Saturday, April 4, 2015

Mount Sinai or Jebel Musa

One of the desires I had when we scheduled our visit to the Middle East was to hike to the top of Jebel Musa, sometimes known as Mount Sinai, the mountain traditionally associated with where Moses saw the burning bush and received the Ten Commandments. Jebel Musa is 7,497 feet in elevation, the second tallest mountain in Egypt, with a vertical gain of 2,347 feet from the trailhead. 

Our Fun For Less tour was scheduled to stay overnight in Taba, Egypt, in the Sinai Peninsula on the Gulf of Aqaba, just over the border from Israel. Jebel Musa is about 2 1/2 hours south by car, about two-thirds down the peninsula. Jebel Musa is often climbed at night so that sunrise can be witnessed from the top. St. Catherine Monastery is at its base, one of the oldest monasteries in the world, and the site of what is purported to be the location of the burning bush. St. Catherine's is only open from 9:00 a.m. to noon a few days of the week, and so climbing Jebel Musa at night, followed by a visit to St. Catherine's in the morning is workable. 

I read some warnings about terrorist activities in the Sinai Peninsula, which caused some concern, but most of those concerns were allayed when our scheduled five star hotel, the Sofitel Taba Heights, agreed to arrange our transportation. 

We got to the Sofitel about 5:00 or 6:00 p.m. on Wednesday, March 18th, after a long drive from Tiberias, Israel. We talked with the concierge about the transportation, scheduled to leave the hotel at midnight, and indicated that we wanted to ride a camel and visit the monastery as well. The concierge arranged for a guide for us, the camel ride, admission to the monastery, a guide in the monastery (which turned out to be our guide up Jebel Musa), and a box breakfast from the hotel. Things were looking better and better.

At midnight, Kasey, Terry and I met at the concierge desk with our driver, Mustaffa, who worked with a local tour company. We piled into a van big enough to sit about 10 people, and headed south. Over the course of the next two and a half hours we went through 6 or 8 military checkpoints, manned by Egyptian military personnel with automatic rifles and occasionally armored vehicles with machine guns. Later we learned that those checkpoints are for real: the same day two military personnel were killed at a checkpoint by a car bomb in a different area on the Sinai Peninsula. 

The Sinai Desert is very desolate, virtually vegetation free, and there is very little in the way of population. So the sky was very dark and the Milky Way was highly visible.

When we arrived at the trailhead there was lots of activity going on. It was about 2:40 a.m. or so. Our guide, Ead, a Bedouin, greeted us as did about five or six other people trying to sell us gloves, hats and other paraphernalia. The trail begins at the mouth of Wadi El-Deir at a place known as Nabi Haruun or Aaron's Hill. There is a white Christian chapel and a Muslim shrine there dedicated to the Prophet Aaron as the site is the traditional site for where Aaron and the Israelites made the golden calf while Moses was on Mount Sinai. We couldn't really see any of it as it was dark. We made a bathroom stop then started out walking slowly uphill toward and past St. Catherine's Monastery where we would meet up with our camels.

Several in our group had their headlamps on and I just used their light to follow the path. That was why I was surprised at one point when I came face to face with two camels coming the other way with a Bedouin guide, walking without light. It is not every day you have a close encounter with a camel.

We passed the high, dark walls of the monastery and not too-far-distant reached the area where each of the three of us were led in a different direction to a camel. A Bedouin grabbed me by the hand and led me to a camel that was resting on the ground with its four legs tucked under it. It had a large colorful blanket covering its one hump and a two-pronged saddle, one high prong in the front and one high prong in the back. I tried to swing my right leg up and over the back prong and couldn't. I had to pick my right leg up with my hands and swing it over. When the camel got up, it started with its back legs and I was nearly lurched forward over the front of the camel, holding onto the front prong with both hands. Then the camel lurched the other way, backwards, as the front legs started up. Then they determined I was on the wrong camel, so I went through the herkey-jerkey motion in reverse order as the camel went down, then I got off and went to another camel and started the process all over again.
My camel. This was taken up above Elijah's Basin when I got off. 
The camels had a definite pecking order. Ead walked along side of us as did the camel handler, another Bedouin. I was on the alpha camel that had to go first. This camel was owned by the Bedouin camel handler. The other two camels were owned by others in what amounts to a Bedouin camel coop, about 60 different owners and over 200 camels. Most of the way I held the camel's rope while the handler walked slightly behind constantly clicking. Kasey's camel followed very close behind, his camel's nose not far from my camel's rear-end. Terry's camel came along more reluctantly, and apparently the camel handler was dragging his camel along by the rope most of the time, although I was mostly oblivious to this as it was completely dark. We were asked to keep our headlamps off and my camel knew the trail and plodded along in the dark, making wide turns in the switch-backing trail. We traveled by camel for about one and a half hours. It may be the best night sky I've ever seen. There is so little light pollution in the Sinai that the Milky Way is highly visible and we could easily pick out the Big Dipper and Orion's Belt. There was not much conversation going on among us, just the constant clicking of the camel handler. It was a very enjoyable ride as I settled into the rhythm of the camel's gait. The temperature cooled as we steadily gained altitude. I had on a thin down parka, outer shell and gloves and so I was comfortable.
The little oasis in bottom, left of center, is where the camels were kept. The walls of St. Catherine are just visible to the far right. Jebel Musa is upper right. Our camel path, visible in the dirt floor, traveled around the left flank of the sub-peak in the middle. The Stairs of Repentance, the way we came down, go to the right of the sub-peak through the shaded gully between the larger peak to the right. 
This photo, centered more to the right, shows a larger portion of St. Catherine's. 
At one point my camel veered off from the others to join up with another group of ten to 15 camels that were coming back down the trail. Each time my camel met up with new camels it would make a jowly gurgling noise that was quite comical. But no worries, we were re-connected after my camel got some camel connection time and we continued on.

These Bedouin are known as Jebeliya Bedouin. They are descendants of soldiers and servants sent by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian to build and maintain the monastery in the sixth century. The Bedouin guides work in a cooperative rotation system. There are about 350 of them and because tourism is down Ead only works about two days a week now, whereas he used to do it about five times a week when things were busier. The Sofitel specifically calls and asks for Ead to do the guiding for their guests. I am assuming it is because he speaks very good English and is a strong climber. He claims to have hiked to the top of Mount Sinai about 1,500 times and for awhile held the record for the fasted time up and down the mountain - in 42 minutes. Someone finally beat his record, doing it in 41 minutes. When the Sofitel specifically asks for Eads, he replaces the Bedouin scheduled for that rotation and then pays the person he is replacing the guiding fee. I am assuming Eads gets to keep any tips and we each paid him a nice tip when the day was over.

The camels stopped near what is known as Elijah's Basin and we got a picture with the camels and were let down in the same herkey-jerkey fashion we got on. From there we began the hike up the remaining 750 steps to the summit that are too steep for the camels. We started to huff and puff and sweat as we headed up steeply and gained a greater appreciation for the nice camel ride that had helped us avoid exertion for much of the elevation gain. About two-thirds of the way up the steps we stopped at a little way-station of merchants huts. Ead directed us to one at the far end of the area where we were directed inside a little rock building with blankets covering the floors, benches, and ceilings. There we rested for about 30 minutes and purchased some hot chocolate. It was warmer inside the building and we got a nice rest.
Bedouin shelter no. 4 where we stopped for some hot chocolate.
It was adorned with blankets that made it quite comfortable and sheltered from the wind and cold.
Ead, Terry and Kasey catch some rest.
After awhile, Eads suggested we continue on and it was not too long before we found ourselves at the summit, along with about 75 other people that were already there, many of them wrapped in blankets they'd rented from the Bedouins. At the summit is a small church known as the Church of the Holy Trinity, which is said to be built over the rock which God used to create the Ten Commandments. There is also a small mosque nearby. People were huddled near the church and the mosque, as well as in some clefts and walk-ways below them. We waited for some time, perhaps 30 to 45 minutes, for the sun to rise. I was kind of oblivious to time and not particularly concerned about watching the sun rise. I walked about taking pictures.
Blanketed climbers huddle in blankets in front of the mosque.
Mount St. Catherine, the tallest mountain in Egypt, is top center. The mosque is to the right.
More climbers are perched below waiting for sunrise.
Kasey and Terry and other climbers wait to the side of the Church of the Holy Trinity.
Not too long after sunrise, Ead suggested we head down to get ahead of the crowd. We were finally seeing what we'd missed on the way up in the dark. The view was breathtaking, with jagged mountains fanning out in all directions. This place is a veritable treasure of tradition and myth with sites and chapels in virtually every direction commemorating biblical events and saints lives. I'll do some additional posts dealing with some of these sites.
A sea of mountains to the east. The sun is just below the horizon. 
Higher mountains still. 
Saint Catherine's Mountain, the tallest in Egypt.
More mountains. The walls of the church are visible to the far right.
More mountains from another vantage point.
One of the most beautiful views. Purple mountain majesties might be appropriate here, although it is the wrong continent. 
With the morning sun just starting to bathe the mountain, a string of hikers leaves the summit of Jebel Musa.
Looking back toward the summit.
Approaching the Bedouin tea shacks.
Another glance back as the summit gets farther away.
Ead, Terry and Kasey.
The convoluted summit trail is outlined by descending hikers.
A magical mix of colorful mountains.
When we got to the bottom of the 750 steps we'd climbed, we opted to take the shorter and steeper route back to the bottom, known as the Stairway of Repentance, which begins in Elijah's Basin, a short distance down from where we dismounted from the camels. In Elijah's Basin is the Church of Elijah, commemorating where Elijah fled after killing the prophets of Baal. There is another Church of Saint Stephen, over a cave where Saint Stephen lived during the sixth century. He was one of the confessors who greeted pilgrims to Mount Sinai. In the center of the basin is a group of cypress trees surrounding an ancient well fed by snow melt and occasional rainfall. Not too-far-distant is a Byzantine dam, recently repaired, primarily used to prevent floods from damaging the monastery.
Looking down into Elijah's Basin. The cypress trees are right of center.
Another backward glance from near Elijah's Basin.
The Church of Elijah
The Church of Saint Stephen.
The well in Elijah's Basin.
The Byzantine dam.
Down the Stairway of Repentence we encountered Elijah's Gate. It is supposed to have a faint inscription from the sixth century reading "John the Abbot" although I could not find it.
Elijah's Gate
Views down the mountain.
Further down we encountered the Shrive Gate where pilgrims used to confess their sins to a priest, such as Saint Stephen, stationed at the gate before ascending to the summit. The priest would use Psalm 24, verse 3, by asking them: "Who may ascent the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place?" The pilgrims would responds using verse 4, "The one who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not trust in an idol or swear by a false god." Through the gate on the right is an inscription in Greek which possibly reads "Stephanus" and the image of a hand.
Terry in Shrive Gate.
The hand to the right of Shrive Gate.
The writing in Greek - barely visible.
Looking back at Shrive Gate.
Further down the mountain we encountered the Byzantine Chapel of Our Lady of the Steward where the Virgin Mary appeared to the monastery steward in the sixth century at a time of great need. More on that in another post.
Chapel of Our Lady of the Steward.
We continued to descend, eventually getting views of the monastery and finally reached the monastery itself, with about 45 minutes or so to wait until it opened. While we waited, I opted to pay a dollar and get a picture on a camel as it was too dark for good pictures when we rode the camels on the way up.
St. Catherine's Monastery below.
Looking back at the last portion of the Stairs of Repentance.
Posing on the camel at the bottom. 
This was very fun. A memorable hike in a memorable part of the world. More details will follow. 


  1. An unusual location, good history, tough climbing, and beautiful things to photograph. Does it get any better? Yeah! Add camels!

  2. Wow, what an experience!

    I didn't know camels had a hierarchy, and I think "herkey-jerkey" pretty much perfectly sums up the experience of being on a camel while he gets to his feet.

  3. Fascinating! So do you think this is the Biblical Mt. Sinai? It's one of several candidates.

    1. Who knows? What makes it fun is that it has been associated with Mt. Sinai for centuries and because of that has a pilgrimage history that is fascinating.