouin prefers to stay in an oasis with water and green as a simple question of survival. The sun has an incredible drying strength and heat even in October, so moving down Mt. Sinai in the early morning for nearly 2 hours was indeed less pleasant and instead arousing a thirst.
The Sinai desert allows a lot of discoveries like canyons of all colour, prehistoric temples or the visit of an old oasis. After my visit of Mt. Sinai I spent some time at the Red Sea on the other hand, first in the quite touristic Sharm El-Sheikh and afterwards in the more Hippie-like Dahab with simple straw huts and hosted by Bedouins at the beach. There in Dahab life was easy and relaxed those days, a real welcomed and nice memory to this special and amazing land called Sinai.