Weeks later, our trip to the South Sinai still feels like it was an amazing experience. It isn’t close to Alex at all, not much in Egypt really is, and it was a stretch, a bit risky in some ways. Our main goal was to see the Saint Catherine’s Monastery, the oldest Christian monastery in the world.
Last year, for some reason which I can’t remember, I became aware of this ancient monastery in Egypt, rather close to the borders of Jordan and Israel, nestled in the middle of the mountains of the South Sinai. In the current political climate, it seemed impossible to believe that it could still exist. A functioning monastery in the middle of the desert, Christian, miles from nowhere. How could it be?
Well it is still there and still running in the harshest of environments. The monastery looks like a fortress and it tells you something of its history to look at it. It is surrounded by huge walls and is like a village inside, in a way, as it is basically self-sufficient.
It was named after a nun named Catherine from Alexandria. She was Greek like many Alexandrians of the time. The location is of great religious significance as it is at the base of a mountain called, variously, Mt. Sinai, Mt.Horab (in the Bible) and Jabal Moussa. The summit is reputed to be the site of the Burning Bush and Moses receiving the Ten Commandments from God. The three great monotheistic religions all venerate it. Mohammad granted his protection to a delegation of monks who had gone to see him. A copy of the document is still in the monastery along with a remarkable collection of manuscripts and beautiful icons.
We wanted to climb the mountain. It looms over a desolate, striking landscape. Our hotel arranged for a driver to pick us up at one o’clock in the morning and drive to the base at the monastery. A number of other climbers were there too. We were assigned a Bedouin guide named Ibrahim and off we went. To reach the summit, you walk a winding seven kilometer trail through the blackest of nights. Judy was a little nervous about it but he was wonderful with her, even holding her hand during the last and most challenging section of the climb.
As we moved slowly up the mountain, in the dark with only our headlamps and Ibrahim to guide us, we suddenly came upon a camel standing by the side of the path. His handler would materialize and ask “camel?” “La, shokran.” No thank you. And we would trudge on. The night sky was magnificent. The Milky Way was right on top of us. We came to a ‘coffee shop” (see the photos) which was stocked with tea and chocolate. You could do worse! And some folks slept there briefly.
There is a small chapel at the summit which we saw as we waited for the sun to rise brilliantly. It did feel like holy ground every step of the way.