I climbed Mount Sinai. All 2,285 metres of it.
And it nearly killed me.
Mount Sinai is believed to be the mountain that Moses climbed when God gave him the Ten Commandments. He climbed it alone, and stayed there for 40 days and nights.
I climbed it overnight with six other travellers, a Bedouin guide and Minah, our chain-smoking tour guide from Embah Safari.
After a two-hour drive into the desert, we started walking at 1am. The landscape looked almost alien, lit grey by the moon, so bright that it could have been a floodlight. The route was dotted by stone houses inhabited by Bedouin – the floors were carpeted and blankets were draped along the walls, some of them less traditional than you’d expect (one had Looney Tunes mattresses lining its roof). The houses act like little convenience stores for tourists, each holding about 30 cans of coke, 10 bottles of juice, 10 cups of instant noodles and an assortment of chocolate bars.
Most of the climb wasn’t too bad – we took a gently sloping path and frequently stopped in these houses. What was difficult was that this meant we didn’t rest anywhere for long enough to have a nap, and I’d been up since 6:30 the previous morning and had done two yoga classes before the journey.
But I was okay.
It was the last half-hour that got me. There are four paths up Mount Sinai. One of them is a stairway of nearly 4,000 steps. We needed to take the last 750.
|The steps are pieces of uncarved stone that were put into the mountain side by a monk. They are not even. There is no railing. And some of them are a little loose.
Our altitude increasing more swiftly than ever before, it wasn’t long before I started puffing. A little later my legs started to ache and, when we made out final stop before the summit, I was feeling awful. Weak, shaky and my empty stomach heaving, I didn’t know if I could make the last 100 steps, and I was scared that I’d fall on the way down.
But I made it!
At 5:45 (4 hours and 45 minutes of climbing, including stops, and I’d been up for 23 hours and 15 minutes) we reached the summit. And I felt so sick that I couldn’t enjoy my triumph. Why couldn’t Moses have climbed a different mountain?!
Luckily I quickly stated to feel better, and had a front-row seat for the sunrise.
When we arrived there was a band of yellow across the horizon – a second horizon created by the fog that morning. Through the mist the mountains seemed indistinct and elastic, like waves in the darkness.
Soon we could see the sun through the fog – first just a pink crescent, then a ball rising as the deep blue of the night sky receded.
Then the sun broke through the haze. It was blinding, the circumference of its rays expanding and it reached into the sky. It rose slowly, yawning and stretching as it woke, and a French couple next to me commented that, although it had a charm of its own, it wasn’t the Alps.
Going down was much easier, and I chatted to Minah happily as the new sun bathed the mountains in a golden light. White fog curled around the mountains like tendrils of smoke, and it swallowed us up as we descended. Engulfed by the vapour, it was like we were in a crystal ball before the future materialises.
At the foot of the mountain is Saint Catherine’s Monastery, which opens at 9am (we were at the front of the line, there nearly an hour before it opened). The monastery looked beautiful, with bricks the same colours of the mountains, small archways that led to different buildings and tranquil gardens enclosed in courtyards.
I just wish we could have seen more – the only parts open to the public are some of the gardens, the Chapel of the Burning Bush, and the courtyard with the Burning Bush and the Well of Moses (you can also see the Museum of Holy Icons, but you needed to pay extra for it and it wasn’t in my budget).
The Well of Moses is an underground spring that supplies the monastery with water and is said to sit on the spot where Moses met his future wife, Zipporah. According to the monks, it never dries up.
The monastery also houses a bush believed to be the Burning Bush – yes, the one from the Bible when God first speaks to Moses. The bush comes from the rose family called Rubus Sanctus and is extremely long-lived. The Chapel of the Burning Bush was built over the roots of the bush, and the fortress-like basilica was built around the chapel in 542 AD by Emperor Justinian I to protect the monks and the chapel from Bedouin marauders.
I’m glad I went – not because I’m religious, but because Mount Sinai and the monastery are such culturally and historically significant places.
That being said, I will never climb that mountain again.