In the shaded valley of Mount Sinai stands the 1500-year fortified Eastern Orthodox monastery named after Catherine of Alexandria, the Christian saint and virgin who was martyred in the early 4th century in hands of Emperor Maxentius. Monastic life had been known since the 4th century at the Sinai location, in the barren land of austerity and remoteness. In AD 330, Empress Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine the Great, built the Chapel of Burning Bush and a small hermit refuge at the site where Moses was supposed to see the burning bush and was named by God as the leader to lead the Israelies out of Egypt. In the 6th century, Emperor Justinian I ordered the construction of the monastery complex that we see today to house the Chapel of the Burning Bush. Amazingly the monastery still remains functioning as a Christian monastery today, and became one of the oldest monastic communities in the world. Due to the site’s significance in the Old Testament, the monastery is considered a sacred pilgrimage site for all sects of Christianity, Islam and Judaism throughout history.
After a sleepless night and hours of hiking in the rugged Mount Sinai, we finally made it to Saint Catherine’s Monastery at around 08:00. From the outside, the monastery resembles a highly fortified defense complex. It was hard to imagine that beyond the high stone walls stand one of the world’s oldest monastery, together with the oldest library in the Western world. The thousand-year-old library contains 3300 manuscripts written in 11 languages: Greek, Arabic, Syriac, Christian Palestinian Aramaic, Georgian and Slavonic. These manuscripts have became an extremely precious collection: classical Greek texts, medical writing, monastic documents and other texts created in different period in history, including some splendidly made manuscripts with glided letters and illuminations crafted in Constantinople. While the library is off limits to tourists, most visitors and pilgrims who have braved the harsh landscape and remote location of Sinai would find peace and bliss for the real life encounter with the legendary Burning Bush mentioned in the Book of Exodus.
We waited outside the monastery for about an hour until 09:00. Inside the complex, only the main church, a small museum and the exterior courtyard where the Burning Bush stands are opened to the public. At the crowded courtyard, everyone was trying to take pictures of themselves with the legendary Burning Bush. We wandered around the complex for a while and slowly returned to the parking lot of Mount Sinai for the tour minibus. We were quite sleepy and tired by the time we reached Bishibishi. At the hotel we grabbed a quick bite, packed our backpacks, and took the 14:30 bus leaving for Cairo. It was a long journey, passing by the Suez Canal at sunset, and reached Cairo after 8.5 hours on the road. At the bus station in Cairo, we took a taxi to Midan Talaat Harb, a star-shaped plaza at the centre of a shopping district, where our guesthouse was located. It was 23:30 when we arrived, but it felt like 20:00 as most shops and restaurants were still busy. After our hermitic days in the Arabian desert of Wadi Rum and Sinai Peninsula, the vibrant scenes of Cairo almost gave us a little shock.: the way people drive, cross the streets, yell in the shops, and occasionally intimidate tourists for a little tip. This is Cairo, the largest city in Africa, Middle East and the Arab world, with over 20 million of inhabitants who are proud of their pharaohic history.
In the moonless pitch-dark night, we took on the pilgrimage route to the summit of Jebel Musa (2285m). Commonly known as Mount Sinai, Jebel Musa is believed by many to be the spot where the legend of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments from God actually took place. The night was so dark that I could hardly see my own fingers without a flashlight. In the dark, the sound of cowbells worn by camels carrying tourists and elderly nuns was essential for us to keep a safe distance. On the narrow path, tourists rubbed shoulders with Jewish, Muslims, and Christian pilgrims, racing against time to reach the summit for the spiritual sunrise.
At 23:00, the tour minibus came to pick us up at our guesthouse in Dahab. After 2.5 hours on the desert highway in complete darkness (except occasional street lamp at road intersections), we finally arrived the trailhead of Mount Sinai at 01:30. In the middle of the night, groups after groups of tourists and pilgrims gathered at the parking lot, getting ready to climb the sacred mountain for the spectacular sunrise. Our guide walked extremely fast. We soon lose sight of him as clusters of locals and camel vendors gathered in front of us to sell their guiding or camel riding services. A German tourist from our minibus was interested on riding the camel, but immediately rejected the idea after he asked for the price. The camel vendors soon became aggressive, and led their camels to block our way. Our guide came for our help, but failed to get rid of the vendors until a tourist police came over to stop the vendor.
The climb was not a walk in the park due to the darkness. Between my friend and I we shared one small flashlight. We made four rest stops along the way and reached the end of the path in a little over two hours. Then came the last challenge: the 700 uneven steps to the summit. It was sweaty and exhausting but we eventually reached the top at 04:30. On the summit there was a small chapel and a few vendors renting out blankets and mattresses. It was quite chilly up there as we stood in front of the chapel to wait for the magical sunrise. I soon discovered a better spot on a east facing rock. The rock surface was a little slippery, and if we fell over it could be fatal. The sky turned white at around 05:30, and the sun finally came out at 06:00. I felt much warmer just by watching the rising of the sun over the rugged terrains. Not until the sun was out that I came to realize how crowded the summit actually was. Visitors and their sleeping bags were everywhere: on top of the chapel, on roof of distant mud houses, on the stone path, on the paved terraces, etc. Under the golden light, Mount Sinai and its surrounding scenery was spectacular. Rocky, dry, bare, not a single tree or a cluster of grass could be seen. At 06:15 we began the 2-hour descend to St. Catherine’s Monastery, one of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world.
Another day of snorkeling. I rented the snorkel and flippers at Big Blue, and headed to a dive site called the Eel Garden. I snorkeled in several lagoons at Eel Garden. Apparently the reefs at Dahab was significantly better than the ones in Aqaba. At a depth of 3-5m, I saw an abundance of marine life including fish, sea urchins, and of course, coral of different colours. In the afternoon we snorkeled at another dive site called the Islands. The reefs and marine wildlife there were equally beautiful. At one point, I passed by an area of open water towards the beautiful coral mounts. The coral mounts were spectacular. Perhaps those mounts could be what the locals consider as the underwater “islands”.
After the “Islands”, we went to the southern tip of Dahab to do some more snorkeling. There was not much corals in the area, and the water was a lot deeper and colder, despite it was 40 to 45 degrees Celsius above water. On our way to the south beaches, we passed by dozens of resort hotels facing the sea. Perhaps due to the recently terrorist bombing, all resorts seemed extremely quiet. We didn’t see any foreign guests, but only local staff killing time with card games and gossips under the shade. In the evening we returned to Bishibishi for dinner and took some rest before departing for our tour to Mount Sinai.
After the legendary lost city of Petra and epic desert of Wadi Rum, we finally arrived in Aqaba, Jordan’s only coastal city right by the Gulf of Aqaba at the northern end of the Red Sea. Serving as an essential port for the Middle East, Aqaba is also popular among tourists, thanks to its regular ferry services to Egypt and the world famous Red Sea coral reefs in the area. Before heading over to the land of pharaohs, we decided to spend a relaxing day in Aqaba.
In the morning, we took a shuttle bus from Crystal Hotel to the Royal Diving Centre. After paying a 10 JD entrance fee, my friend and I, who had never dived before, went for an introductory session. Then we spent the afternoon snorkeling with a disposable underwater camera. We saw some nice corals and a lot of colourful fish. We snorkeled for a few hours and returned to the diving centre. Upon leaving we tried to get the refund of the entrance fee. Their policy was that whoever diving at the centre would not require to pay the admission. The staff hesitated for a while and told us the cashier was closed for the day. We had no choice but to return the next morning. The next morning we returned to the Royal Diving Centre for our refund. The staff tried to avoid us. We expressed our discontent and at last a manager came out with a big smile and gave us the refund. Leaving the diving club behind, our hired taxi took us to the passenger ferry terminal. It took us over an hour to go through the customs and deal with the departure tax. At last we were led to board a shuttle bus that drove onto the ferry along with the passengers.
Once on board, we found the Egyptian custom officer to stamp our passports. The ferry didn’t leave the dock until way over 11:30, over two hours since we got to the terminal. At last, the ferry sailed slowly southwest towards the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, with Saudi Arabia to our east. At around 14:30 we arrived at the Egyptian port of Nuweiba. The hectic scene of Nuweiba was our first impression on Egypt. At the minbus station we met three Australians. The six of us hired a minivan to Dahab, the popular backpacker resort at the Egyptian side of the Gulf of Aqaba.
Dahab seemed pretty quiet to us, probably because of the recent terrorist bombing a month ago on April 24th, which claimed 23 lives in total. The town looked very young and causal. At the station we met Alex, a staff from Bishibishi Garden Village, a relatively new hotel in Dahab. We met Jimmy the owner and decided to stay at one of their air conditioned triple rooms. After dinner, we strolled around Dahab, dropped by an internet cafe, and bought another disposable underwater camera for the following day.