There’s something about Dahab which produces a phenomenon of sloth I like to think of as “mission creep”, but which might better be described as “mission shrink”.
For, yes, we have indeed spent a fortnight within two hours of Mount Sinai, one of the holiest sites common to the three Peoples of the Book — or “sky god religions” — Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Without climbing it. Embarrassing, right?
Even more embarrassing? This is the fourth time I’ve been to Sinai…
Anywise, I can finally report that, yes, Mount Sinai is most definitely worth the effort. Even if you’re not religious, to stand in the place where Moses received the ten commandments, the birthplace of three great religions, is pretty extraordinary. (For added impact, watch Cecil B. De Mille’s epic The Ten Commandments ahead of time.)
And St. Catherine’s Coptic monastery, nestled at the base of Mount Sinai, is pretty extraordinary too. With the rugged base of a Crusader castle topped by a typically Eastern Christian monastery, surrounded by cypresses sprouting from the red rock, it rests under the protection of Mohammed himself.
Saint Catherine’s originates with Saint Helena, mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine. One of the earliest archaeologists, her faith-led excavations in the Holy Land produced not only the True Cross, an artefact whose extant fragments now equate to a small forest, but also the burning bush from which God spoke to Moses on the mountain. Seriously.
And this is (allegedly) it!
In case you’re wondering, I’m assured it’s the one on the right. By (I kid you not) the fire extinguisher…
There is, however, more to Saint Catherine’s than greenery of questionable origin. Z, whose geekish interests extend from Chinese jade through to a fine appreciation of Orthodox icons and illuminations, loved the museum and the monastery church.
Me? I liked the surprisingly tranquil garden, with its olives and date palms, and the notes tucked, Wailing Wall style, into the brickwork near the bush.
From the monastery, a wide, easy, stony track lined with phenomenally persistent camelboys, mercifully less motivated Bedouin tea vendors and lavatory facilities which almost made me nostalgic for Chinese bathrooms brings you to Elijah’s Basin, whence a few hundred steepish rocky steps lead you to the summit of Mount Sinai.
I love the rugged Sinai desert, and to catch migrating birds in flight over it moved us both.
Even more magical, in fact, than the cute little chapel at the top of the mountain, by which even the most hardened cynic is likely to be moved, if not to tears, at least to holiday snapshots.
And, so… I rarely do this, but here! This is us! Having followed in the footsteps of Mousa, our Bedouin guide, we stood in the footsteps of Moses.
And then we watched the desert shade into rainbows as the sun set behind Mount Sinai. Which is, even for the cynic, something very close to awe-inspiring.
A Note on Safety: As of 19 March 2012, there have been at least three kidnappings of tourists on the St. Catherine’s Road, apparently by young Bedouin men with a beef with the authorities. All victims have been treated well and released within 24 hours, but check the security situation before you travel.