The enchanting ululations of half a dozen mosques broadcasting call to prayer woke me before 5am and I came to consciousness with the sense of standing on the edge of the city, which comes from 17 hours in the air and a late night arrival. Cairo immediately captured my imagination and assaulted my senses, but I was yet to dive into the city having only made the transit from the airport to our hotel in the early hours of the morning. Immersing myself in the city would have to wait, however as today I had business elsewhere. With the tang of hibiscus tea still lingering on my tongue, I hoisted my pack over my shoulder and stepped out into the waiting van.
Cairo slipped by as I became acquainted with our guide, and I knew – even at this early stage – that Egypt would exceed even the lofty expectations I’d built for it over years with my nose buried in ancient history texts. Gradually the high rise apartments became less dense and the desert which, affirms the character of the country, asserted itself upon my consciousness – rich and red as sunset, and not nearly as desolate and empty as one might expect. We drove on for a couple of hours, passing the Suez Canal – ever under heavy guard from the perceived threat of terrorism – and turned south along the Sinai Peninsula. As we drove, the desert and the Red Sea closed in on either side and we ran the gauntlet ever south as the hallowed lands (the Red Sea was the very body of water said to be parted by Moses and the Sinai the desert where the Israelites wandered) passed us by.
After four hours, I had settled in to the routine of roadside stops (resembling half-derelict Kasbahs) that lend structure to Egyptian road travel, which was much like traversing the vast distances between locations at home in Australia. I was watching intently as the terrain passed by, changing subtly from mile to mile, as the Red Sea lapped the Sands of the Sinai, when I saw a checkpoint ahead. Guarded checkpoints already seemed normal after a few hours in Egypt, where the conflicts of the Arab world are never too far below the surface. One thing that takes a bit longer to get used to coming from the sheltered, conservative world of middle class Australia, was the M16 that was cocked and aimed at us as we pulled up to be inspected. Our driver and guide seemed nonplussed – a stark reminder of the adventure upon which I’d embarked.
The afternoon faded into dusk and, as if we’d been waiting for this sign, we turned away from the sea finding ourselves instead, enclosed by the slate and shale of the gravelly hills. It was as though we had stumbled into some great construction site where earthmoving had been left abandoned and unfinished. The darkness deepened and we pushed on into the night – straining our eyes in the headlight beams that illuminated the terrain briefly as we passed. At 9.30pm – 15 hours after leaving our hotel and 20 hours after arriving in the country – We reached St. Catherine exhausted and travel-weary with eyes only for a soft pillow and a long rest.
We awoke to the hard, grey light of what I assumed was an overcast morning shining through a gap in the curtains of the hotel we’d arrived at late the night before which gave a depressing impression of dreariness and affected our spirits accordingly. When we stepped outside, however, we were met with a startling sight. The dull morning light came not from cloud cover, but from the steep mountains that closed in around us. Our accommodation was set into the hills and seemed to be designed to blend with the brown hills. Awakening to find myself fortified within a valley was a disarming feeling and it served to add to my growing awe at Egypt. After a late breakfast we set out to explore the location in which we had been deposited and take in the place that had taken me 40 hours of travel to reach.
The scope of my pilgrimage was fitting considering the purpose for my detour into the Sinai – Mount Sinai and St. Catherine’s Monastery. While these names might not seem of great importance in name, but its religious significance – particularly to the three monotheistic religions (Islam, Judaism and Christianity) – can hardly be overstated. Also known as Mount Moses, Sinai is generally agreed to be the site where Moses – having lead his people out of bondage – was called to the summit to receive the Ten Commandments upon which many base their lives. Now I am not a Christian, a Muslim, or a Jew, but the idea that I was in the same valley where Moses was said to have looked upon the Golden Calf and succumbed to rage in response to the sinful revelry he saw, was significant regardless of my beliefs or lack thereof. My purpose in St. Catherine was simple; to follow in the fabled footsteps of Moses and countless pilgrims since by standing atop Mt. Sinai as the sun rose.
The climb would take around five hours, so the afternoon was free to explore the monastery. This too was an eye-opening experience. The architecture of the site was complemented by the sheer cliff of the mountain in the background and the faint rocky path that lead upwards from the gated entry, added to the significance of the site. As I walked through the mausoleum, the empty sockets of hundreds of former residents of (and pilgrims to) the monastery stared back at me – the combined heritage of generations of monks who have lived in the shadow of the mountain since the 6th century (St Catherine’s monastery is the oldest continuously occupied monastery in the world and predates the division of the Christian world). The final surprise held by St. Catherine before we tackled the peak came in the form of a sprawling bush that had clearly grown in the same spot for a long period of time. We were told that this was the same bush through which God appeared to Moses in flames (I checked, but found no evidence of a fire).
Filled with awe at the artefacts (along with a healthy level of scepticism), we spent the afternoon touring the sites I’d read of in the Bible, Koran and Torah, and for that time at least, I could understand the faith shared by so many believers across the Islamic, Jewish and Christian world. By the time we returned to the monastery at 1am though, my mind had moved on to more practical matters – namely our assault on the mountain itself…
Read part 2 of this story here!