The idea of leaving the comfort of our resort to drive two hours and then hike for three was not terribly appealing, especially in the middle of the night. But it was one of those moments in which no one wants to look like a wimp and so accepts the challenge regardless. Or maybe some people actually do like the idea of hiking to the peak of a 7,497 ft mountain by torch-light? In any case, we all signed up for the Mt Sinai climb to see the sunrise in the middle of the Egyptian desert at the place in which Moses apparently received the ten commandments.
Thou shalt climb Mt Sinai
It was 1am when we were met by charming Bedouin guide, Salem, at the base of the walk and began up the camel path (on which camels were offered in case one had a sudden moment or weakness or regret). Salem knew the pebbly track so well he could forge on ahead in darkness while we scrabbled behind with torches, and inappropriate footwear. I must admit, the darkness seemed to make it easier. There were no opportunities to stop and groan at the sight of the incline ahead of us, or lack of progress made behind. We just kept going until Salem told us to rest. And when we got to the top (completely out of breath after the final 700 steps but otherwise in high spirits) he told us that we were a couple of hours early for the sunrise.
A bedouin hut with blankets, chocolate bars (I had just climbed Mt Sinai, I could justify two chocolate bars) and sweet Bedouin tea became our refuge from the increasing winds and decreasing air temperature. It was a shock from the 20-degree sunshine we were basking in only hours ago. This was the desert, and it was cold. I cannot stress it enough. Thermals, gloves and a beanie were not excessive; they were necessary.
After a frozen hour and a half of shivery sleep on the floor of the hut, we wrapped ourselves in blankets, heavy and cumbersome, and left the shelter to make the last few steps to the top to see the sun peek its round cap over the horizon. The vista that we had not yet been privy to was a hazy, dull brown mountain range slowly turning golden. The warmth from the first rays thawed our noses (the only part of our bodies exposed and unprotected) and we could finally relax and enjoy the view.
The spot has an important religious history and I am sure it is the place for many yearly pilgrimages. But an atheist like me can find it spiritual in a non-religious way. For me, it was not about the path Moses had apparently taken, or what he had found once he arrived. The place was beautiful, and the landscape – rocky, isolated, vast… all shades of brown and stone bathed in a golden light from the rising sun – was intensely impressive. The faint carvings of a cross in the rock, the huts with colourful rugs and wall hangings flapping in the intense wind, the ancient openings formed in the mountain offering shelter from the elements. There was a sense of history. Of place. Of spirituality.
I am thankful we took the trip in a time when tourism was low so we could enjoy the space in peace and without 2,000 fellow tourists. I think, had we been fighting crowds to get up and down the steps and into the small viewing areas, or having to queue for the wooden toilet box perched on a cliff, something of the experience would have been lost. For that I will take the freezing temperatures and howling winds. It was worth it for the feeling of isolation, peace and having the moment basically to ourselves.