Sunrise on Mt. Sinai

Cairn Sun

I have been to the mountaintop.

On my last trip to Sinai, I didn’t have time to make the trip to the place where Moses did a high altitude download of the world’s first top ten list. So when my friend Ed came to visit, he asked if we could make the trip to Mt. Sinai. St KatherinesAfter an afternoon of snorkeling in Dahab, we drove out to the base of the mountain St. Katherine’s monastery, a site founded in 527 and believed to be the oldest continually inhabited Christian monastery. It commands the valley at the base of the trail head where it’s another 2,500 foot climb to the peak of the 7,497 foot (2,285 meters) mountain. We booked a room at a nearby hotel, and slept a few hours, waking at 2:30 a.m. to hit the trail to see sunrise at the summit. With flashlights in hand, we ambled up the trail Sunrise with crowds on mt sinai(Ed has recently had foot surgery, so he walked with a cane, though he did amazingly well), surrounded by hundreds of others — mostly Russians in curious footwear — and dodging camels who crowded the trail with men leading them offering rides to the top. We made it in plenty of time before the 5:45 sunrise, and joined the chilly hordes, huddled on the stones, waiting for the sun to come up. Bedouins at the top do a brisk business in blanket and mat rental. As I sat on a rock looking out on the breathtaking landscape, a young woman next to me sang a hymn in a sweet sotto voce.

church at sinai summit

As the sun rose above the horizon, Ed and I lingered at the top, waiting for the masses to make their exodus (hmm, can I get another biblical word in that sentence?), and snapped several photos. We split up and explored different parts of the mountain, but had agreed earlier to meet at the No. 5 tea shack just below the summit, where we sipped hot tea in little plastic cups and warmed up a bit before heading back down. On the climb down the 750 steps that lead to the summit, we were serenaded by a group of Korean Christians in white gloves singing “bringing in the sheaves” in their native tongue.

Ed on SInai stepsWe made a leisurely descent, and got to St. Katherine’s just in time for its doors to open to the public for three hours that morning. When we got there, the left half of Russia was already standing outside, queueing up to enter the tiny door at the base of the medieval fort wall. Inside, there’s a tree the monks say is on the site where the burning bush once blazed. The tree growing there now just sits there looking rather cool in the desert heat, and people stuff little written prayers into the metal grating at its base.

burning bushWe did some well-earned power napping in our room before we checked out and headed west, planning to spend a leisurely afternoon in Wadi Feirun, where an oasis is said to have thousands of palm trees. Ed was picturing a Moroccan paradise, with a picturesque cafe to sip tea, eat dates and nuts and relax in the afternoon. Turns out the charm here is the landscape and the amazing views that can be had in an off road drive in a 4X4, or (ahem) a trek into the mountains. No more hiking for us that day. Besides, it would be hard to top the views from the summit of Mt. Sinai.

Craig on Sinai 1

Cross grate Sinai

Sinai on the downside

Gala Premiere Event

First Person Films Poster

First Person Films

Blind musicians, Iraqi refugees, stressed-out emergency room doctors and men who iron clothes with their feet. These are a few of the subjects of compelling short documentary films produced this year by students in the professional and graduate programs at the American University in Cairo’s Center for Electronic Journalism.

Join us (if you’re in Cairo) for a gala evening of world premiere screenings.

June 3 – 7:00 pm

Jameel Center Auditorium, Greek Campus
The American University in Cairo

Images from Wadi Rum

Camel Closeup

I’ve been busy this semester, and have not been the reliable correspondent I was earlier in my adventures here. Arch in Wadi RumApologies, but as I near the end of my fellowship, I’m trying to cram in as much work — and interesting excursions — as I can as my time in Egypt nears its end.

Here are some photos from last month’s amazing trip to the Wadi Rum in Jordan. This is the landscape where T.E. Lawrence once trod, and where David Lean brought his crew to do the film about Lawrence in 1962. It is a striking environment, with reddish hues waving through the brown sand, Wadi Rum Red sandstriking hills on the horizon and incredible formations, bridges and arches carved out of the desert by wind and time. We hiked into narrow canyons in the rocks where there are ancient petroglyphs. Our guide Zedan says the hands facing down in the primitive carving of the man means he’s happy. It’s an image I tried to emulate.

rum rocks

petroglyph waid rumWe camped for two nights in a Bedouin camp with large goat hair tents, and I spent one of them by myself outside, sleeping on a sand dune, looking up into a sea of stars (I know it’s a cliche, but an apt description nonetheless). The crew cooked chicken and vegetables in an oven dug into the desert floor with hot coals and a three-level grill contraption with a lid that they bury with sand. Tasty chicken.

Wadi Rum is also where I took my first camel ride with my friends and travel companions J & K (you can see J’s photo of me on camel back, here. I’ll share video soon.). It’s also where J’s camel tried to kill him… but you can hear that story straight from the, er, horse’s mouth, and get some pointers from a commenter on his blog on potential menswear for the desert. Zidane with glyphsThe camel took some getting used to, but you eventually get the hang of it and you know where to put your butt and legs for optimum comfort. We didn’t see much on the ride, but got to listen as the older of the two boys who guided us quizzed the younger with school lessons as they walked in front of the beasts with the leads in their hands. They stopped at a spring to water the animals (and for one to take the opportunity to try and scrape J off his back). Camel SilhouetteAs we neared the camp, we saw other camels standing in the desert, grazing on the occasional vegetation. The females were apparently in heat and the herders had put on some kind of chastity chaps — a leather apron over their backsides with a hole for their tales — to keep the males from, um, accomplishing anything. But the boys got nervous when the males saw the females, so they suggested we get off the camels and walk the 100 yards to the camp. Male camels in rut are known to be aggressive and umpredictable. Not unlike males of another species I’m familiar with.

Arch with K

J and K on camels

Zedan on sand

The Coptic Monasteries of Egypt

monastery 3

My cousin Mary Kay, a pediatrician in Cleveland, has a clinic partner who hails from Cairo. When Dr. Mervat came from Ohio to visit her family here in February, she invited me to dinner with them. She and her sisters all have names that begin with M (much like another family I know).Monastery 11

At that dinner, Mervat’s sister Magda and her husband Samieh promised to take me out to see some of the oldest monasteries in the Middle East. We had to wait until after Easter, when the sites once again opened their doors to non-members of the church. monastery 2Last Saturday, Samieh and Magda treated me to a tour of two monasteries and a retreat center founded by a priest who does a great deal of charity work in upper Egypt.

Monastery 6Copt is a word meaning “Egyptian,” derived from the Greek Egyptos. But its meaning has developed over the years so that today the word Coptic refers to Egyptian Christians. About 15% of Egyptians are Christians and some 95% of them are members of the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria.

Samieh with kettlesThe first monastery on our tour was in an area called Wadi Natrun, and has a Monastic complex dedicated to St Bishoy, a priest born in the fourth century AD. My tour guide was an English-speaking priest (a former Chemist who had spent time in Europe and has two brothers in New Jersey) who spent more than an hour taking me among the sights there and explaining details about the history of the place. Monastery 9And he showed us inside some of the rooms, not on the tourist route, where monks would gather for fellowship.

There’s an old tower where the monks would also gather, but that was for protection from invaders, be it from the Berbers — who regularly attacked over the spane of a few hundred years — or others through the ages. And in the sanctuaries of the churches there are altars with the relics of saints Bishoy and Paul of Tammua. Monastery 7The walls have frescoes, and the altars are decorated with wood carvings from centuries past. There’s also an old grain mill that was once powered by donkeys.

We then went to Samieh and Magda’s favorite monastery, monastery 5where they come regularly, they say, to “be close to God” and find solace and a break from the hustle and bustle of Cairo. The Monastery of St. Macarius is about 90 kilometers from Cairo, off the main desert highway to Alexandria. The monastery was founded by the eponymous Saint in 360 AD. And from the fourth century to the present day, it has been continuously inhabited by monks.monastery 4 One altar is said to contain the relics of both St. John the Baptist and Elisha the Prophet.

As we walked among the peaceful sanctuaries and chapels, I could see why Samieh and Magda go there so often.


Monastery 10