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. After 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 (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.
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.
We 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.
We 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.