The 1400-year-old Monastery of St. Catherine lies at the foot of Mt. Moses. (photo: Tom Stevens)
A camel surveys trash left by tourists near a corner of the monastery. (photo: Tom Stevens)
After making the ascent, pilgrims begin to climb back down the rock-hewn steps. (photo: Tom Stevens)
The sun sets over the mountains. (photo: Tom Stevens)
The last hundred feet to the top of Mount Horeb, or as its known in Arabic, Mount Moses, the legendary peak where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments, are the most grueling to climb. The stone stairs, crudely carved out by monks and maintained over the centuries, are steep and treacherous.
After two hours of trekking up the dry, barren slope, my body screamed at me for doing such a thing. But, I thought, if an old man in sandals can make it to the top, and then carry a couple of heavy stone tablets down again, I better be able.
Up ahead I spotted the chapel at the top of the mountain and knew the climb could not be much longer. Tom, my photographer, and I were on holiday, that is if you call climbing a 7,497-foot mountain a vacation. As we reached the summit, I could not wait to sit on a lonely rock, listen to the silence, and marvel as the sun set into the painted landscape.
Instead, gasping for breath as I reached the top, I heard a voice. You want tea? Coffee? Candy? it asked. You are American? Very good. A bedouin with a large suitcase filled with candy and snacks had set up a blanket, a small fire, and was heating a pot of water. Another Arab entrepreneur with similar enticements also vied for our attention nearby.
I noticed discarded water bottles and wrappers on the ground, graffiti painted on the boarded-up chapel, and the lingering smell of the thousands of tourists who once passed through. I thought about how this place was not the remote, pristine retreat I hoped it would be. Even Moses would not recognize it now.
A pilgrimage to the top of Mount Moses may not be everything a believer would dream it to be. Hordes of Western tourists come to the Sinai peninsula to trample to the top every year, especially at Easter. The summit itself, which is about the size of a tennis court, can get jammed with people. The need for tourist access to the mount even prompted the Egyptian government last year to think about installing a cable car up the side of the mountain.
But despite the reminders that this holy place has become a tourist site, a journey to the top of the mountain, as well as a stay in St. Catherines Monastery nestled at its foot, can be a rewarding and unforgettable experience.
Tom and I rode on a bus to St. Catherines from the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, which attracts divers and snorkelers to see some of the most breathtaking coral reefs in the world. After looking at miles of craggy rock outside my window, I saw, wedged in a valley of a towering mountain range, the 1,400-year-old monastery, ever tolerant of the new visitors who pass through its gates.
The monastery was built in the sixth century by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I, as a sanctuary for the Anchorites, an ascetic community who had first fled the Romans, then the bedouin hordes of Sinai, to escape persecution. Every power that has occupied the Sinai since, from the Arab Muslim conquerors to the modern Western colonialists, has protected the ancient monastery. In fact, on one of the walls near the chapel of the Burning Bush, we saw a copy of a letter written by Napoleon Bonaparte, guaranteeing protection of the monastery during the French occupation (Napoleon was not noted for his respect for ancient ecclesiastical structures). The prophet Mohammed was also believed to have visited the monastery once as a camel-boy, and now the minaret of a mosque rises side by side with the belfry of the church.
We were allowed to roam through parts of the monastery, though closely watched by the aging bearded monks who live inside its walls. One monk who guards the entrance to the church watched tourists ogle its treasures with careful but tired eyes, as if hes seen it a thousand times.
The interior of the sixth-century basilica was a grand sight. Rows of decorated ostrich eggs that hang from the ceiling compete with the silver chandeliers lit by thousands of beeswax candles. The walls are covered with icons and tiles, including the famous mosaic of the Transfiguration in the apse and Moses removing his sandals before the burning bush.
St. Catherines has more than 2,000 icons, many predating the iconoclastic controversy that rocked the Byzantine Empire in the 8th and 9th centuries. These icons, painted in encaustic, the ancient Egyptian manner of painting in wax, are masterpieces of early Christian art and considered pivotal in the understanding of the development of the icon.
Unfortunately many of these treasures are left open to the elements. For instance, we saw visitors touching, breathing and even kissing the centuries-old triptychs and panels, once-preserved by the desert climate, which adorn the narthex of the church.
We noticed a sweet, peculiar smell that permeated the church. A caretaker explained that the smell is said to be the aroma of St. Catherines relics, a few of which are displayed. Catherine, a noblewoman born in Alexandria, was martyred by Emperor Maximinus after she berated him for his violent persecution of the Christians. Legend has it that when she was beheaded, angels carried her body to Mount Sinai, where a group of monks found her remains in the 11th century and carried them back to their fortress.
Another pride of the monastery is its library, which contains thousands of manuscripts in a dozen languages. The most important work is the fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus, the oldest-known Greek manuscript of the Bible. The codex was borrowed by a German scholar in the 19th century and never returned. The manuscript is now housed in the British Museum in London.
Tom and I roamed the maze of walls inside the monastery for most of the day, until the time came to begin the big ascent. We decided to watch the sunset from the summit. With water bottles in hand, we started up the winding path and I thought, This isnt going to be so bad.
But soon the path got steeper. Just when we thought we needed a break, we saw a bedouin halfway up the mountain who had set up shop with drinks and snacks. By camel or on their own backs, the resourceful bedouins have found ways to perch their offerings on the mountain.
The path to the top was marked by a map of international graffiti. Swirls of color in Arabic, English, French, German and other languages shouted out messages from tourists long before us.
As we inched our way to the top, a band of hardy Australians strode past us with 70-pound backpacks slung over their shoulders. Chatting and joking, they soon raced ahead of us. Tom was carrying photographic equipment and a large camera, but did not seem to mind.
After two hours of climbing, we saw our Australian friends again, scarcely out of breath, at the top of the mountain. They had unrolled sleeping bags with the intention of spending the night, a popular adventure for backpackers. Tom and I sat down beside a rock to sip tea and eat a few crackers offered by the bedouin salesman.
Tom began to take pictures as the sun set into a pinkish halo over the surrounding mountains. At that moment, the long, arduous trek up the mountain seemed more than worth it.
And as darkness closed in and the moon shone brightly through the swirling white clouds, we found some of the peace that remains in this holy spot.
Jennifer Reidy and Tom Stevens were on the staff of Cairo Today, an English-language monthly.