High atop the same mountain where Moses received the Ten Commandments, local Bedouins provide shelter for overnight hikers.
Egypt has possibly the strictest security I’ve ever encountered.
The man at the gate is going through our backpacks one by one, suspiciously lifting up folded shirts and peering into toiletry bags in search of anything dangerous. He takes out a glass jar and gives it a little shake.
‘That’s granola,’ Kade points out.
I’m standing at the entrance to Mount Sinai. The great desert mountain, its red stone faded orange in the harsh morning sun, is probably the most famous as the alleged location where Moses received the Ten Commandments from God; the mountain is holy in Judaism, Christianity and Islam alike.
Mount Sinai, the holiest place I ever hiked
Every year, a myriad of curious tourists and devoted pilgrims visit this sacred site. I couldn’t find exact numbers but in 2017 Egypt Today reported that 1,295 tourists had visited St. Catharine, the monastery by the mountain, in one day. Even though the number of tourists in Egypt has drastically declined since the Arab spring and consequent terror attacks have wreaked havoc in the country, the famous Mount Sinai doesn’t seem to be suffering greatly.
On this sunny mid-December morning, though, not a lot of other tourists keep us company as we wait for the security check to be over. An Indonesian tour group passes by in a white van – later we’d see them slowly make it up the mountain on a caravan of camels.
Finally we’re let go, Kade’s bag one pocket knife lighter; they wouldn’t let us take it back to the car. The strict security checks are a visible remainder of the shadow of insecurity that hangs above the touristy coast of the Red Sea. South Sinai is home to numerous more-or-less luxurious tourist beach resorts, forming a stark contrast to the northern part of the peninsula where a constant threat of terror attacks has made leisurely travel impossible. The situation in the south is stable but authorities are in constant alert.
In South Sinai, the reins are kept tight – whether searching for bombs in hikers’ granola jars or stopping drivers at frequent military checkpoints. On our way to Mount Sinai, we’ve been stopped countless times to hand over our passports to a leaden-faced Egyptian man, usually with a moustache and a shiny black rifle hanging from his shoulder. I’d give the man a little wave from the backseat as he’d sternly compare my passport photo to my face.
Nowadays the Egyptian police is working together with local Bedouins to scout out possible threats, getting help from the people who truly know the desert.
Imogen and Kade
I should take a moment to tell you who I’ve come on this mountain with and why that is so extraordinary.
I first met Imogen a year and a half ago – virtually, through a Facebook group, and later we became Instagram friends. Our paths kept crossing without us ever actually meeting until I decided to extend my trip to Israel into Egypt and go say hi to her.
Imogen is tiny, full of kindness and one of the smartest people I’ve met. Her activism inspires people to change the world for the better without judging anyone for the things they cannot do, and as a journalism student, she always has a good grasp of what goes on behind the news.
She and her boyfriend Kade had been living in Dahab for three months when I came to see them. In the process of moving out, they’d already packed up everything. A black stray cat that had decided to move in with them wandered around the simple kitchen, purring between legs and begging for food.
As long as I’d known Imogen, I had never met her face-to-face. And now I was going to climb a mountain with her.
Steps of Penitence or at least Regret
Climbing Mount Sinai alone is not allowed; even though the camel track is clearly marked and makes deviation almost impossible, local authorities have made it obligatory to hire a Bedouin guide to find them jobs in the area. We split the 500 pound (30 e) fee threeways and off we go, following the steady step of the young man dressed in a blue-and-white striped long shirt and sandals.
We quickly fall behind. Imogen, as she reminds us frequently, is not a hiker, but even I am out of shape and enjoy the slower stroll up. On the way, we idly chat as Kade and the guide wait for us at the next bend sharing almost impossibly strong Bedouin tobacco. The view is worth the wait, anyway.
Two ways lead up to the top: a mellow ascend on the camel track, and a gruelling, 3,750-step stone stairs on the other side of the mountain known as the Steps of Repentance, said to have been built by a monk as an act of penance. We’ve smartly opted for the easier route, the one that tourists on camelback traverse. That doesn’t take you all the way, though. The last haul up the mountain is cruel and steep, moving up uneven stone steps that are almost too large for my short legs. Now I’m really glad we didn’t try the other route: that might not have made me regret my sins but it would have definitely had me regret climbing up.
Suddenly, a view that I didn’t expect: a tiny little kitten peering down at me. I stumble up the last steps and find myself in front of a small coffee shop, more like a little shack really, with an open window for selling tea and snacks and a doorway with no door on it. A few more similar shacks stand on the side, only one other café open. In addition to overpriced Snickers bars and hot tea, they’re also selling souvenirs.
I absentmindedly pick up a rock that to me looks just like that – a rock. The owner of the shop knocks it against the side of the box, though, and splits it in half: inside I can see black veins, natural formations on the rock that look like fossilised plants. On our way up, we’ve passed Saint Catherine’s monastery that is said to have been built to protect the site where Moses saw the burning bush; these unique rocks are similarly called the burning bush rocks.
The kitten climbs in my lap as I wait for Imogen and Kade to catch up. We ascend the last hundred steps together – minus the kitty – and find ourselves in the middle of a Russian tour group praying in front of the church on top. The orthodox Chapel of Holy Trinity is usually closed, so they’ve gathered in front of it.
So this is the top of Mount Sinai – the place where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments from God. (The name Sinai translates as ‘the Mountain of God’.) After a three-hour climb, we are happy to settle in for sunset.
I mentioned earlier that Mount Sinai is a popular pilgrimage site. If you google pictures of the hike, you’ll see a never-ending stream of walkers, crowding the path back-to-back like a migration of fish. In mid-December, though, the temperatures even in Egypt drop, and the low season only attracts a fraction of tourists. As the sun starts to set, the last hikers start their long walk down; us three and our guide are the only people left on the platform a hundred steps below the summit.
Just below the 2,285 m peak, cold comes fast. We huddle into the one coffee shop that still remains open and layer up; the men working there offer us blankets, and already stuffed like Michelin men we still graciously accept them.
Since public transportation is almost non-existent and renting a car in Egypt is tricky – a feat that Imogen and Kade somehow managed to pull off – most people climb the peak with a tour group and don’t stay the night. However, after hours the little cafés turn into tourist shelters for those wishing to spend the night in the company of holy ghosts.
At about 8 e each, the accommodation in the rudimentary shelters seems a little overpriced. I’m told that in low season prices to go up, contrary to many other tourist destinations, so that the local workers can still afford to keep their services running when the stream of tourists dies down. Anyway, austere or not, I am happy to pay such a small price for an amazing experience.
Most of the tourism business on Mount Sinai seems to be run by the local Bedouins, from hiking guides to coffee shop owners. There are seven Bedouin tribes in South Sinai, most arrived from the Arabian Peninsula between the 14th and the 18th century except for one whose origins can be traced to the Balkans.
Bedouins have lived nomadically in deserts according to their own laws on the desert for thousands of years, but as the spreading of cities and modernism have advanced, many have given up their traditional way of living, either voluntarily or not. In Sinai, many are making their money in tourism.
I keep ordering cup after cup of tea just to keep my hands warm. On the other side of the shop, now only lit by a few faltering lamps in the ceiling, our guide is cracking jokes and rolling cigarettes with the owner of the shop; he’s still wearing the same long shirt from before and no socks in his sandals. He doesn’t even seem to notice the chill. There are half a dozen men in the room, they all work here year-round.
‘I like it’, the shop owner tells me, shrugging his shoulders like he wouldn’t have ever even thought of another way to live.
Even though we’ve brought leftovers from last night’s dinner to picnic on, the shopkeepers invite us to join them for dinner. They eat in a circle on one of the rug-covered benches, spooning rice straight out of the pot. The cats have gathered around to watch, hopeful for a piece of fallen chicken – the kitten from earlier has been warming my lap all evening but as soon as cooking started, she’s abandoned me. What loyalty.
As the other coffee shops are empty, we are guided to make our beds there – so that ‘we wouldn’t be bothered by the movement around the shop in the morning’. (This turns out to be a vain hope; at 3 a.m., the shop owners start preparing for the first sunset hikers, and we’d be quickly awoken by the men loudly talking and laughing in the front room.) The mattresses are thin but comfortable enough. Kade and Imogen sleep on the floor, I’ve opted for the narrow bench by the wall. I pile three heavy woven blankets on top of me; one of the Bedouins insists on tucking me in.
At zero degrees, even the blankets might not be enough.
Epilogue: 2 a.m.
I could finish this story by telling you how we woke up for the sunrise, already wide awake and grumpy, having listened to the chatter of early hikers outside of the shop for an hour; how the geologically diverse red mountains turned even redder under the new sun, and how the sky turned sweet pink and blue; or how we drove back into the city, dirty and cold, and sat in a patch of sunlight eating the best falafel sandwiches of our lives.
All that happened; but possibly the most important thing that also occurred was that at 2 a.m., I needed to pee.
I had no clue where the bathroom was. I didn’t even want to get up. Even under a mountain of blankets I was shivering. I tried to close my eyes again but my bladder insisted; so I got up as quietly as I could.
The door to the shop was wide open, maybe forced by a passing gale or opened by a curious Bedouin, a character that I thought I’d dreamed pacing in the front room but which now seemed real.
I found the bathroom, a tiny stall with no paper and no lock on the door and did my business as quickly as I could without touching anything.
As I stepped back outside, though, I had more time to look around, and I raised my eyes up. It was full moon. The moon lit the stones under my feet like a path to a fairytale, a pale blue glimmer with deep black shadows hiding in between. The clouds from earlier had shredded and gathered around the summit of the mountain. It looked like beams of light pouring down from the top, or maybe like smoke signals slowly fading towards the peak, flowing into the churches and stones and filling them with holy energy.
I’m not religious; but the rawness of nature has always made me feel a little elevated. Alone in the heart of the night, I could almost imagine this as it was thousands of years ago, the same stone, the same full moon.
I didn’t feel so cold anymore.
Thanks for reading!
Anyone planning to visit Egypt soon? Or Mount Sinai?
(Despite the cold definitely recommended!!)
And if you’d like to follow Imogen’s shenanigans (which you should because she’s awesome), you can do so through her Instagram or her blog! If you’re interested in sustainability, media literacy and responsible travel, u gotta.