Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Summiting Mount Sinai

It has been a continuous uphill climb for over an hour. The air is brisk and cool to my face, but my body is starting to break out in a light sweat. Suddenly, I hear a shout from behind, a Bedouin guide is leading a camel up the same path and about to run me over. Moving quickly to the right to let the guide and camel pass, I lose my footing and trip on a rock. In a move more befitting of a ninja, I somehow manage to stumble, while bracing with two fingers on a strategically placed rock, and swinging my day-pack in the opposite direction to keep my balance, preventing a certain face-plant onto a pile of fresh camel excrement! Pleased with myself for pulling off that near miss, I straighten my back, adjust my pack, and was about to continue up the hike when all of a sudden, blrrruuuup...a blast of hot, moist, pungent air hits my face. The camel, now in front of me just farted in my face!!!

Fortunately, none of my group seems to have noticed this embarrassing moment in the dark. Hiking together with me are Laurence from Britain (who I first met in Aswan, Egypt), Connie and Terry from California and Diana from Korea. It is three in the morning, and we were traversing up the biblical Mount Sinai with hundreds of tourists and pilgrims, young and old, some carrying infants in their arms to catch the sunrise from atop the mountain where God appeared to Moses and handed him the Ten Commandments.

Reaching the summit after a two and a half hour hike, high on adrenalin and no sleep, we reach a small barren wind-swept knoll that is packed to the gills with people! Dressed in nothing more than a light jacket over a sweatshirt damp from sweat, the howling winds atop the summit chills me to the very core, stripping all feeling from my fingers within minutes! Where is the fire and lightning of Moses' Mt. Sinai as described in the bible when you need it? With sunrise and its resulting warmth over an hour away, the five of us succumb, and pay one of the enterprising Bedouin hawkers E£20 to rent a thick wool blanket to share. Huddled and crouched together against a wall to protect from the wind, we pull the blanket over our heads, forming what must seem like a shivering bundle of human bodies when viewed from the outside.

 After what seemed like eternity, the moment we've all been waiting for came. Slowly, the sky around the horizon starts to lighten, turning the moonlit night sky paler by the minute. With the range in front of us shrouded in an early morning mist, the first rays of the rising sun begin to peek over the highest peaks, casting a warm orange glow all around, and onto the jagged barren cliffs behind us. A flurry of clicks and flashes erupt, as hundreds cameras go off, recording this moment in time. “Ah!” I thought to myself, “there goes the fire and lightning!”

With fingers still numb from the cold and shivering uncontrollably, I snap a few pictures and begin heading down the mountain with the rest of the crew. In the light, the never ending train of people slowing hobbling down the steep incline, some carrying bags of belongings and crying babies, and the devout whispering prayers and singing hymns, looks like a scene straight out of the bible, as Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt! Taking an alternate and faster route down the mountain, a few of us descended down the 3750 “Steps of Repentance”, a rocky stairway build into a steep gorge by a monk as an act of repentance, leading directly into the St. Katherine's Monastery below.

Founded in 330AD, St. Katherine's Monastery was built around what was believed to be the burning bush where God appeared to Moses and where the remains of St. Katherine, a martyr from Alexandria who was tortured and beheaded for her beliefs, is interred. A small fragment of St. Katherine's bone is on display to the public. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the monastery's library is revered by religious scholars all over the world for its collection of priceless manuscripts and scrolls, and is the world's oldest continuous functioning monastery.

Walking through the hallowed grounds of the monastery, it is quite hard to fathom that three of the world's major religions, Christianity, Islam and Judaism, all have their roots in this vicinity. Following the crowds of pilgrims through the Church of the Transfiguration and arriving at a jam at what is believed to be a descendent of the Burning Bush, I was surprised to see a rather large tree, nothing resembling the bush or shrub that I had in my mind! Crowded around the Burning Bush, a group of religious pilgrims stood in silent prayer. Breaking the silence, an Englishman with a strong accent exclaims, “That looks like a blackberry bush! Back in England, there are so many of them we dig them up and burn them in our gardens. Oh what the irony!”

The Burning Bush


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