Sinai – holy space

Posted by on Mar 29, 2015 in In print this month | 0 comments

Stepping it up the mountain

Being in Sinai is a little like stepping onto the moon, but for the Bedouins who sprinkle the rugged landscape. It’s a harsh place, dry, desolate and achingly beautiful.

Story and photos: Keri Harvey

Sinai - St Catherine's camel ride

Sinai – St Catherine’s camel ride

A holy pilgrimage for some; a muscle-burning blister-making trek for others. Climbing Mount Sinai is for the strong-legged and deeply determined – and for those travellers who want to see the sun rise from the very top of Egypt. We are sunrise specialists, so Mount Sinai was in our sight.

Up at 1am, we start our climb an hour later, dressed warmly against the night chill. Step by step we go, though there are the options of taking camels and donkeys part of the way up. It gets too steep for them too though, and then you have to leg it to the summit anyway. We shed clothing as we go, scarves and gloves into our daypacks. Our blood is running hot and our legs are burning like hell’s fire. Consciously we divert our thoughts to the monk who built these 3 750 Steps of Repentance from cut stone. He built them alone, and we wonder what he could have sinned in life to desire such dire repentance. We’re climbing slowly, so pilgrims pass us en route and we move over for them so they don’t break their stepping stride.

Iconic St Catherine’s Monastery is in the shadow of Mount Sinai

Iconic St Catherine’s Monastery is in the shadow of Mount Sinai

“Enough,” says fellow climber and friend Abdullah Mohammed, “let’s rest for a minute. How I wish for a glass of sweet mint tea to restore my soul.” We’re so fatigued, we’d settle for the bland grass tea we’d tasted the previous day in a Bedouin settlement. And then to rest on one of their colourful carpets in the shade would be bliss too, surrounded by the silence of the desert stretching out in every direction.

Our desert guide Mohammed Torky drove us deep into Sinai with the promise of meeting resident Bedouins. This was their territory after all, and they eek out a living on this parched land though it’s difficult to see how. There are miles and miles of gravel and sand sweeping between low-slung bare hills, and then the flat stretch tents of the Bedouin woven from camel and goat hair in jet black. It’s their traditional colour, and even in the searing heat of over 50C in summer the women still choose to wear black top to toe.

After an hour of driving, Mohammed, stopped his rattling Jeep between two low-slung hills. “Now we walk,” he said, as he hopped from the Jeep and beckoned us to follow him through a shallow canyon. “It’s not far, and it’s cool when you get there.” We followed him for 20 minutes, walking slowly through the thick sand. And as the canyon opened up, there was a beautiful sight: shade, people, and a fire with a kettle of water boiling for tea.

Bedouin man in Sinai Peninsula

Bedouin man in Sinai Peninsula

Lying in the shade on a rainbow carpet was a Bedouin man in a sky blue tunic. His wife and daughter were making the tea, dressed in pitch black with only their kohl-lined eyes visible. They greeted us warmly, and motioned us to sit down. We were wilted from the heat and quickly sat down in the shade on the soft carpet that covered the desert floor. In striking colours of red, green and blue – all natural dyes – the carpet was woven by hand using wool and camel hair. A Bedouin carpet can take up to a year to complete, and is created in small strips and then stitched together. Every carpet is unique, and patterns are never repeated. “Never ever,” emphasizes Mohammed. “The Bedouin really take pride in their carpets.”

Soon we were handed a small glass of steaming tea, pale in colour. “It’s grass tea,” explained Mohammed, “and yes it’s made from grass. There’s very little here and the Bedouin use everything they have.” And, as expected, the tea tasted just like grass. But it would be sweet nectar right now, as we ascend Mount Sinai with quite a way yet to go to reach the 2 285m summit.

“Onwards and upwards,” proclaims Abdullah, and we reluctantly continue stepping our way up the mountainside. “It’s not that far to go,” says Abdullah, pointing skywards, “you see those stalls, well, they are near the top.” A little way up are rickety tables and makeshift awnings, and as we draw nearer we can see they are laden with rocks and stones. Only in Egypt will they sell you a rock at the top of a mountain, so you can carry it all the way back down again. Which is of course what we did with an oversized egg rock of Lapis Lazuli.

Sunrise from Mount Sinai

Sunrise from Mount Sinai

And then it happens. Just as we reach the top of Mount Sinai, the morning sun breaks through cloud and we see sunrise from the very top of Egypt. The 50 plus other climbers who have also arrived at the summit all fall silent when the first rays of the day stretch across the mountain top. “Thank you Ra,” says Abdullah, as he makes his way to pray the first of his five prayers for the day. We soak up the rareness of the experience and wait for Abdullah to return.

“Yallah Habibi,” he says, or ‘let’s go Beloveds’, and we gingerly start our descent with tired and wobbly legs. “Just go slowly,” cautions Abdullah, “because going down the mountain is hard on your knees.” It is, but we are distracted by the sight of St Catherine’s Monastery lying down below. Dedicated to this legendary Christian martyr who was tortured and beheaded for her beliefs, it’s built from simple stone and dated to 337 AD. Monks still live there, surrounded by a granite perimeter wall that’s three metres thick. Inside is the basilica, chapel, monastery and a descendent of Moses’ burning bush.

St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai

St Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai

Finally we’re back at ground level, Mount Sinai at our backs and standing on jelly legs. The drive to Dahab on the Red Sea coast will be for pure relaxation and dinner at the seaside. Festive, open-air beach restaurants line the water’s edge and serve fresh seafood and local delicacies til late at night. Egyptians are not morning people, but stay up late to socialize and enjoy the cooler temperatures of night – and we will join them.

Maybe tomorrow we’ll go snorkeling, though this is wonderland for scuba divers. Not just the fantastical colours of fish and coral gardens, but the wreck diving in the Red Sea is spectacular – Ras Mohammed and Sharm-el-Sheikh particularly. Or if we can’t move a limb tomorrow, we can always lol on the beach and go for gentle dips in the ocean. Either way is fine, because we have been to the top of Mount Sinai and seen Egypt from on high; and at ground level deep in the desert with traditional Bedouins who uphold their ancient culture though the world has sped up around them. Egypt’s Sinai Peninsular is truly other worldly, deeply evocative and thoroughly ancient. It’s a place that will likely change the way you look at life and priorities. For us, it was a lesson in living in the moment.

Fact File

Best time to go: October to December and February to April.

Visas: SA passport holders require a visa for Egypt.

Getting there: See or email the owner Ayman on – the company is reputable and has specialized in desert safaris in Egypt and Sinai since 2003.

Advice: While Egypt is in political transition, it’s advisable to consult land operators in Sinai ahead of booking your trip.

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