Day 32: Scaling Mt. Sinai: Just Like Moses (Minus The Cause And The Following)

The microbus for St. Catherine’s Protectorate collected me at 11 p.m. Tuesday night in Dahab. I was the last of our 12-member group to be picked up, so I sat up front next to our driver, a middle-aged Bedouin man named Abou Ali. Everyone else in the minivan promptly fell asleep, but since I very much wanted Abou Ali to stay alert on the two-and-a-half-hour drive through the black emptyness of the Sinai desert, I figured I’d best stay awake myself and keep him company. After some aborted attempts to engage him with the Arabic pleasantries I’d learned in Cairo (Abou Ali, a meditative sort to begin with, quickly fell silent after he realized that my conversation couldn’t go much further than these pleasantries), I decided instead to try and make him laugh. Like almost all the Sinai Bedouins we came across today, Abou Ali wore a solid-colored keffiyeh of soft mauve. So, about 20 minutes into the drive, I reached into my backpack and pulled out the purple scarf I’d brought along for the mountain-top. The windows of the un-air-conditioned microbus were all wide open, so I wrapped the scarf around my braids to protect them from the wind. I then turned to Abou Ali and beamed, “Look, Abou Ali – I’m just like you!”

He looked and said nothing. I don’t think he was terribly impressed  (I really shouldn’t ever try to be funny – I only wind up saying the dumbest things).

We rode on in silence. I read my book with my flashlight, and surreptitiously observed the way Abou Ali dealt with the cops and soldiers at the security checkpoints we passed.

Before we set off, Abou Ali had passed a notepad around the microbus and had us all list our names, nationalities and passport numbers so he wouldn’t have to wake everyone up to procure our papers every time we came to a checkpoint (which, just as on the bus from Luxor earlier that day, was about every half-hour to forty-five minutes). Nonetheless, this wasn’t enough for most of the fuzz who stopped us. Every time, Abou Ali would hand over the list, telling them he had a “cock-tell” of nationalities in his vehicle. Almost invariably, Mubarak’s bacon would then shake their heads and make like they needed to see all of our passports on top of the list. At this point Abou Ali would reach into the folds of his white robe, extract his pack of Cleopatra Golden King “American Blend” cigarettes and offer one up to the heat leaning through his window. Without fail, they accepted. Most of the time, this was all it took for them to let us go on our way. A few times though, the popo would just take the cigarettes and insist that Abou Ali procure our passports anyway.

Either way, I watched the poor guy go through about a quarter pack of his own cigarettes just to get through one drive. I doubt the added expense is covered by the drivers’ salary he gets from the tour company.

So, when we stopped for gas near the end of the drive, I hopped out and fetched a fresh pack of Cleopatra Golden Kings at the desert convenience store and handed them to him. I told him these were for the “dhobbit (police) baksheesh” fund. For the rest of the ride Abou Ali was very smiley with me, and we chattered away as best we could in pidgin-English-Arabic. Of course he also insisted I smoke one of the damn things, and let me tell you they were utterly foul.

When we reached the parking lot of the protectorate at about 2 a.m. Wednesday morning, Abou Ali hopped out and went to go find our appointed guide for the hike. I took this opportunity to tell my freshly-awakened hiking companions about my camera predicament (for non-regular readers: my camera broke a few days ago, woe has been me since) and implore their assistance. The first to volunteer to take pictures of me on the mountain and send me their shots were a pair of American fourth-grade school teachers (travelling in Egypt as part of some summer fellowship to “tour the Arab world to better explain contemporary issues of conflict and peace” to nine-year-olds) and a Mexican backpacker by the name of Jorge. So naturally, I decided these would be my Buddies for the next several hours and stuck mostly with them (note: as of press time, the teachers have yet to send me their pictures, so all the shots in this post are thanks to El Senor Muy Simpatico Jorge).

Soon Abou Ali returned, and passed us off to our mountain guide, Muhammad. Here he is, later on in the daylight – for some reason Jorge’s pictures make his keffiyeh look sky-blue, but it was really a soft mauve color, just like Abou Ali’s and everyone else’s in St. Catherine’s:

Muhammad, small, wiry and seeming to bristle with a sort of electric hyperactivity, gave us all a cursory glance, a nod and, with a few brisk “Yella!”‘s (“Come on!”), began to trot up the 7,500-foot mountain in nothing more substantial than his worn leather ship-ship (flip-flops). It quickly became apparent that Muhammad spoke barely a word of English. Occasionally, when members of our group would fall behind or someone wanted to ask him a question or he wanted to tell us to watch out for something, things got a little hairy. It turned out that I spoke the best Arabic of anyone in our group (which, I must underline, is saying painfully little), so Muhammad fast began to rely on me as his “translator” – HAH! Thinking back on this absurd circumstance, it’s a wonder we made it up there and back alive…

Anyway, thanks to this development, Muhammad was quite chuffed with me. At one point on the way up, he took my hand as if to hold it, but I quickly took it back, pointed to the wedding ring my mother equipped me with before leaving for Egypt and muttered briefly about my “gozzi” (husband) back in Dahab who would rather scuba dive than hike (he’s quite the lovable cad, this recurrent imaginary husband of mine). That settled matters just fine, and Muhammad and I proceeded to form a most convivial platonic bond:

The hike up took about three hours and was a bit grueling at times, though by no means an activity that should be restricted to the super-athletic (I’m certainly not) – indeed, I’d strongly recommend it to anyone with well-functioning knees and a taste for the trudge. One of the most challenging aspects of the slog was the fact that we ascended in the dead of night, which (even with the flashflights we’d all been instructed to bring along – Muhammad relied solely on the glow from his mobile phone, and only needed to yank that out during the trickiest bits) meant that finding and keeping our footing on the jagged red granite of Mt. Sinai was a real trial. The first two hours of the hike kept us on a steep, winding path, somewhat groomed in parts and little more than a line of uneven rocks in others. The last hour took us up a set of roughly-hewn, totally non-uniform steps, and this was without a doubt the most difficult chunk of our climb. Exerting though the going was, we soon got high enough for the air to grow chilly, and I was very happy with the extra shirts and hoodie I’d brought along. What extra clothing I didn’t need was quickly passed around to my hiking mates, who all seemed to need an extra scarf or long-sleeved undershirt by the second half of our journey.

Really my biggest test throughout the night proved to be one of the fourth-grade schoolteachers, Katie. A very sweet, spunky woman, the poor thing was making the pilgrimage having had foot surgery only six months earlier. She still walks on normal terrain with a slight limp and a cane, so it’s obvious that getting up Mt. Sinai while keeping pace with Muhammad and the rest of us was not really within her powers. Of course – relishing the climb and fancying myself a bit of a goat-girl to begin with – I wanted to be trotting up near the front of the group. But because I also wanted to ensure Katie’s good favor and, hence, her pictures, I made a point of spending much of the walk near the back making sure she didn’t fall too far behind and get lost.

Matching her slugging pace wouldn’t have been so bad had it not been for the merciless treatment she received from the Bedouin camel-herders who keep vigil along the trail, renting their beasts to exhausted trekkers who can’t take any more of the Mount’s punishment. Needless to say, Katie would have made things a lot easier on herself and on poor Muhammad – quite flustered by the way she kept falling off in the shadows behind some cliff as the group churned ahead – if she had just swallowed her pride and hired a camel. But she was determined to make it up on her own steam. And, you know, more power to her – it was a pain in the neck for everyone, but one has to admire her spirit. Naturally though, the camel-herders could smell Katie from a mile away, and immediately zeroed in on her as a prime target for their service. So not only did she receive the brunt of the “Camel, Miss? I give you good camel – I give you Egyptian price – this very good camel!” but they actually began to follow her up the mountain, like vultures waiting for her to collapse on her bum foot. On and on, they haunted her, always only a step behind, reminding her, “Still four kilometers to go, Miss, you look very tired – take this camel, good camel, you feel better, you don’t make it otherwise.” I was not only mortified for her, but also – as one of her self-appointed babysitters (again, due largely to my selfish motivation of acquiring pictures for the ol’ blog) – was myself feeling quite suffocated by them. Thankfully, by the time we reached the step-portion of the hike, where the camels could not tread, they finally fell off and Katie was able to hobble the rest of the way in peace.

Whenever things seemed too exhausting or spirits waned, all we had to do was look up. It was dark enough that even once our eyes adjusted, the mountains around us appeared as little more than great looming shadows. But the sky above was riddled with more stars than I remember ever seeing in my life (I think the closest I’d witnessed before to such a sky would be that over the shores of Hale’iwa on an exceptionally clear night, and I’m not sure if even that is as pockmarked with glittering celestial bodies as the scene I witnessed over the Sinai Mountain Range). It took my breath away again and again.

Along the way, every 500 meters or so, Bedouins had set up little stands where they were selling water, coffee, juice, soft drinks and candy bars at grossly-inflated prices (well duh – it’s not like there’s a Seven-Eleven up there to compete with them). These were tempting, and despite the koshari I’d scarfed before leaving Dahab, I could have murdered a Snickers by about halfway through the hike. In the end though, my penny-pinching won out (instead, I waited till we got to the bottom, where I enjoyed a slightly-less-but-still-grossly-inflated ice-cream sandwich – the breakfast of champions, dontcha know).

We reached the summit at 5 a.m., just in time for the sunrise:

What a view. What a feeling. What a life.

There were about forty others who’d made the pre-dawn trek. It seemed a roughly half-and-half split between non-religious adventure-seekers and devout folk – Christians and Muslims from what I could see – who had come to where (the Story goes) God presented Moses with the Ten Commandments and thus the world’s three largest monotheistic religions were born. Old women in burkas had made the climb, and with their brothers and sisters bowed and prayed to Mecca while still gasping for breath. Christian families from all over the world also immediately knelt to pray upon reaching the top – I even spied a priest who’d huffed up there and was blessing several of his sons and daughters with a bottle of holy water.

It was indeed awe-inspiring, and even this woofty, quasi-“spiritual” agnostic felt moved to utter a brief “Thank you Whoever, Whatever, Wherever.” 

Along with Bedouins renting out blankets to guard against the high winds, and still others selling Sinai quartz and postcards depicting the Mount, a small chapel and a smaller mosque sit atop the summit. These carry no signs or markings other than a cross and a crescent, respectively, so I have no idea how old they are. I looked, but saw no trace of a synagogue (though I deeply regret telling you that I eyed a graffitied swastika on the side of one of the cliffs falling from the summit).

As the light grew stronger, the vastness of the mountain range soon became evident. Only 40 days and nights, Mo’? (He must have been speed-wandering…)

All in all, I was pretty pleased with myself and Things In General. Most of all I felt incredibly lucky.

We started to head down around 7 a.m., when the heat was already strong. Muhammad and I chatted for a bit about my fake husband and his presumably real family, and he showed me pictures of his two sons, Abdullah (4) and Ali (2), on his mobile phone. Very cute.

The clamber back proved even rougher-going for poor Katie than the way up. With no specific goals about making it down Mt. Sinai on her own (getting up there was the only hurdle she’d set for herself), she caved and rented a camel. But after only a few steps on the gangly, snorting creature, she quickly freaked out and begged to be let down again – she said it just felt too precarious and strange, and preferred to suffer on her own two feet. I can’t say I blame her – I must say I find camels oddly frightening – they’re just so strange-looking, as if all their features were thrown together while their creator was on some wild drunken binge. Plus, every time I try to pet one, they make like they’re going to bite me:

That’s not to say that I didn’t feel pretty sorry for these Sinai camels (and pretty much all camels – is there any part of the world where they’re not used exclusively as beasts of great burden?). These guys all moaned loudly in no uncertain protest every time some new tourist was hoisted onto their backs, and they all seemed wholly wretched. It was nice whenever I’d catch one getting to relax and take a snooze:

Once we reached the bottom, around 9 a.m., we went for a tour of St. Catherine’s Monastery, also known as the Monastery of the Burning Bush and the Monastery of the Transfiguration. The oldest continuously-inhabited monastery in the world, the Greek Orthodox St. Catherine’s is thought to date back to the 3rd century and is believed to have been built around the site where God spoke to Moses through a burning bush (indeed, many believe this same bush grows still at the center of the monastery’s grounds, closed to the public). The monastery is fascinating architecturally, as it is surrounded by a fortified wall built by Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the 6th century to guard the sacred grounds. The monastery has a long history of being shielded from harm by the rulers of the day, and among the many relics housed within its walls is a document the monastery claims is signed by the Muslim prophet Muhammad himself, granting the monastery’s inhabitants special protections and freedoms. In return for this, the monastery converted one of its inner chapels to a mosque, which is still used on occasion by local Muslims.

We headed back to Abou Ali’s microbus at 10 a.m. and were back in Dahab by 12:30 p.m. Wednesday – this time, figuring Abou Ali had gotten some sleep, nothing could stop me from snoozing the whole way.

The day was everything I’d hoped and more, and once again I must thank the good Jorge for his fine pictures – have fun in Jordan, amigo, and for heaven’s sakes stop playing “catch” with your beautiful cameras.



5 Responses to “Day 32: Scaling Mt. Sinai: Just Like Moses (Minus The Cause And The Following)”

  1. El Matamoros Says:

    Annie, I don’t know how these people manage without you — trying to keep the bus driver awake and even rewarding him by buying him gaspers, shepherding the lame and halt up and down the mountain, translating in a language you just first heard the day before yesterday, and even trying to cheer up the terminally dyspeptic camels — you’re the Florence McNightingshades of the Sinai. That feckless slacker of a husband of yours would be proud, if he only knew!

    Oh, and by the way, your instincts are right — if the camels seemed inclined to bite you when you tried to pet them, that’s because that’s precisely what they were inclined to do. Ill-humored creatures — it’s no accident that camels figure more often in dirty jokes than any other animal. Strewth. (Parrots come in second.)

  2. Nesrine Says:

    إزيِّك يا أني

    Being an Egyptian, I have to tell you that I do envy you for having seen that much in so little time. I can see how pretty sunrise was. I have just promised myself to climb St Cathrine before I die 🙂

    Oh, and I thought you were really married 🙂

  3. lulu Says:

    Incredible post! So glad the glories of Sinai lived up to everything we’ve read and heard about it. Well done you for keeping the bus driver alert and awake and for eventually getting him to crack a smile. As for sticking close to Katie, that was admirable, even though I realize there was method in your madness (methinks a lot of these people WILL eventually send you their pics, but will probably wait until they’re Stateside or wherever). Jorge proves the exception to that last comment of mine and I’m as grateful as you are to him — the pics are astounding. xox

  4. jfjasia2008 Says:

    omg, annie. finally got a chance to read through this and i am so impressed and happy for you i cannot even express it. such a beautifully written post… you managed to essentially convey the impossible-to-convey. love the stuff about your fake husband (you and lulu continue to be genius when it comes to that brillian plan) and that line about “my fake husband and his presumably real family” had me lol-ing. honestly, just so breathtaking and amazing, the writing and the pics… well DONE. so amazed and proud of you. what a feeling that must have been to reach that summit. also, you look gorgeous and so happy in all the pics – yay! love the purple scarf. pretty sure you got it in the states but if you see anything of the sort in cairo – like arafat-style but not checkered obv and like a light hemp-y color – pls to get and i reimburse 🙂 LOVE YOU!! good girl, so proud of you.

  5. Day 37: Concluding Thoughts (Pt. 2): Egypt Is Coptastic (And I Don’t Mean The Jesus-Lovers…) « Annie’s Cairo Weblog Says:

    […] from making me delete my precious pictures (ah, the humanity!) and giving nothing in return for the cigarette-bribes I’ve witnessed, I haven’t seen them do anything awful – al hamdulillah – no beatings, no rapes, nothing like […]

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