The Sinai Peninsula is a stunning desertscape of rugged limestone and granite mountains with substantial areas of shifting sand. This striking terrain rolls right into the turquoise waters of the Red Sea with its prized water ecology, which although we are not divers or into wind-surfing, was where we wanted to be – Dahab. Based around a Bedouin village, this town flaunts a fabulous tourist strip along the water with hotels, cafes, restaurants, grocery stores, souvenir shops, and (though we did not count) 100 diving schools.
Pics by Rick
From Jordan we crossed the Red Sea by boat (since Moses was not available). We arrived at Nuweiba on the Sinai side, where it is believed the famous parting of the waters took place, as the sea bed was found to contain chariot wheels and human bones from the army pursuing the tribe Moses led out of Egypt. We immediately felt the pulse of Egypt, as remembered from a previous trip to Cairo and down the Nile. A throng of shouting men ran past us pulling carts filled with bundled goods towards a small customs office, where they threw them onto a scanner belt. Seeing us bewilderingly trying to avoid being swallowed up in the milieu, the attending authorities halted the crazed tossing and chucking. He waved us ahead and put our two small packs through the scanner. Off we went into even more chaos of numerous rickety buses pulling into the small lot, and taxis and mini-van drivers tugging at our shirt sleeves and shouting prices for different towns. Rick got one of the drivers down from 60 to 30 Egyptian Pounds ($12 to $6.00CDN), when we were approached by a couple of young Aussie fellows who said we have “power in numbers” and proceeded to round up a van full of people for 20 Egyptian Pounds each ($4.00CDN) for the 1hour and 15 minute drive to Dahab.
What a stroke of luck to find the Dahab Plaza Hotel – a cozy room with
a fridge, breakfast included (and not just any old breakfast, we could choose from two nearby restaurants “Same-Same-But Different” and one called “Fresh Fish” and pick out any breakfast on the menu, everything from omelettes to pancakes.) Free Wifi, a daily supply of purified water, and tea or coffee anytime, which was a treat when sitting on a lounge chair by the pool – and did I mention the budget pricing of $28 a night?! We made a snap decision to make this our Holiday Season location.
After loafing for several days, and a relaxed Christmas exchanging greetings with our family back home, I felt we should do something in the Sinai – and this something should be something unique. CLIMB MT. SINAI! Rick wasn’t convinced by my promoting this as being “an opportunity for a good workout” or even “a great photo op from the top”. Finally he caved, saying, “Okay, but I’m not carrying down any stone tablets.”
Our hotel owner, Emad, got us a good price on a St. Catherine’s Monastery and Mt. Sinai at Sunset Tour. On our two hour mini-van ride to the monastery we became acquainted with our new friends; a family of five from Texas, a couple from LA, a couple from Ireland, and a father with a teen son and 11 year old daughter from France, and a young lady from Switzerland.
St. Catherine’s Monastery can trace its roots back to 330AD, when Byzantine Empress St. Helena built a small chapel here on the believed site of the biblical burning bush, where the Big Guy first had words with Moses. In the 6th century Emperor Justinian built a church incorporating this chapel, and a monastery with a protective wall. However, all of the subsequent conquerors (Arabs, Ottoman, and Napoleon) took the monastery under their protection, so it was never pilfered, damaged or destroyed.
The protection resulted in this small Orthodox monastic centre holding
150 priceless icons, twelve dating back to the 6th century. As we walked slowly through the small church we were transfixed by the beauty of these icons covering the walls, the gigantic gold chandeliers, and the exquisitely designed ceiling. To the right of the altar is where the bones of the martyr St. Catherine are entombed. The icons continue into an adjacent Gallery, and the library contains 3,000 manuscripts (some from as early as the 4th century) as well as 5,000 books, making this library second only to the Vatican in importance.
I was taken aback in the room called the Charnel House. A pile of sculls rests behind glass, which are the remains of monks who died in the monastery. The monk’s body is first buried in a small cemetery, then the bones are disinterred and placed in the skull room. This bizarre custom arose from the difficulty of digging graves in the rocky ground, and as a reminder to the monks of the mortality of man.
We wish we could have spent more than an hour at the monastery, but Mohammad (yes, yet another guide named Mohammad) was waiting for us. We could not see Mt. Sinai from the monastery, which is at the base of Mt. St. Catherine, but after about a 20 minute walk up the trail to the side Mohammad pointed to the 2285metre (7600 ft) peak and said “See. Mt. Moses.” It looked soooo distant!
I must interject here and mention there are two routes up to Mt. Sinai – one being the 3750 “Steps of Repentance” which was laid by the monks as a form of penance. The route we were taking was the winding trail up a rocky sandy incline that at a steady pace takes approximately two hours. Half of our group chose to ride camels up this trail to the 750 steps near the summit – that everyone must climb in order to get to the top.
Young men leading camels intermittently approached us walkers hoping
we would give up our idea to go up “like Moses”. I was glad to see a small stone rest house where we were invited to sit for a few minutes (that also sold water, tea, and chocolate bars). Mohammad told us this was the first of six of these very welcome reprieves, and that they would be more frequent as the trail steepened. Even with the mini-respites the walk was gruelling. I could feel the lactic acid building in every muscle. My legs were in a state of exhaustion as we neared the last stop at the base of THE STEPS.
We wolfed down a few more packs of peanuts and a couple of energy bars we had along, and only then dared look upward where the mountain top seemed to fade into the ether. Our group had long ago been separated, as everyone walked at a different pace. The steps were uneven rocks, with varying depths, most with more than a comfortable height between them, requiring concentration in placing our feet. Added to this was the decision of where to go when those descending passed. After the first 300 or so, we began to stop every 20 steps to level out our racing heart rates. At about 400 steps, Rick glared at me and breathlessly proclaimed, “This is the last time I’ll follow you up another damn mountain, and that’s a promise.” Right then, I had to agree, but hoped this would be like the pain of childbirth – forgotten later.
THE TOP! EUREKA! The mellow sunlight enfolded us as we sat on the
ledge along the cliff. I was hoping for some profound contemplation befitting the mount, but all I could think about was “Oh God, now we have to go down!” A small church stands on the highest point, with a small mosque on the flat part of the mountain top.
Rick snapped photos, and we headed downward at about four fifteen, three-quarters of an hour before sunset. A new friend Michelle, staying at our hotel had taken this same tour the previous day had stayed on the mountain top until sunset; she warned us of the difficulty of descending in darkness.
Although the way down did not tax our cardio, the steps were killers on the knees, and there was more chance of slipping on the scree covering the rocky path. My legs felt like limp spaghetti – BUT WE MADE IT! In the chilly darkness we sipped a tea in the small café by the parking lot with the others who had also headed down early. The people who stayed for the sunset trouped down at about the same time as our driver appeared, and we were Dahab bound, all of us a lot quieter than on the ride out.
There are those that believe that “this” Mt. Sinai is not the biblical mountain where Moses received the commandments, but rather it is a mountain by the same name (a.k.a. Jebel el Lawz) across the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia. However, our sense of achievement was not in the least diminished by this controversy – in fact, ask me if I believe in miracles….Rick nor I were stiff or sore the next day!
It was back to loafing for the duration of our Dahab stay. Celebrating Rick’s 61st Birthday at the Ali Baba Restaurant was delightful. Complimentary hot puffy buns and 6 delicious dips started us off, and after our delectable entrée of fish with spinach sauce and mashed potatoes, the waiters appeared to squeeze the juice of limes on our hands, followed by a cascade of tepid water from a long-spouted copper pitcher that splashes into a copper bowl. Fresh fruit was then urged upon us, which we somehow managed to fit in.
Ringing in the New Year was a blast with a gathering of our Dahab Plaza Hotel guests at Same Same but Different Restaurant. We are ready to plan our venture into Israel.
Our best wishes to you all in 2011!
Irene & Rick