In the Footsteps of Moses

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…

Sunset over the mountains around Mount Sinai, Egypt.

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.

St. Catherine's Monastery against rugged mountains.

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!

Burning bush and non-burning bush, with fire extinguisher, St. Catherine's monastery, Sinai.

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.

Notes tucked into the wall by the burning bush, St. Catherine's Monastery, Mount Sinai.

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.

The  church on the top of Mount Sinai, Egypt.

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.

Z and I standing on the top of Mount Sinai.

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.

Sunset over the mountains around Mount Sinai, Egypt.

Thanks to the lovely chaps at King Safari Dahab for the Saint Catherine’s and Mount Sinai trip.

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.

19 Responses

  1. I absolutely loved my Mt. Sinai climb (did it at Sunrise, the day before the kidnappings).

    • Theodora says:

      We were there the day before the latest kidnapping. Sunrise must have been chilly, though? Even sunset was pretty brisk…

  2. Jill says:

    I love the fire extinguisher shot, that’s faith for you!

    And its IS nice to see a pic of the two of you

  3. Laurence says:

    Fire extinguisher opposite the bush – awesome. Although if God had a mind to set a bush on fire, I’m guessing an earthly fire extinguisher wouldn’t do too much 😉

  4. Theodora says:

    I’m not sure what to make of the burning bush, to be honest with you, Laurence. I wasn’t expecting that level of weirdness until Jerusalem…

  5. Erik says:

    I did this hike for sunrise on a day trip from Israel in 2010. It was an incredibly moving experience. I was just happy I had the fitness to make it up- I had no idea how hard going down would be!

    • Theodora says:

      We did sunset, so went down in the dark: and you’re right that it’s genuinely moving, even for cynics. We always take walks R.E.A.L.L.Y. S.L.O.W.L.Y. — I stop for fags and photos and drinks of water, Z climbs everything in sight except the path — so I didn’t find it that hard work. If I’d tried to keep up with our group, I’d probably have had stitch.

  6. Mary says:

    Wow, these photos are amazing. Looks like an area that can not be missed!

    • Theodora says:

      You would love Dahab, I think. Incredibly chilled. I’m going to do a photo post on the other desert stuff we’ve seen, because the landscapes are amazing. As is the water. Apart from the diving and snorkelling, there’s windsurfing, kayaks, the whole shebang down the posh end of town, on the lagoon.

  7. Justin says:

    It’s how a person’s perceptions of a place can change with a blog post.

    Really enjoying your adventures in Egypt. I had never considered traveling there before, but now . . .

    • Theodora says:

      I would highly recommend it, Justin. And, in a way, particularly now, because who knows which way things will go?

  8. Suzy says:

    Absolutely beautiful! There is certainly a certain aura to Mount Sinai. Would love to go someday.

    • Theodora says:

      I’d really recommend it. My gut feeling is that things are going to change rather a lot in Egypt over the next five years, so perhaps sooner rather than some day…

  9. Love the post and the colors of sunset, and that fire extinguisher is very funny. I imagined the bush to be more dramatic, yet on the other hand, I never imagine seeing a photo – or an alleged photo – of it!

    • Theodora says:

      Yes. I’m honestly not sure whether they’ve got a real bush hidden inside the monastery for the monks: some people say this one is a fake. It doesn’t look, well, orange enough, really…

  10. Anne-Marie says:

    As I remember, it looked a lot more orange in the summer – maybe its leaves/stems change colour as autumn approaches

  11. Jolynn ruggerio says:

    St. Catherine is not a Coptic Monastery it is Greek Orthodox

    • Theodora says:

      Thanks for the correction. Most of the texts on display were Coptic, rather than Greek, and the Coptic patriarch had died that day and everyone was in mourning for him, so it didn’t occur to me that it could have been anything other than Coptic. But you’re correct. It’s Greek Orthodox.