The second half of our tour of Egypt took us to the lesser-known (at least to me) Sinai region of the country. This is the part of Egypt on the east side of the Suez Canal, which is technically in Asia (Yes! Another continent! Yeah, I know, it doesn't really count).
Thanks to a valiant attempt by our tour guide to fit everything into our schedule, around 6:30 am Wednesday morning, we found ourselves in a small overloaded van heading east through the desert. The entire Sinai Peninsula is pretty much a desert, covered with blowing sand and tall, jagged rocks. For its relentless heat and barrenness, the desert is actually quite beautiful. There's a serenity here that you can't find anywhere else. There's nothing to create "noise" in your mind's eye as you pass through.
Around 11:30 we pulled into the visitor's center of the St. Katherine's Protectorate (essentially a fancy name for a national park). It was wedged into a beautiful valley with tall red-rock mountains on all sides. We had little time to waste, as the chapel inside the monastery was scheduled to close at noon. Mayer took us on an expedited tour covering the highlights of the chapel, and then allowed us time to explore the remainder of the monastery on our own.
I knew little about St. Katherine's, other than what I read in the tour's dossier. The site itself is at the foot of Mount Sinai, the mountain on which Moses received the Ten Commandments from God Himself. It sits to the south of the monastery, looming majestically high overhead at a height of almost 2,300 meters. The chapel at the base is named after Saint Katherine, a Christian martyr who after converting many of the wisest men of her time to Christianity, was tortured on a spiked wheel and beheaded for her beliefs. The chapel is small and compact, but full of amazing oil paintings, suspended gold lamps and silver incense holders.
There's also a museum attached holding at least two fairly noteworthy items. The first is a handwritten letter from Muhammad (yes, "the" Muhammad - the prophet of Islam), issuing a decree that the monastery was not to harmed in anyway by Muslims passing through due to its significance in the history of Moses. The second is a handwritten letter from Napoleon Bonaparte, who actually helped to restore the monastery, and donated the current bell tower.
The highlight of the monastery though, is actually just a few feet away. The order of monks which still live here was founded in the fourth century. They built the chapel next to what was thought to be the actual burning bush God used to speak to Moses (See Exodus 3:1-3). And, just to the northeast of the chapel, protected by a high, round brick wall, stands the ancient bush.
It's definitely not what I had in my mind, though I'm not sure what I had expected, as the only vision I had in my head was the poorly animated plant speaking to Charlton Hesston in "The Ten Commandments" (it's ok - I know you were thinking it too). The actual plant is very big and full, though the bottom layers of branches are dry and dying, likely due in large part to people reaching up to grab a piece of history. Even as I walked by, two or three locals were climbing on each other's shoulders to break off a branch for themselves. Obviously due to my vertical inclination, I was asked to assist in this endeavor, which I politely declined. It just didn't seem right.
Now I was wondering, like many of you likely are right now, "Can this possibly be THE actual burning bush? Was this THE very plant God used to talk to Moses? Scientifically speaking, it would make this very green plant well over 3,000 years old." The truth is, I don't know. Admittedly, it is hard "logically" to accept it. However, I've read about the olive trees in the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem which have been proven to be over 2000 years old. And, enough people over 1500 years ago thought it appropriate to build their chapel around this particular bush. Who am I to argue?
At around 4:00, we met in front of the visitor's center to begin our climb to the top of Mt. Sinai. Theoretically, the climb would last about three hours, and once at the summit, would provide a remarkable view of the sunset. I was pretty excited - one, that we were getting to climb Mt. Sinai (I mean its Mt. Sinai for Pete's sake!), and two, for some exercise. If there's one thing I'm really, truly missing at this point is any semblance of physical fitness. After playing basketball in high school and college for the better part of 8 years, and then at least attempting to stay in shape during my working life, five months of inactivity really hurts. A mountain hike sounded like a great idea.
Now there are two ways to get to the top of the Mountain. The first are "The Steps of Repentance" - 3741 steps carved into the red rock of the mountain. Now, I'm sure this would have done my legs and butt a lot of good, but it probably also would have taken about six hours. As anyone who has done some hiking can attest, uneven, stone-cut stairs are no joke. The second route - the one we took - is the camel trail. It's a well-marked, fairly wide path which meanders up the side of the mountain in a series of switchbacks.
The walk was beautiful. The entire valley is a vision right out of the Bible. Tall wrinkled mountains, deep colorful valleys, and a beautiful blue sky. I thought about how Moses climbed this mountain with no trail and no stairs and with gear consisting of leather sandals and a walking stick. He also didn't benefit from the ten or twelve snack/coffee shops on the way up, selling water, soda and biscuits. They were seemingly at every turn, which disappointingly succeeded in spoiling the scenery a bit.
Again, let me emphasize I'm in pretty terrible shape. After the first thirty minutes I was sucking wind pretty good. Fortunately, I was doing better than everyone else, save our guide, who looked like he'd just gotten up from a nap.
After nearly three hours of climbing, we made it to the top. And, "they" were right, the view was breathtaking. You could see for miles in every direction.
A small stone chapel stood proudly at the top, which in turn got me thinking about how they got the stones up here and who the poor souls were that had to do it. We had about 15 minutes until the sun reached the horizon, during which I found a nice little spot to sit down and take it all in. I took some time to pray - to thank God for allowing me to be here - at the top of "Moses' Mountain". Just the fact that the burning bush is at its foot would be enough to make it an amazing place. But the knowledge that God Himself touched the stone of this mountain to write the Ten Commandments makes you pause. It's hard not to feel close to Him at that moment.
It actually got a bit chilly at the top, and I was glad I brought my trusty pullover. As promised, the sunset lived up to its billing, bathing the cloud-streaked sky and the surrounding mountains in a range of colors ranging from vibrant red to deep blue to bright orange.
Going down was obviously a little easier on the lungs and the lactic acid build up, but proved to be a bit of a challenge for the feet. It got dark quick, and even though the moonlight was exceptionally bright, my night-time depth perception is less than trustworthy. I slipped on the loose gravel more than once - though in my defense, so did everyone else. I followed our guide, who of course knew the path of least resistance (and pitfalls). Fortunately everyone made it down with all bones and skin intact.
We got up early the next morning and headed east to Nuweiba. Again, my knowledge of this town was about what yours is. All I knew for sure is that it was right on the Red Sea, and that it was our last stop in Egypt before heading on to Jordan. We made it to town around 11:00, and checked into a really, really nice resort/hotel. Apparently GAP likes to leave one with a good impression before departing. As I walked past the enormous pool with a swim-up bar, I decided I liked their strategy. This was about as far as you can get from the dorm bed/hostel situation I'm used to.
The resort itself was apparently pretty new, as we seemed to be pretty much the only guests. Who cares though? After finding my room and spending an hour watching TV with the A/C on full blast (just because I could), I met up with the group outside our rooms. Our final optional activity during the trip was a guided snorkeling tour. While very cool, a quick calculation of funds spent during the last few weeks found me reluctantly declining. All was not lost though, as an hour later I walked down to the beach and spent the afternoon in one of two conditions: lying on a folding chair under an umbrella, or swimming lazily in the Red Sea. Yes, my life is rough.
That evening, we all went back to the beach to watch the sunset, and "see why they call it the Red Sea". The falling sun caused the red mountains of Saudi Arabia to almost glow, which in turn was reflected by the nearly glass-smooth water. It was absolutely beautiful.